The Musings of the Bemused: A Veteran Teacher's Perspective
Friday, May 21, 2010
Rigor. . . . Mortis?
It’s prom night. Most of my seniors are absent, except my first-period Shakespeare students who had to turn in an annotated bibliography for the research paper due next week. I am expecting papers that compare Iago to Milton’s Satan, Iago to the Imaginary i (a math student’s impressive, if daunting, take), Othello to the nameless protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the play Othello to the libretto for Otello. I am expecting papers on Othello and the medieval Dance of Death; Othello and “blackness”; race as depicted and explored in Othello, Dutchman, and Invisible Man. I am expecting papers that compare and contrast the significance of women’s roles in tragedy and comedy as evinced in Othello, Hamlet, and 12th Night; papers that trace the development of the staging of Shakespeare’s plays; and papers that explore the roots and purposes of the music in Shakespeare’s plays.
Though my last entry revealed the level of burnout we all face at this late date in the school year, particularly when we are still facing stacks of paper, I am actually looking forward to reading these. They will reveal what my students have accomplished after three or four years of having had the same teacher. For these students, the actual tools of scholarship are deeply ingrained--research skills, proper manuscript format, how to formulate analytical theses, how to select and analyze textual support, how to convey and respond to arguments--and now they get to have the scholar’s fun. They get to learn through research and hone their voices and their thoughts. Not only can they watch as the professional writers in the academic journals and other critical sources argue about nuances, but they are actually ready to participate in the arguments with their own points of view. This is the best any teacher can hope for.
So why, you ask, after building a Shakespeare class and a Creative Writing class (which I described at the start of my last entry), to reputable numbers--26 in the former, 36 in the latter, do I have to struggle yet again in order to keep the classes alive? Last year, we had an administrator who tried to close the Shakespeare class because the enrollment number of 26 was not high enough to meet the class “norms” (a bizarre word for class-size) that went up dramatically from the maximum 34 to anywhere from 36-43. I had to fight to keep the class open, and for my efforts, I can now look forward to reading those papers I mentioned.
The Creative Writing class, a class that is often a class for slackers who usually don’t want to do anything but write the equivalent of "I’m alone, I’m alone, My cat, My cat," has become a serious academic class, where students generate myriad polished small pieces, two fully workshopped short stories (one 1500, one 3000 words), several poems in different poetic forms, and two author studies, where they read 1000 pages by an author of their choice and an entire collection of poetry by the poet of their choice and write New Yorker style reviews for each. All the work is designed to illuminate, support, and inspire the process of writing. Any student can go online to my class page to see exactly what is assigned all term, if clarity is what they need. But the question remains, Why’s no one signing up? What’s the problem here?
After I told my students that the classes that they seem to love might not be offered next year because numbers are so low (and frankly, I don’t see the wisdom in combining kids who selected Creative Writing with kids who selected Shakespeare as a possible solution for the low numbers; that feels like a lose-lose to me), they told me that they tagged everyone on Facebook and told them to sign up for what they described as important classes. They said several former students, now in college and some graduating, chimed in to say that these classes shaped them as thinkers, writers and as students in general. While that is nice and all, and it really does validate me enough to enable me to continue grading so much and feeling tired all the time, I still have to ask whether what should be sustaining these classes is ultimately what will kill them.
Those who have never set foot into my class (or if they have it’s been for 10 minutes or so), say I am an “intimidating” teacher; this means some could say, I am the cause of my own problems. Am I the problem or are rigor and high standards actually the problem. When students say, “I’m not sure I want to work that hard next year” when I ask them whether they have signed up for one of these classes, that indicates something more than just my perceived personality.
So here’s my next question: If rigor and high standards are the reason no one is signing up, why, then, does an administration, who proclaims the importance of rigor and the need for true college preparation, not wholeheartedly support keeping these classes alive at any cost? And by support, I am not talking lip-service.
An even better question is why by their senior year in high school do students fear Shakespeare (and often poetry in general) and want to avoid such a course? The district demands all students be allowed "access" to rigorous courses. Doesn’t "access" to AP, to college, to a richer life in general begin in 9th grade? And doesn’t "access" really mean exposure to the rigors and high standards most students in more competitive schools (read schools where those in charge are not buried under mandates, mediocrity, malaise) might be facing in most of their classes year after year? Does "access" mean reducing what we do in an English class to writing summaries and creating dioramas?
I guess these are the real questions: Does the kind of education that will lead to a diverse and complex life matter? Is it it important that education afford one the ability to see the poetry in everything? If so, shouldn’t all students be given "access" to this kind of education, this kind of vision, starting in 9th grade? And if they are given this "access," will they still shy away from the rigors of a college prep. Creative Writing course?
Maybe I have just answered all my other questions.