High School 2 College

November 28, 2009

First Rant: What’s the Matter with Kids Today

Usually, I write carefully worded advice for high school and occasionally middle school or college kids on some topic having to do with succeeding in high school or college.  When I work with kids each week, I am usually the model of patience and optimism.

Inside, I am often seething.

Kids can’t write.  Kids can’t read.  Kids have no idea how to construct a sentence and often aren’t quite sure what a complete sentence consists of.  Kids have an alarmingly truncated vocabulary.  (Yeah, like they would even know what “truncated” means.) When I talk to kids, I modify my speech so I don’t appear threatening by using big words.  And these are kids who have grown up with educated parents in a middle-to-upper-middle-class suburb with a highly-regarded school system who are headed for college and professional careers.

I’ve been tutoring high school kids in my town for about 22 years now. I’ve decided it’s not all the kids’ fault.

Sure, they could read more than the two books assigned for summer reading in their spare time. Of course they could read the whole assigned book rather than read Spark Notes for the chapter summaries. But if the teachers are going to gauge student compliance with the reading assignments by giving quizzes which ask the kids to regurgitate those summaries, the students would be foolish not to give up reading and go to the Spark Notes when time is tight.  I’ve asked nearly every student I’ve had over the past five years or so why their teachers are assigning literature to read, and not one of them has been able to articulate a reason.

So my first rant is about English teachers. Not all English teachers, mind you, deserve censure. Some are good (I like to think I’m pretty good).  Some are GREAT (thank you, Mrs. Joyce Garvin of River Dell Regional High School, the best English teacher in the world, as far as I’m concerned).

But I know an English teacher whose assignments so regularly contained grammar errors that my students had a find-the-error competition going on.  I know an English teacher who was surprised to hear me say that most Elizabethans didn’t speak in iambic pentameter.  I know an English teacher who told a student that “between you and I” was correct.

I’ve never heard of an English teacher who said, “Everyone should clear his desk.”  Or “Did each student bring his assignment pad?”  It only sounds odd because you’re not used to hearing it.

Even worse, most of the students I know can’t imagine reading for pleasure because they’ve never been given anything pleasurable to read.  Reading comes with chapter quizzes, outlines, skits, posters, but not with a purpose.  Books like A Tale of Two Cities and The Good Earth were taken out of the curriculum, I suppose because the teachers weren’t able to help the students understand them.  Instead, they were replaced by books written in the first person.  Even good books written in the first person, like Catcher in the Rye or To Kill A Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby don’t have complex vocabulary or sentence structure because they are trying to use colloquial speech to sound natural and realistic.

Where I’m from, English teachers generally don’t assign plays unless they were written by Shakespeare or Arthur Miller.  English teachers don’t assign novels or short stories written by authors from any country other than America or England. English teachers (with one notable exception in a nearby town) don’t assign essays or speeches. And English teachers never, ever assign anything humorous.

I know kids who’ve gone through high school taking Regents English classes who NEVER had a take-home essay to do. Well, I shouldn’t say never.  Perhaps they had one in four years, but they couldn’t remember it.  That’s shameful.  All the essays are in-class so the students can practice for the Regents exam.

My son got to college and had to take a freshman writing class.  After his first assignment, on which he got a less than stellar grade, he called me to say that he couldn’t imagine why his college writing teacher hadn’t asked them to do a poster or a presentation or a skit since he had become so proficient at them in high school.  Why, he even learned how to write in bubble letters and how to use a glitter pen!

So maybe the problem isn’t with kids after all.

I’m sure I’ll have to duck some harsh criticism about this rant, reminding me how television and computers have made it all but impossible for English teachers to teach reading and writing to kids today, but I can’t hold it in any longer.

