Friday, September 28, 2012

Studying English is a chronic condition; we must do "the same old things in the same way"; that's okay!

I. English class is repetitive

At our department meeting this week, one of my colleagues said that she feels discouraged when she looks at what her daughter is doing in English class in sixth grade, because it looks so similar to what we are doing in our high school classes at Leafstrewn.    My colleague said that on the first day of school, when she tells her students about the cool things on her syllabus, her students look like they've heard it all before.  "Oh great, we're going to write another profile," she imagined her students thinking. "Let's see, we did one of those in fourth grade--and sixth grade--and seventh grade--and..."

We laughed about it, but the story points up a distinctive aspect of English class that I've written about before: English, unlike math, science, French, or most other subjects, does not have a well-defined body of knowledge that it is our job to transmit.  In this English is much more similar to a sport--soccer, for instance, or running.  It does not seem totally unreasonable to write up year-by-year curriculum standards for math.  My daughter, in second grade, is just beginning to think about multiplication.  My son, in seventh grade, is beginning to think algebraically.  While it's true that different students may move through these topics at dramatically different rates (my son had a homeschooled friend who was learning integral calculus in second grade), the topics seem distinctly different.  In English, the tasks are largely the same year after year.

My daughter last year, in first grade, wrote an argumentative essay (like many of her classmates, she suggested that we should not despoil the planet).  The length and sophistication of her argument was not quite up to what my ninth graders do, but the task itself was basically the same, and even much of the vocabulary was the same.  Her teacher taught that one needed evidence to support one's main idea, that one's evidence should be relevant, that one should consider one's audience, and so on--concepts that sound very much like one of the state's Writing Standards for both grades 9-10 and grades 11-12: "Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence."  This is, again, like sports (my 12-year-old son's hockey team practices skating, passing, shooting, exactly the same fundamental skills practiced by six-year olds, and by the Bruins), and this is why the Massachusetts State Curriculum Frameworks are so hard for me to take seriously.  Their aim to provide what I think is called "scope and sequence" results in the absurdity of  seeming to suggest that only in grade four do students need to begin to "Choose words and phrases to convey ideas precisely" (L.4.3a.)

II. Studying English is a chronic condition

This summer, I read a book by Arthur Kleinman about doctoring and chronic illness that argues against strictly uniform, standardized systems of care, suggesting that they represented and produced a "dangerous hubris."    "Uncertainty," Kleinman suggests, "must be as central to the experience of the practitioner as it is to the patient."  Much of what his book says seems applicable to education in general, and English class in particular.  Rigid curricula, scripted lessons, the kind of backwards planning that assumes a pre-ordained destination: we can all come up with educational parallels to Kleinman's " of care that claim to answer wholesale each and every one of the dilemmas faced by patients, families, and clinicians (and in a standardized manner, yet!)."

Kleinman's book is talking specifically about the chronically ill, and he often distinguishes what he says about chronic illness from the different truths that may be seen in cases of acute illness.  He says, for instance, that the doctor who cares for the chonically ill has more time to get things right, to build a relationship with his patient, to consider more fully his patient's social position and larger life situation, than an acute-care doctor, who is seriously constrained by the urgent necessity to act as quickly as possible.  Considering this distinction, it struck me that teachers, who deal with their students over the course of a whole year on an almost daily basis, are much more in the position of doctors for the chronically ill than in the position of doctors dealing with acute illness.  An ER doctor wants uniformity and certainty--a script, a checklist, an algorithm--while we teachers have the luxury of knowing that if we take the time to get to know our students' individual needs they will not die before we act.

The experience of the ER doctor may in some ways, however, parallel the experience of teachers in disciplines like math, science, or History.  If by the end of the week everyone in the class needs to learn the quadratic formula, or what the cell wall is and does, then perhaps a script or a checklist might make sense.  But in English especially, we are working on the same skills and tasks over and over, and every kid's needs are different, and the learning goals we have are not, and cannot be, acute.  Our student's do not have to learn the basic facts about Shay's Rebellion by next week.  Instead, they need to learn to read more nimbly, to think more deeply, to write more clearly, profoundly and coherently--or, as the state standards put it, to "Choose words and phrases to convey ideas precisely."

In this sense, being an English student in particular is a chronic condition.  Just as the essence of having a chronic condition is that you can never be cured, that you are always working on the same underlying issues, the essence of being an English student is that you can never be fully educated, that you are always improving the same basic skills. A math problem can be solved; no piece of writing is ever perfect.  If we see education in this way, Kleinman's discussion of chronic illness is interesting.  "We must begin," Kleinman says, "with the premise that chronic disease by definition cannot be cured, that indeed the quest for cure is a dangerous myth that serves both patient and practitioner poorly."

