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Published in Print: January 1, 2001, as Me, Ms. DeLuge, And The Macarena

Me, Ms. DeLuge, And The Macarena

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Your typical teacher workshop: a food fight, salsa dancing, and "edubabble."

Invited to attend training in the "Six Traits" method of assessing student writing, I cheerfully declined. The prospect of a two-day immersion in the latest cure-all from the State Department of Meaningless Jargon left me cold. Our last state-sanctioned inservice, conducted by a "high-performance learning" ninny from Kansas City, still grated. Nothing like six hours of leaden lecture on the evils of lecture-style teaching to rub the old ganglia raw. Even the catchy Six Traits title raised suspicion. It reminded me of other checkout-line magazine nostrums: "Six Ways To Lose Six Pounds In Six Days," "Six Sure-Fire Ways To Keep Your Man's Attention," "Six Low-Cal Lunch Tips."

And what genius decided the English language could be broken down into six subspecies? Answer: The same genius who advises teachers grading student papers to assign the same value to content (Trait No. 1) as they do to conventions (Trait No. 6) or word choice (Trait No. 3). Creativity, a hard rascal for anyone to describe, let alone measure, receives short shrift.

I read the Six Traits background, then ran an Edgar Allen Poe short story through the rubric. Didn't bother with the more unconventional writer-wackos, the Thomas Pynchons, the Jerzy Kosinskis. The Poe piece didn't score particularly well. He got big points for word choice but fared poorly in organization and sentence fluency/structure. What a pity Poe's teachers didn't have the Six Traits tool to give him a solid writing background.

I knew I'd have to pay for the two days of Six Traits training long after it was over. In my absence, the friskier students would treat the poor substitute as raw meat, and I'd have to summon sufficient grumpiness to give them credible tongue-lashings. Never mind the stacks of ungraded papers awaiting my return. Never mind being taken away from work some of us hopeless optimists regard as important.

I tried to beg off on the grounds of having much better things to do. My request made its way up the district flow chart. Some thought I should be excused. Some thought otherwise. The otherwises carried the day with the lame but dependable argument, "If it's good for most of 'em, it's good for all of 'em."

So I was light of neither foot nor spirit when I strolled into the district board room, temporarily crammed with tables and folding chairs, at precisely 8 a.m. In retrospect, I should have waited for the doughnut eaters, now feeding in the nearby cafeteria. The presenter, Ms. DeLuge, posed by the podium, heavily draped in a florid print number, accessorized with a power scarf and lots of ponderous Avon-style jewelry. Cheerful. Borderline coquettish. Greeted me with a porcelain smile and a lingering handshake.

"You'll want to sit here," she said with a nod at the condemned prisoner's chair, front row center. I didn't want to sit anywhere near the front. Hard to snooze up front. Hard to doodle and look rapturous. So I picked a chair on the side. Wrong move.

"You don't want to sit there. You won't be able to see me." She batted her eyes. Would have taken it for flirtation if I hadn't been living the life of a real old fat guy for quite a few years.

Macarena break: Folks old enough to have more sense soon had their rear ends doing all manner of bestial motions.

"No," I said, heedless of the flush spreading up her neck and into her platinum helmet, "I like this one."

"You can't sit there. Take this chair instead." She pointed. Standoff. Finally, the doughnut crowd streamed in to the rescue. Forty happy souls, willing to trade tiresome students for two days of anything. Lots of chatter. Lots of sorting. High school folks over there, elementary folks in front, draftees from the outer provinces of our educational service unit in little groups of two or three. Soon surrounded by my junior high colleagues, I was darned glad for the cover.

Our leader, red-faced and already out of sorts, called for order. The chatter rolled on. Some of our staff could talk the hind leg off Anne of Green Gables. She tried again. More and louder yakking. She reached under the podium for a tiny bell and tinkled. Instant quiet.

"You remind me of some of the my first students...2nd graders." Nothing like winning over an audience right out of the box. After an awkward silence, you could hear the grinding of changing gears. She decided to bond, said she'd taught just about every grade possible: 2nd grade, 5th grade, junior high, high school, a little college here and there. It was the junior high boys that did her in. No surprise there.