What can parents and school districts and English teachers do to improve the situation?  Here’s what I’d love to see:

  • Introduce students to works of literature from different periods of time and from different cultures.  How about a Russian short story or a play from the 1920’s?
  • Offer students reading that’s slightly above their comfort level.  That’s how they’ll grow.  A juicy Agatha Christie is fun and challenging for most students.
  • Try humor.  Have you ever read P.G. Wodehouse or James Thurber and kept a straight face?  How about Dave Barry or Ephraim Kishon?
  • Tell students about why the work is considered worthwhile before you read it, not afterward. Maybe then they’ll start the book with a sense of purpose.
  • Read for pleasure.  Have your kids read for pleasure.  No tests, no papers, no essays, no posters, no bubble letters.  Just pleasure.  Have “reading time” in school just like they do in second grade. Let the kids sit on the floor and eat a snack while they read.
  • Don’t be afraid of a little controversy.  Read and discuss TIME or Newsweek’s back page essays with kids.  Read the letters to the editor of those magazines, too, and figure out why the writer is really writing.
  • Ask kids to share their favorite authors with each other.  Some kids do read because they want to, and other kids should see that.

There.  I feel better now.

Do you have something to rant about when it comes to education and kids?

Wendy Segal


  1. Wendy!!! You are the preacher, I am the choir! I’ll have to talk to you sometime about the FINEST English teacher I ever met, Margi Goett, and how she has been (and is being) hounded out of positions because of radical teaching practices like: in-class essays, nightly homework, spelling counts…etc. We’ll also have to talk about how I, the social studies teacher, am now the one to teach the kids the research process and how to write non-fiction, which is the style for how they will write for most of their adult lives. Short story writing is fun, but COME ON…how often do most of us use short story writing in life?


    Comment by Rosa Hirsch — November 28, 2009 @ 6:15 am | Reply

    • That’s my problem with the curriculum being solely based on reading literature. As an English teacher and as an intellectually and culturally curious person, I love literature. But I also recognize that schools should be preparing kids for life. For most, life includes reading magazines and essays critically and writing clearly, logically, and persuasively. My students should feel just as prepared to write a letter to their local newspaper as they are to understand Toni Morrison.


      Comment by highschool2college — November 28, 2009 @ 1:47 pm | Reply

  2. When I was a kid we had so much fun we didn’t realize we were learning.



    Comment by Dr. Tom Bibey — November 28, 2009 @ 11:21 am | Reply

  3. Wendy — two problems with your rant: it was too short, and didn’t go directly to Dr. Napolitano, the NYTimes, and the National Teacher’s Union. I couldn’t agree with you more. My other passionate rant about the Yorktown teachers in general, is the new crop of women teachers who dress completely inappropriately, and speak like….well, my mother had a word for girls like that. My sophomore came home, and casually reported that her math teacher said in irritation about another teacher (and besides my using an “X” for the teacher’s name, this quote is VERBATIM), “Oh, that Mr. X. He is such an a-hole!” I thought teachers were supposed to be role models. Another teacher used the word “crap” as a synonym for “stuff.” I was appalled. My kids were annoyed with me, “Mom, the language is changing. Those words don’t mean what they used to mean.” Well, yes language is always changing, but no, those words still mean exactly what they used to mean. But everyone uses them commonly (pun intended) now, so that their vulgar impact is diffused. The kids are desensitized. Why shouldn’t they, they reason, behave as well as their teachers?! I hardly even know how to begin to address this.


    Comment by Amy Kefauver — November 28, 2009 @ 1:12 pm | Reply

  4. Amen, Wendy. I just need to add my 2 cents. I hate it when English teachers require students to keep a log of the number of minutes and number of pages they read each night. I have been fighting that battle in Bedford Central for 11 years now.


    Comment by Susan Safranek — November 28, 2009 @ 10:16 pm | Reply

    • Is anyone honest about those logs? Is that supposed to make it pleasant to read? If they really want kids to read, my suggestion would be that they insist each student bring in to the teacher a book he or she wants to read. The teacher should require kids to keep that book with them (at least in their backpacks) so kids get used to reading when they have spare time (when there’s a sub with no work assigned, when they finish early). Bonus points for random book checks — if you have your book with you, 2 points on your next test. Give kids time to read in school. Sometimes getting started with a book is the hardest part. If they read in school, it shows how much the school values reading. They cut short the academic day for pep rallies and assemblies and announcements– why not take a break from other subjects to read?