Is it possible, then, that the quest for mastery is a "dangerous myth" that serves both teacher and student poorly?  Perhaps! (1)

III. So is being repetitive a cause for despair?

No. The fact that we are working on the same tasks over and over is no reason for despair, any more than Claude Julien should despair when he has his players practice their passing for the umpteenth time.  We should think of ourselves as coaches as much as possible.  A good coach doesn't do much teaching; instead, she "runs a good practice."  In a good soccer practice, there shouldn't be much standing around, and there should probably be more than one ball on the field. In a good practice, the coach will often be helping one kid while other kids do drills or practice skills on another part of the field.  A good practice will include activities that will be useful for every single kid on the team, from the most skilled to the least skilled.

Yes, we are doing the same things over and over, but what we are doing is not only of immense practical importance, it also provides an opportunity, as one of my favorite poems says, "for love to continue and be gradually different."

IV. A poem!

Lack of novelty is a favorite theme of postmodern poetry (as Robert Hass wittily puts it: "All the new thinking is about loss./ In this it resembles the old thinking...").  One of my favorite poems, "Late Echo," by John Ashbery, is about this issue, and I kept thinking about it this week as I pondered our chronic condition.

Ashbery begins by feeling that "there really is nothing left to write about."  This is analogous to feeling like there is nothing left to teach (As Mallarme put it, "The flesh is sad, alas, and I have taught all the reading strategies"). But although Ashbery begins by saying that there really is nothing left to write about, he does not then, as Mallarme does, fantasize about sailing away to a tropical isle. Instead, the rest of Ashbery's poem is a revision of and counter to the ennui and discouragement of repetition; instead, his poem is a paean to repetition and dailiness, a pep talk to himself.

For immediately after saying there is nothing left to write about, Ashbery revises:

   Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things
   In the same way, repeating the same things over and over
   For love to continue and be gradually different.

Poetry is always about seeing the same things differently; so is English class!  We. too, need to repeat the same things over and over, to write about things in the same way, to read books in the same way, to discuss texts in the same way, to love words in the same way, so that love may continue and, as Ashbery puts it in another of the poem's wonderful, unpredictable shifts of meaning, "be gradually different."

The rest of the poem is a beautiful elaboration of this idea, of the idea that being merely a "talking engine," and one moreover who suffers, as our adolescent students do, from "chronic inattention," can, over time, with continual, loving repetition, reveal an "unprepared knowledge," which the poem doesn't have to say is a lot deeper and more satisfying than the "prepared knowledge" of scripted lesson plans.

Now off to dinner and a birthday party!

Appendix: The full poem...

LATE ECHO (by John Ashbery)

Alone with our madness and favorite flower
We see that there really is nothing left to write about.
Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things
In the same way, repeating the same things over and over
For love to continue and be gradually different.

Beehives and ants have to be re-examined eternally
And the color of the day put in
Hundreds of times and varied from summer to winter
For it to get slowed down to the pace of an authentic
Saraband and huddle there, alive and resting.

Only then can the chronic inattention
Of our lives drape itself around us, conciliatory
And with one eye on those long tan plush shadows
That speak so deeply into our unprepared knowledge
Of ourselves, the talking engines of our day.

(1) Kleinman goes on to say that the real goal is not a cure, but the "reduction of disablement," that is to say, "reducing the frequency and severity of exacerbations." This last goal is not easy to map onto education.  Kleinman is essentially saying that the doctor of a chronically ill patient should try mainly to help the patient not get worse.  This would be an odd, if not quite perverse goal for a teacher to adopt, but it is a goal that strikes a certain chord in me. When I first started teaching high school full time, I adopted as my explicit goal and first principle--and I told my students this straight out--one of the first principles of the Hippocratic oath, to "do no harm."  Back then I was haunted by the possibility that school is doing as much harm as good, that books like Wounded by School and Readicide; How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It are partly right.  Over ten years of teaching and parenting, my views have changed (largely because I've seen what a humane place school can be, and how supportive and wonderful schools can be to many students, especially those who are wounded outside of school), but I still think it's important to try not to do harm!


  1. Poor doctors! Trying to keep some of their patients from getting worse, and the rest from getting sick. Teachers at least have a chance at a "eureka!" every now and then.

  2. I'm fairly certain, after reading just two of your posts, that you would make great use of Morse Peckham. I can recommend some essays, but he has a textbook you might find used or at a library (no longer in print by a mile) called Word, Meaning, Poem. Find it!