"One day I was walking down the hall, and the students started snickering and pointing, and I reached back in my hair to find a big glob of purple gum that some of those awful boys had thrown when my back was turned. I marched down to the office and resigned on the spot. Never had any interest in junior high teaching since." Wilbur Nevins, our sumo-sized swim coach and 8th grade English teacher, better known as the U.S.S. Nevins, slid a note under my elbow.

"Let's buy some grape bubble gum at lunch," it read. The note made its way down the table. Much suppressed laughter. Ms. DeLuge noticed all right. Blood pressure rising. She forged ahead, hoping, I suppose, that things would get better.

"The entire state of California has adopted Six Traits as the answer to its English problems."

Note from Nevins: "No fooling? The state with language arts scores worse than any state in the nation except for a couple of the usual Southern suspects? Next she'll be telling us Texas is on board."

"The entire state of Texas has adopted Six Traits and is experiencing remarkable results."

Note from Nevins: "With their ACT scores, they'll try anything."

"Of course, with so many coaches teaching English, it's amazing any school's achievement scores go up, isn't it?"

"Say what?" The U.S.S. Nevins takes considerable pride in his teaching, always trying a fresh approach, conscientious to a fault. He's shepherded hundreds of randy boys through the mysteries of the five-paragraph expository essay without once getting gummed. Taught most of them how to write along the way. He fixed DeLuge with his most serious juju man stare. She seemed not to notice.

"What do you suppose is the most important constituent of good descriptive writing?" Nobody hazarded a guess. Silence. Ms. DeLuge took on the appearance of a beet. It might be a good time to oil the waters with an earnest answer. We sure didn't want the Nevins to open his mouth, not until he cooled a bit.

I raised my hand, feeling very much like I had in Mrs. Keister's 7th grade English class, where a wrong answer earned you a set of boxed ears. "Using fresh language?"

She pounced. "Excellent. You're almost one-sixth correct. Actually we in Six Traits call that 'word choice.' To reward you for being almost one- sixth correct, I'm going to give you something sweet. Isn't that what we should do when a student answers correctly? Give him something sweet?" She reached under the podium, grabbed a handful of mixed candy, and slapped it on the table in front of me. I suppose I should have grinned a suck-up's grin and pocketed the candy. Had I suspected what was to come, I might have—but probably not. This "reward" was, after all, a little payback for defying her seating preference. So I did what any red-blooded junior high boy would do—I winged a green-striped mint at Nevins. He snapped it out of the air left-handed.

"Thank you very much," he said. In a heartbeat, candy was flying up and down the row. I tried to get at least one piece to everyone within range. A few persnickety types threw back their cinnamon-fire sticks in exchange for carmels. Only Ms. Harkness, our anorexic 9th grade English queen, had none. In addition to having a slight figure—and there have been snide suggestions that her freckles are wider than her waist—Harkness is a premier klutz. She saw the calorie-laden Tootsie Roll headed her way and ducked. It whapped against the wall behind her.

Ms. DeLuge might have screamed. Momentarily distracted by rounds of incoming hard candy, I could be mistaken. The bell tinkled. Before anyone but Nevins had the candy unwrapped, she'd marched the entire lot of us into the cafeteria for a "special treat."

After organizing the class in rows by birth date—to separate the naughty folks—she cranked up a tape deck and taught us the macarena. This was no emotionless exercise. Our leader flounced and bumped and wiggled. I've never seen a more active set of drapes. Even though she was clearly a rookie and occasionally hit the wrong hip at the wrong time, her enthusiasm carried the day. Folks old enough to have more sense soon had their rear ends doing all manner of bestial motions. Ms. DeLuge had punched the well-hidden wild button of our district's language arts department. It was an awful thing to witness.

