Education Letter to the Editor


November 01, 1995 9 min read

The Spark Is Gone

Plaudits to Robert Fried for getting to “the heart of the matter’’ in his essay concerning the lack of passion in the classroom [“Viewpoint,’' October]. After teaching high school English for more than 30 years, I felt that early retirement was essential for the maintenance of my sanity because the spark was gone--not from me but from our educational institutions, which, over the years, have evolved from schools to management-driven clones of big business.

To those of us who entered teaching in the idealistic 1960s, the joy of the classroom resulted from the passion many of us had for ideas and the satisfaction we derived from igniting the fertile minds that sat in front of us. As Fried correctly describes it, teaching was an “art’’ whereby the teacher infused his or her personality, as well as an innate love and enthusiasm for the subject, into the lesson.

What has killed this productive atmosphere? Fried briefly touches upon the culprit. Too many teachers approach each day in “a fog of fatigue’’ or come to work “wrapped in a self-protective cocoon.’' What Fried does not explain is why this happens.

Ever since A Nation at Risk appeared in the early 1980s, schools have responded by evolving from centers that inspired creativity and individuality to institutions that prescribe “top down’’ management control of every aspect of the teaching process. With the mandated constraints of outcome-based education, multicultural education, eight-step lesson plans, goal assessment programs, cooperative learning, and more, teachers have been discouraged from infusing their lessons with creativity, individuality, and “passion.’' They are now seen as components--factory-ready interchangeable parts--that can be handed an overly elaborate curriculum outline and plugged into any available compartment.

How could anyone orchestrate a dynamic class with an administrator sitting in the back of the room criticizing the lesson because it lacked formal closure or did not begin with a review of the previous day’s material? What schools need more than ever today are educators, not managers. But unfortunately, over the past decade, the managerial mentality has proliferated while passionate educators quietly fade away.

Julian Freund
Park Forest, Ill.

More On Cissy Lacks

As a concerned English teacher and published writer, I reacted very strongly to the cover article on teacher Cissy Lacks in your September issue [“Expletives Deleted’’]. I do not agree either with Lacks or with your magazine’s stance on the issue.

First, schools must maintain standards. Obscenity, not only in action but also in language, may be acceptable on the streets, in far too many homes, on TV, and in the movies, but it should not be acceptable in school or in school-related work. If we teachers and writers are, as William Faulkner put it so succinctly in his Nobel acceptance speech, in a position to lift up others and to help them “endure and prevail,’' then we need to counter the reality of violence, poverty, drugs, and obscenity with the reality of decency, perseverance, and integrity by promoting the latter in school.

Second, good English teachers know that profanity is counterproductive in the development of vocabulary. If everything is “f---ing,’' students do not have to master meaningful adjectives and adverbs. Students can learn to express themselves well without the shock value of mind-degrading obscene language.

Perhaps Lacks is a good teacher in other ways, and perhaps her administration should have handled this situation in a better way, but to imply that expecting clean language as part of our high expectations of students is not an appropriate request of school administration is wrong.

Cheryl Heser
Rosebud, Mont.

I was deeply disappointed by Karen Diegmueller’s article “Expletives Deleted.’' I had viewed your magazine as a voice for objective reporting. To portray a dismissed teacher who had given tacit approval to her students’ use of obscene and abusive language as a victim of overzealous censorship is ludicrous. This would never be tolerated in a well-to-do suburban public school. To assume it is acceptable in a lower-income urban public school, where minorities predominate, smacks of a paternalistic condescension and perhaps reverse discrimination.

If this is what must be tolerated in the public system, it is a powerful plug for the Milwaukee school choice option highlighted in the article that followed Diegmueller’s [“What’s Brewing in Milwaukee?’']. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.’'

Lowell Smith
Salem, Ore.

Good teachers allow flexibility and freedom to provide for diverse student interests and learning styles. However, assignments still need to be clear and include parameters for student focus. This is no contradiction. An amount of thematic direction helps guide students without being restrictive and sets sensible boundaries that usually preclude awkward censorship problems later.

After reading “Expletives Deleted,’' I had problems shaping any focus from Cissy Lacks’ assignment directions. What did the intended script on “something important to you’’ have to do with the drama of the three novels they read? The use of student profanity is secondary to the apparent vagueness of the directions as reported in the article.

