Education Letter to the Editor


February 01, 1995 9 min read

Motivation is the key to success. Teachers must constantly communicate to students why this or that is important and show the short- and long-range benefits of completing the task. It is amazing what young people can accomplish once they realize the personal value and importance associated with fulfilling a teacher’s demands.

I am reminded of the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. A group of Navy cadets wants to qualify for aviation school, but they must first satisfy every demand of a very demanding drill sergeant. The sergeant pours it on for weeks and weeks. The cadets complain. Some give up and go home, but others persist. During the training period, they literally hate the sergeant. But at graduation, as officers and gentlemen, they can only show gratitude. Tough standards, discipline, and demanding tasks had helped them fulfill their goals.

Ruenzel’s findings and comments are worthy of reflection and examination. Bringing football practice into the classroom may not be practical, but the philosophy of discipline and strenuous effort has its place and should be promoted.

Ed Fabisak
Social Studies Head
American School of Recife

Show Compassion

My subscription to Teacher Magazine is new, but I am tempted to end it shortly. How can a reputable magazine print the irresponsible ravings of Robert Dizney [“The Tragedy of Teenage Motherhood,’' November/December]? Yes, teenage parenting is a tragic problem of crisis proportion. Yes, the welfare system is in dire need of revamping. And yes, I also don’t know what to say to my students who are teen parents. Still, I am so angered by many of Dizney’s remarks that I feel I must respond.

Dizney writes: “What could be worse than having a child at 15, 16, or 17, deciding to keep it, and then dumping the financial responsibility onto one’s fellow citizens?’' What could be worse?

For starters, the harm people like Dizney cause these young people by condemning them. Dizney’s anger at being a “child support surrogate’’ is misdirected. Instead of pointing only at Debbie, why doesn’t he also point in the direction of the missing fathers, or the government, or the abusive families that have torn many young people apart? Perhaps he should even point at himself. As a teacher of young people, he might have tried to instill in Debbie a sense of confidence rather than shame and guilt.

He might have been able to provide an environment in which she could feel safe, supported, and valued before ending up with a baby.

Dizney goes on: “The least a young mother can do to make up for her foolishness is not subject bystanders to the odious spectacle of a little girl showing off what she thinks is a new toy.’' How is it that Dizney presumes to know the thoughts of a 16-year-old girl? Does that girl truly think of her baby as a new toy? Has he asked her what she thinks? Does he know what she is feeling about that baby? Maybe she is simply doing what any decent mother who loves her child does: showing off the baby to people she thinks might care. Dizney has chosen not to experience the joys and challenges of parenthood himself, yet he believes he’s qualified to speculate on how a mother feels about her child.

Is the sight of a teenage girl holding a baby “odious,’' as Dizney suggests? Confusing? Yes. Sad? Yes. Discouraging? Yes. But odious? I’d be hard put to describe it as such. Such a tone implies a disdain and hostility that seem out of proportion to the actual circumstances. And for how long does Dizney think this girl needs to “make up for her foolishness’’? How long need she be punished by the comments and attitudes of the Robert Dizneys of the world? Accountability and responsibility are valuable traits to develop and to encourage in young parents, but repentance is not for us to demand.

I do not presume to have the answers to a problem that keeps me awake at night with worry. I do not jump for joy at the news that another student is pregnant. But I know that once those babies are in this world, they need more than condemnation. Compassion and concern do not perpetuate the problem of teenage parenting. Dizney should come out of hiding and face the issue in a way that is a credit to our profession.

Anita Charles
Windham, Maine

Designing Woman

I must say that I am extremely impressed by University of California psychologist Ann Brown’s studies of real classrooms and student responses to different teaching approaches [“Designing Woman,’' October]. It’s about time that someone took an interest in how students react and learn material rather than observing how the teacher is presenting it.

Schools should encourage students to develop their interests and strengths and teach them to become lifelong learners. Even after graduating from college, we learn things we’ve never encountered before. By sharpening our learning skills, we give ourselves an opportunity to be more productive in the work force and more successful in life. I applaud Ann Brown’s efforts.

Vanessa Ramos
New Foundland, N.J.

Closed-Minded Reply

In his letter to the editor [October], Paul Kelter sneers at the predominantly African-American private schools David Ruenzel describes in his article “Black Flight’’ [August]. He claims they teach “blind obedience to authority’’ and implies that they produce racial hatred, offer inferior academics, and turn out students incapable of thinking for themselves. Somehow that sounds closed-minded and highly prejudiced to me.

