Education Letter to the Editor


October 01, 1995 8 min read

Expletives Deleted

As an English and journalism teacher and adviser for our student newspaper, I would be the last person to be in favor of censorship; I regularly use oft-banned books such as Lord of the Flies and The Catcher in the Rye in my classes. I’m confident, however, that Cissy Lacks [“Expletives Deleted,’' September] could continue to communicate her respect for students and encourage free expression while also keeping their language and behavior on a higher, more sophisticated level. Imposing guidelines and certain standards doesn’t necessarily kill creative expression.

Jerry Kazdoy
Santa Clarita, Calif.

Cissy Lacks is the victim of “hit or miss’’ teacher evaluation, where administrators or members of the community who may have little or no sense of a lesson’s context assume they know enough to pass judgment.

When I served on a local school board, a colleague condemned a high school student’s award-winning drama (and the sponsoring teacher) because

the characters, two orphaned teenage boys, used a “damn,’' a “hell,’' and probably other words we all know and have used or heard. I asked my colleague if the problem was that teenage boys didn’t really use such words or if students who attempt to write realistic dialogue used by their peers should have them sound unlike their real selves.

What exactly is the problem? Did Lacks “expose’’ students to words they do not know or routinely hear? Or is it that she allowed students to use words in their writing that they all know, use, and hear frequently?

The problem, as I see it, is that some board members and administrators prefer school to be as divorced as possible from the lives and language of children. They want to pretend that children don’t know certain words or experience certain things. Some adults who have little or no experience working with the writing of young people, who may not even read very widely let alone write, presume to know how to teach better than people like Cissy Lacks, who has devoted her life to this cause. I wish I had a job to offer her.

Larry Levy
Delta College
University Center, Mich.

Down With Choice

Thank you for printing the article “What’s Brewing in Milwaukee?’' [September]. It helped me decide not to renew my subscription. Your uncritical acceptance of “schools of choice’’ outside the public school system was the clincher. All your talk about the entrenched bureaucracy, union greed, and the educational establishment does not connect to anything in my educational experience.

As a public school teacher for 23 years, I have never seen my educational association do anything that would separate parents from their children’s education. What I have heard increasingly in recent years is a clamor for public money to support pilot projects that are lacking in accountability. What is the curriculum in these private and religious schools, anyway? Who are the teachers? What are the teaching methods? What kind of success are they achieving? Is their success due to innovative teaching or is it due to homogeneous grouping of kids with desirable characteristics?

I don’t know what is going on with the Milwaukee public schools, but I suspect there are fine successes throughout the district. Those successes will achieve little press in the political climate of today. The end of the public system of education in this country means the end of good schools for all children. The best schools will pay the best teachers more and that is where the rich kids will go. Your magazine promotes this sorry result.

Richard Fidler
Traverse City, Mich.

Don’t Fake It

By staying in the closet, Bill Prigg did himself and all of us who are disabled a disservice. I am sure he feels good now, but he should have written “Faking It’’ [“Comment,’' September] 30 years ago. Just think how he could have helped all those kids he thought were dyslexic. It would not have been a “one time take the test orally against the rules’’ situation. If he had outed himself, he could have gotten these young folks the proper guidance and medical treatment for their learning disability.

I ask all people with disabilities to “come out’’ and help your underlings accept and work with their disabilities.

James Gallagher
Committee for Members With Disabilities
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

More On Postman

Thanks so much for Neil Postman’s “The Error of Our Ways’’ [August]. Peter Greene’s letter about the article in the following issue [“Letters,’' September] claims Postman is urging teachers to ignore mistakes, thus endangering students and society. Postman is not suggesting that mistakes should be condoned. He is trying to draw our attention to the inability of adults to see things “anew’’ from a student’s perspective and become aware that many of our perceptions are “errors’’ in thinking.

As for Greene’s statement, “Society and government have worked hard to erase consequences for bad or stupid choices, but they will never be successful’': We are society, all of us. We are the government, all of us. And we are all working, like Postman, to conquer the errors of our ways. Life is a process, and the fear of making mistakes should not be pounded into children.

I was so choked with fear as a child in school that I felt chronically condemned. I reacted to the school environment with its black-and-white vision of right and wrong by becoming painfully self-conscious. Based on observation and conversation, I have found I am not alone.

Barbara Alward
Atascadero, Calif.