If the years at Berkeley have been her toughest, perhaps the students there have a more concrete sequential learning style than the abstract random one she seems to accommodate. More specificity in direction may have been required here. Many students have difficulty with free-floating latitudes to directions for creative language projects. Any teacher is asking for trouble if the students who need the borders and margins aren’t given them.

Peter Hildebrand
Paul Gates School
Acton, Mass.

Why would teachers who find themselves in an inner-city school where life is “hell’’ want to have students produce a play that does nothing more than reproduce that “hell’’? These children are not expressing themselves, they are simply “copycatting’’ their lives. It does not take much thought or imagination to act out what you do every day.

Look at the movies that came out of Hollywood during the Great Depression (I’m 62, so I know what I’m talking about). These were not movies of despair and hopelessness; they were upbeat. This lifted spirits and gave people hope that things would not always be like they were. In The Grapes of Wrath, did people sit around crying, “Oh me, oh my’’? No! They gathered their things and moved West.

If you really want to teach students, teach them how to dream. Have them read Ivanhoe, La Morte d’Arthure, Captains Courageous. Teach them to think beyond where they are. Get them to produce a play about where they would like to be and then convince them that it is possible. If their dream is to become a doctor, a scientist, a banker, a store owner, then students must learn that “street language’’ is not part of those professions. A student who dreams of becoming an engineer has to be made to realize that approaching Westinghouse for employment with street language will get the door slammed in his or her face. By teaching students to communicate at a higher level, you can show them that they have already built the first rung of their ladder to success.

Charles Longwell
Bertram, Texas

Lessons From Japan

I worry that your review of my book Educating Hearts and Minds: Reflections on Japanese Preschool and Elementary Education [“Books,’' September] might create misunderstanding. The reviewer writes: “Lewis shows the much-lauded small groups . . . in one case pummeling a classmate who has not met certain ‘norms.’ '' I imagine he refers to one of two incidents I describe, one in which a lunch monitor fails to notice it’s time to fetch lunch, and his hungry preschool groupmates hit him on the back to remind him, and another in which a 1st grader hits a classmate who is forgetting to turn on the television for a show the class is waiting to watch. I wouldn’t describe either of these as “pummeling.’' Such momentary slaps, pushes, and punches are a frequent part of daily life in both American and Japanese schools, as young children gradually learn to use words instead of physical force.

Japanese teachers’ reluctance to intervene and punish the “offender’’ and their emphasis on children’s own problem solving--whether we agree with these strategies or not--provide a vantage point for thinking about our own methods of conflict resolution. By getting children to intervene when they see others fighting, Japanese teachers hope to reduce fighting in the streets and neighborhoods--not just on school grounds.

I found myself offended by the reviewer’s comment that John Dewey “must be doing somersaults in his grave’’ as Japanese teachers acknowledge their debt to him. Is the underlying message that Japanese teachers’ decades-old struggle to build friendship and collaboration in classrooms can teach us nothing--unless it duplicates exactly what we would do? We can best honor Dewey’s legacy by showing an openness to learn from other cultures and to use thoughtfully the mirror they provide for reflecting on our own education goals.

Catherine Lewis
Director of Formative Research
Developmental Studies Center
Oakland, Calif.

Religion In School

I just finished the article “Is Nothing Sacred?,’' by Warren Nord [“Comment,’' August]. Ultimately, Nord’s commentary raises more questions than it answers. First is the implied definition of “religion.’' It would seem that the author is a proponent of religion being included in American schools. I don’t have a problem with that; I will be teaching a comparative religion course in the spring at my public high school. The problem I see is with the implication that religion means Christianity. How would the author feel about his article if religion were to mean Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism? I believe that one issue that must be dealt with when placing religion into the educational curriculum is whose religion and how will that religion be taught?

If and when religion is placed in the curriculum, will it be theology or comparative religions or religion in the social life or how to pick a religion? Will it be matters of faith or religious social structure or ritual or religious history? Which version or interpretation shall we use when discussing the creation stories, whether it be Yahweh or Allah or Aristotle’s unmoved mover? Shall we accept the contents of religious texts as facts that have occurred in history or as wonderful metaphors for how (and how not) to live life or some mixture of both?

I agree with the author that there needs to be greater religious literacy that the public schools can provide, but I also believe that it should not be so narrow as to exclude anything that does not fit into the Judeo-Christian concept of faith or religion.

Chuck Schallhorn
Munster (Ind.) High School

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