Nevins is more than nifty on his feet. Most folks look at a 300-pound blimp and assume sloth and an utter lack of coordination. Yet any of his swimmers sufficiently stupid to dog it during practice can expect instant drowning from the patented U.S.S. Nevins cannonball/belly- flop/remove-half-the-water-from-the-pool surprise. They never see him until it's too late.

Nevins knows all kinds of dances. Despite the salsa sounds filling the room, he waltzed with Harkness. Made a big show of counting his toes afterward. I accepted his gallant invitation to twist. Chubby Checker wouldn't have a chance against this guy. He did the funky chicken solo. Pretty soon, everyone but Ms. DeLuge and a few hard-core Latin-dance fanatics had given up the macarena to watch. Ms. DeLuge, deep in her dancing, trying to remember which hand went where and which wiggle came when, was oblivious to the collective attention deficit.

The exercise did improve her mood. She was almost cheerful once class resumed, and she began taking us through the mysteries of grading for content, organization, conventions, something called voice/style/tone, sentence fluency/structure, and the ubiquitous word choice.

Nevins gave her his undivided attention. Hands folded over his formidable belly, eyelids at half-mast, the U.S.S. Nevins filed every particle of the talk, breaking occasionally to write humorous notes to his friends and to dig into a bag of snacks he'd brought, pulling out a toothsome Sara Lee brownie or a king-sized bag of Fritos. He ate as he always does, with swift economy and hardly any noise, save for the crinkling of empty wrappers. Ms. DeLuge seemed not to notice, rattling on about Trait No. 2 or 3, I forget which.

Once, after Nevins passed around a note with a semimoronic Top Ten List—Top Ten Reasons You Know Your Macarena Teacher Is Insane—and the tittering became unseemly, she stopped her speech long enough to open every window. Fifteen degrees outside with a 20-mile-an-hour wind. Harkness, at 4 percent body fat, turned blue on the spot. Ms. DeLuge, angry red welts shooting up her neck and down her arms, apologized for the inconvenience, which she attributed to some kind of midlife thermostat trouble. Nevins, so well-insulated he seldom wears a coat, shrugged off the cold to concentrate on a fresh, highly offensive Top Ten List.

Day one dragged on, the proceedings marked by the continuing erosion of our leader's composure.

Day one dragged on to noontime, the proceedings marked by the continuing erosion of our leader's composure. She was plucky, no doubt about it, managing an occasional joke, playing more and more to the docile folks from the outer provinces. But the continuing buzz from the swelling number of the terminally bored, those more interested in six ways to save money on their next refrigerator, and Nevins' crackling of Little Debbie snack cake wrappers shortened her sunny spells. She snapped at the timid provincial who shared a favorite teaching technique. The technique, it turned out, might have applied to one of the traits not currently under discussion. We never did find out. Another earnest questioner, asking for clarification, drew a sneer: "I covered that five minutes ago. Check your notes." By the time her dreaded bell tinkled noon recess, the crowd had grown churlish. The U.S.S. Nevins was one of the first to bolt for the door. He was headed out to lunch, and he is not a guy you want to obstruct when he's making his way to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Our leader made a move to cut him off, perhaps to discuss food wrapper etiquette, but Nevins sailed away from her, his fifty-four-inch waist parting the crowd between him and the door. When I caught up, Nevins was halfway to his ancient Caddy, the one with the saggy springs on the driver's side.

"Don't you think we ought to invite her to lunch?"

Nevins kept walking. Miss Harkness drove up.

"You guys go back in there and invite her to lunch. She's mad enough she's going to complain to someone, and we'll all be in trouble."

"Who cares," Nevins said. "Didn't you hear what she said about coaches?"

I went back. Nevins sat in his Caddy racing the engine, the dual glass-pack mufflers snarling and belching.

She was facing the classroom, back to the door, her tape deck blaring the macarena. She flounced and she wiggled, her entire being transported into a Latin reverie. It was the kind of intimate moment too personal to interrupt. At least that's my excuse. I backed out, silent as wool. It was my second mistake that day, right up there with the chair. Maybe we could have eased her mind, convinced her that we liked her well enough, even if we didn't like what she was selling. Should have done. Didn't do.