Moral absolutes, Christian values, high academic expectations, and respect for authority do not result in brain-dead students. The absence of these elements in our public school system as a whole, however, is the major reason for the increasing number of private and Christian schools in this country.

Parents, not the government, are responsible for the education of their children. The parents described in “Black Flight’’ are taking their responsibility seriously.

Christie Gambrell
Greenville, Tenn.

Looking Back

Reading my old friend and colleague David Ruenzel’s article “Past Imperfect’’ [October] brought a bittersweet smile to my face. It has been four years and a dimensional shift since I taught with Ruenzel at University Lake School in Wisconsin, but the images that he managed to convey of the place, its student-faculty conviviality, and its capacity to give “eccentric’’ teachers like myself and those I worked with the freedom to profess our “uncertain’’ qualities remain firm in my mind.

I think back to those years at ULS where I was fortunate enough to have students who pushed me to excel as a teacher and realize it was they who prohibited me from accepting anything from them that was below their standard of excellence. And they had clear standards of excellence, as they do at the Hong Kong International School, where I now teach. It strikes me that it is in this insight that much discussion in and about education has missed the boat. There is a tacit assumption in a lot of what I read suggesting that students have lost their drive, have sacrificed their values, and have given up their hope for quality. I continue to believe that this is not the case, and my students continue to convince me that they appreciate teachers who believe enough in them to push them beyond their limits. If that results in the “tumultuous’’ energy that I have always felt is part of teaching, then I accept the price.

I felt that Ruenzel managed to capture not only the spirit of the place he taught in but also the commitment of the students he taught and the people he taught with. His rhetorical return allowed me to realize what a tremendous asset independent schools really are to the American and international educational landscape. For some students, it is truly an opportunity to discover where lifelong learning begins--with those imperfect reflections that emerge from uncertain moments in schools where the only certainty is that excellence is a commonly held value.

Daniel McCarthy
Hong Kong

Old Ideas

I had to laugh at your August article “A Search for Meaning: Questioning the author can help students make sense of textbooks,’' which offers a supposedly new way for teachers to help students explicate text.

Teachers might ask, we are told: “What is the author trying to say?’' or “How does that connect with what the author already told us?’' or “I wonder what the author meant by that.’' Then the teacher “weaves the students’ responses together in a way that helps the pupils collectively make sense of what they read.’' The “new’’ idea called “reciprocal teaching’’ encourages students to “become the teacher’’ and ask their classmates questions about the text or predict what might happen next.

Where have these researchers been? I was taught by that method in high school and college in the 1960s and ‘70s and began using it in my own classroom when I became a teacher. To date, it still forms the backbone of my teaching of literature. Most of my colleagues teach literature that way, as well.

I know old ideas rise from the dead to be recycled, but let’s not pass them off as new.

Judith Richman
Huntington Station, N.Y.

A Top Teacher

Just today, I received a copy of the May/June 1994 issue of Teacher Magazine with David Hill’s wonderful article about Tim Hamilton [“Teaching by the Books’’]. I am dropping everything to write.

I met Hamilton and his class at Davis-Kidd Bookstore [in Nashville, Tenn.] in May 1993. He left an indelible impression on me. I was to make a “short presentation and sign books,’' but it turned out to be much more than that. There was this class of 2nd graders filling up the space. It took me 10 seconds to see they were different. They were alive. They were curious. Their eyes were flashing. They had “happy’’ and “excited’’ written all over their faces. I knew they “knew’’ me. (Know an author’s book, and you know the author.) Their hands were punching the air with questions, yet they were contained and polite. When I answered them, there wasn’t a murmur in the crowd. They were listening.

I knew they were products of a dedicated teacher. My experiences visiting bookstores and schools have taught me that this enthusiasm does not happen automatically. It is inspired. The children took my attention, but, after awhile, I thought, WOW! which of the numerous adults in the group is the teacher? I located him (ah, a him) standing quietly in the back of the group, young, alert, listening, with a kind of wary pride one sees in parents. I hope he was feeling proud. I hope he was satisfied to see his class’s response to his preparations for this trip, to see them reflecting his own enthusiasm for books and reading. Though the children were his mouthpiece, I knew all about their teacher by their attitude. He didn’t have to say a word.

It’s amazing how much one can see at a glance. I have found that the brightest eyes, the most curious children, are products of teachers who dedicate their lives to instilling a love of books and reading--usually through whole language. I have met an armful of extraordinary teachers--those who go one step (and umpteen hours) further. They have added richness to my life and make it seem worthwhile. Tim Hamilton is way on the top.

Aliki Brandenberg
London, England

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Letters