By Jeffrey Porro — September 01, 1989 4 min read

Writer and poet Philip Lopate worked for more than a decade as a writer-in-residence at a public elementary school in Manhattan. In his recent book of essays, Against Joie De Vivre (New York, Poseidon Press, 1989), he discusses the school’s reaction to the suicide of one of its teachers: [T]here was something unique about suicide, I began to feel, which made a public school singularly ill-equipped to handle it. Schools are dedicated to helping children find their way into life, and an adult self-doubt so deep it denies the worth of life itself cannot help but threaten that environment. Since little children often regard their teachers as semi-parents, and since the offspring of suicides have a greater tendency to follow that self-destructive path than others, the suicide of a schoolteacher could seem a dangerous model. Beyond that, suicide is a defiantly private expression, a dissonance jamming public discourse, like a monotonously insistent burglar alarm than no one can shut off. The radical nature of the suicide act is that it both draws attention to a distressing problem and simultaneously obliterates the possibility of ameliorating it. By rejecting all human assistance, by announcing in advance that any relief will have arrived too late, it negates the whole raison d’etre of those in the “caring professions": teachers, nurses, social workers, psychotherapists.

An article in the spring issue of the National Academy of Science’s journal, Issues in Science and Technology, looks at ways to improve science education. The article, by Lynn B. Jenkins and Walter B. MacDonald of the Educational Testing Service’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, recommends changes in the curriculum to reflect what scientists really do: Alternative teaching methods, patterned after the methods of science itself, may provide opportunities for more meaningful learning, improve students’ understanding of science content, and help them to develop important thinking skills. Classrooms engaged in such a “spirit of science” approach would add many of the investigative procedures that scientists use, such as observing, measuring, and hypothesis testing, as supplements to traditional instructional methods such as lectures, discussions, and readings. Teachers would engage students in such thinking behaviors by using a variety of experimental activities, ranging from structured laboratory exercises to student-initiated projects. And they would encourage students to investigate and elaborate on real-world problems of relevance to them and their communities. Such reform in science instructional methods holds promise for all students, but may be particularly advantageous for black, Hispanic, and female students because they provide compensation in the class room for some of the documented disparities in students experiences outside.

The cover story of the June 17 National Journal discusses the controversies surrounding bilingual education: The debate over bilingual education has evolved into a political and pedagogical hot potato without compare. It is an issue that arouses civil rights advocates, provides a rallying point for Hispanic and Asian interest groups, and has given rise to an “Official English” lobbying movement that many see as a nativist reaction to the wave of Third World immigration that the country is experiencing.

Underlying the controversy is a growing realization that the twin forces of international migration and world trade are forcing the entire country to come to grips with linguistic diversity as never before.

In his new book, Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools, (Washington, D.C., Regnery Gateway, 1989), Joe Clark, the controversial, bullhorn carrying, high school principal, whose story was the basis for the film Stand by Me, describes how he dealt with one of his teachers:

One afternoon, while stalking the halls, I stopped outside the door of an English class taught by a new teacher, a young woman. She had written some words on the board. Vocabulary is one of my passions. I stepped inside. “Those are some very fine words,” I remarked. She seemed a little nervous. She smiled. “Perhaps some of your students know the meanings?”

“Does anyone know what ‘mendicant’ means?,” [I asked.] No hands. “‘Alacrity?’ Does any student know the meaning of ‘alacrity’? No? Very well. You will soon learn these definitions, so listen carefully.’'

I turned to the teacher and asked her to define “alacrity” for the class. She stared at me in silence for some moments. Nervous, I thought. But she has to develop a good classroom manner. “Well,” I said, “what are you waiting for? Give the class the definition.”

She rubbed her hands, shuffled her feet. “‘Alacrity,’'"he muttered. “Aaaa, aaa.” More shuffling, wringing her hands now. Her face turned ashen. In the long tense silence it dawned on me.

“You don’t know what the word means?” I said. She said nothing. I bridled, I thundered.

“This is an outrage! You are not a teacher! No one can teach what they do not know. You are a disgrace! Out! Out of this classroom! Go to my office!”

I soon taught that tenure-seeking dolt the meaning of ‘alacrity.’ She was out of a job with plenty of it.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Browsing