In the afternoon, we returned for four hours of Six Traits served up with grim determination. Nobody misbehaved. Even Nevins was good as gold, mostly because he was full from lunch. He looked sheepish. At least I thought he looked sheepish just before he fell asleep. The snoring wasn't horrible. Kind of a soft putt-putt-grrmumble-putt. But Ms. DeLuge took note. She continued talking in the measured tones of a kindergarten teacher addressing a deaf flock, but she sounded exceedingly angry.

Finally, the dismissal bell tinkled. A chastened audience headed for the exits. Harkness shook Nevins awake. "Now you've really done it."

Day two. I arrived wary, but confident. Maybe we'd get chewed a bit. Maybe we'd act remorseful. Maybe we'd put a little more effort into the macarena. It was the least we could do. I found a thoughtful Nevins in the cafeteria at the doughnut table, Harkness whispering urgently in his ear as he stashed a few dozen in his possibles bag. Frail though she may seem, Harkness has sources in high places that the CIA would kill for, and she told us about the fallout from the workshop's first day.

Ms. DeLuge had dined alone that night. No one would have blamed her for taking a drink or two, just to soothe her nerves. Sometime around 11 o'clock, she got on the phone, notifying the upper reaches of our district's food chain of her acute unhappiness. That done, she pulled out her directory for the State Department of Meaningless Jargon, waking officials at home. The message: She expected heads to roll. Immediately.

Harkness had pleaded our case to officialdom. "I told them she was awful, and I think they believed me, but for goodness sake behave today. No matter what she says, just sit there and take it. You manage that, and maybe we'll have jobs tomorrow."

"Sure," said Nevins, topping his collection with a couple of chocolate numbers with sprinkles.

Ms. DeLuge had not wasted all of her previous evening on the telephone. Around 4 in the morning, she told us, she'd hit upon the capital idea of a seating chart. And there it sat, mounted on a tripod, drawn beautifully in four primary colors, so official even Nevins settled into the front-row center dunce spot without argument. I found myself well back among the docile provincials. Harkness beamed a warning smile from her assigned seat in the elementary section.

As with all edubabble fads, the Six Traits for assessing student writing will be supplanted by new schemes, hatched in the same pseudo-adacemic swamps that spawn budding educrats.

The chewing, when it came, was particularly nasty and lasted a good 20 minutes. But it wasn't true, as she intimated, that we had shown up with a premeditated plan of destruction. She had supplied the gasoline. We pleaded guilty to little more than roasting marshmallows on an existing conflagration. If she wanted us to share her pain, we would. We took our public flogging like mature adults, even Nevins, who waited politely until it was over to fish out his first doughnut.

Thirty minutes into the mysteries of Trait No. 5, the baby sitters arrived—a contingent of principals, the service-unit curriculum director, and a couple of other well-dressed educrats. With all of us on our best church behavior and no one to paddle, they soon lost interest. Well before the intricacies of the Trait No. 5 matrix were exhausted, the officials fled to more pressing duties elsewhere. Ms. DeLuge promptly gave up all pretense of entertaining. No tinkling bells, no candy rewards, no macarena. She pounded Six Traits for seven humorless hours, less two bathroom breaks and a short lunch at noon.

Ms. DeLuge closed with an impassioned plea for the implementation of Six Traits throughout the educational universe. There were those in attendance who took up the cause and now use Six Traits in their daily teaching. Others have returned to traitless classrooms, muddling along as best they can. State departments of meaningless jargon across the country have seized on the Six Traits model to address the current political yowling for accountability. Its popularity should concern only those who love all the subtle, rubric-defying nuances of the English language.

As with all edubabble fads, Six Traits will eventually be supplanted by newer schemes, hatched in the same pseudo-academic swamps that spawn budding educrats. I expect we can look forward to more training. With his usual prescient anticipation, the U.S.S. Nevins is hard at work stocking his possibles bag.

Vol. 12, Issue 4, Pages 37-41

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