Neil Postman criticizes teaching today, but his suggestions go off into the ethereal and accomplish nothing. He suggests, for example, that teachers trade fields for a month. Where has he been? Has he ever taught in the public schools?

I substituted several times in a high school geometry class and found that the regular teacher had her degree in English. The physics teacher with whom I did my student teaching had majored in general science with an emphasis in biology and no physics background. His knowledge of physics was at a high school level. When I took my math certification exam, there was a coach who was taking it for the fourth time. This man had been teaching algebra! I know several teachers who have master’s degrees. But the degrees are in education, not in the subjects they teach. Should these people teach physics or chemistry, as Postman suggests, and without a textbook to boot?

Charles Longwell
Bertram, Texas

Teach Religion

Warren Nord’s “Is Nothing Sacred?’' [“Comment,’' August] was lucid and correct! The desires of a few misguided parents, educators, and politicians have ruined our education system and limited academic freedom.

School districts now don’t talk about religion or morals at all. We should, at the very least, be teaching the beliefs of various religions and let students decide for themselves. This is not “indoctrination’’ but academic freedom. If an atheistic parent wants a child with no faith or morals, fine. But his or her wishes should not darken the horizons of other children.

Arthur Lee Harper
Palmdale, Calif.

Write To The Point

As a professional writer and college writing instructor, I am compelled to respond to recent articles and letters concerning the return of structuralism in writing classes [“Write to the Point,’' May/June]. Every year, far too many students enter my classes with stomachs tied in knots, knees knocking, teeth chattering. Such students slide down in their seats, hoping that I won’t see them. Interestingly enough, I hear a common comment from old and young students alike: “Writing was never my subject. Teachers always said I couldn’t write. I hate writing. After I got my papers back, I couldn’t tell my writing from their red ink.’'

During my own high school years, teachers fed the five-part theme to us on a daily basis like castor oil. Instead of proving to be an elixir, the method constipated my brain and cramped my writing ability. I broke out into feverish sweats struggling to force my ideas into an unnatural formula. My writing always sounded flat. It wasn’t me.

The “writing process’’ isn’t without form or focus; it can be compared with the potter’s craft. After casting clay upon the wheel, the potter molds and reshapes his or her pot many times. Likewise, writers reshape their “pots’’ with questions: What am I trying to say? Who is my audience? How can I change it here? What else can I add?

Supporters of the old paradigm would do well to read Derek Owens’ book, Resisting Writing (and the Boundaries of Composition). Owens states: “Many ideas simply cannot make themselves heard within the conventions of tradition; for many, resisting forms are the only way for certain thoughts to evolve and take shape. Ideas, after all, never exist ‘outside’ of forms but are themselves forms. . . .’' I want writing to be exciting, risky, strange; dull, safe, conventional texts put me and my students to sleep.

I recommend an obituary for the old paradigm to read: “Died today, at 6:45 a.m., the five-part theme A.K.A. structuralism. After a long and tedious reign, the weathered old tyrant breathed its final sigh and expired. Mourners, traditionalists afraid of losing their power in the classroom, attempted to revive it, causing it to unleash several loud squeals and a squeak or two. Cremation followed a never-ending memorial service. May it finally rest in peace.’'

Barbara Inman Beall
Broomfield, Colo.

David Ruenzel did not deserve the hammering he got from Edward Wilson [“Letters,’' August]. “Limbaughesque diatribe,’' indeed! That sent me back to find out what all the fuss was about. To my mind, Ruenzel was not defending the use of the “funnel,’' expressing satisfaction with the status quo, or demonstrating a need for control. Wilson read all this, and much more, into his innocuous essay.

In his continued study and reflection, let’s hope Edward Wilson will learn how to differ with a colleague without accusing him of poor logic and poorer scholarship, and sloppy and biased editorializing. Perhaps he will learn how to discuss ideas without getting personal.

As for Ruenzel’s essay, I did not agree with everything he said, especially about ownership. I think a writer injects ownership into his or her work before sending it out into the world, perhaps to take on a life of its own, separate from its author. I also think the “voice’’ spoken of by teacher Marjorie Stelmach denotes ownership. And why can’t writing be either a discovery or a product--or both for that matter?

Thanks for a provocative article and interesting letters.

Beryl Palmer
Redondo Beach, Calif.

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