      Comment by highschool2college — November 28, 2009 @ 10:24 pm | Reply

  5. I think I can beat the above comment by Amy. My 7th grade daughter came home and quoted her health teacher as saying “Getting high is awesome, just don’t do it!” Can you believe this???


    Comment by Debbie Zapakin — November 29, 2009 @ 12:19 am | Reply

    • I’m aghast! Did you talk with other parents or call the principal?


      Comment by highschool2college — November 29, 2009 @ 12:40 am | Reply

  6. Well, I am pleased to find others are concerned about what our children are learning in school! For some, 12th grade will be their last year of education. I am horrified by the lack of focus on the English language. My son has stated he’s learned more about grammar from his Spanish teacher! From grade school through high school, I have found that kids consistently cannot identify a sentence fragment from an introductory prepositional phrase. I reviewed an essay returned to my daughter with an additional 21 errors not noticed/flagged by her 9th grade English teacher. If errors are not called to one’s attention, how can they be corrected? What’s more, my kids have asked, “If my teachers don’t care, why should you??” I did discuss this at a meeting with Mrs. O’Connor, Asst. Superintendent of Curriculum at YHS, last fall. I shared with her some egregious samples of my kids’ writing. I was thoroughly surprised this year to see my 8th grader come home with a vocabulary book — the first time since 2nd grade. Mrs. Torrenti, MES & YHS orchestra teacher, has put vocabulary words on her blackboard for kids to absorb. I am certain that if the bar were raised our children would rise beautifully to the challenge. If only … I have had educators say spelling is not a concern because of the availability of computers and spell check. That’s like saying you don’t need to learn math because everyone owns a calculator. Sad 😦


    Comment by Anita Sgueglia — November 30, 2009 @ 11:15 pm | Reply

    • Mrs. Torrente is indeed concerned with the education of our children on a high level. Imagine if we had grammar lessons every Friday for 20 minutes in every English class from middle school through 12th grade. Our kids would be real experts and their writing would be superior to those of most of their peers. I’d give pre-tests, and anyone who got a 95% or better on the pre-test could sit in class and read a book of his choice for that unit while the class learns the grammar. Reading as a reward? Imagine THAT!


      Comment by highschool2college — November 30, 2009 @ 11:44 pm | Reply

  7. Literary criticism, teen style….thought you all might enjoy.


    Comment by Amy Kefauver — December 1, 2009 @ 8:35 am | Reply

  8. The last 5 minutes of this Youtube video should have been edited out, and of course the young man’s language is a little ironic considering the comments I posted earlier. But I still thought you folks might appreciate this take on the hugely popular “Twilight” — and I have to say, it does indeed sound vapid from the way he describes it!


    Comment by Amy Kefauver — December 1, 2009 @ 7:48 pm | Reply

  9. I find it sad that an English teacher cannot use proper grammar, especially when teachers are the ones that are supposed to be teaching proper grammar. I did not learn about preposional phrases until 10th grade. In fact, many of the grammar lessons I learned were from 10th grade and from SAT preparation books for the SAT. I will admit that I do not have a perfect command of grammar, I DO KNOW the difference between good and well; there, their, and they’re; and you’re and your. The most annoying things I hear and see is “I did good on that test” and “your (fill in with adjective)”.

    It saddens me to say this, but I USED to enjoy reading for pleasure until something called Accelerated Reader became a part of my middle school years. Basically, books are assigned reading levels and point values. You read a book, take a test and earn points based on the number of questions you get right. Unfortunately, my English teachers made it a requirement to participate. Now, I enjoy reading, but this program was overkill. It was not pleasure reading for me anymore, but instead it was readbooksforthisprogramorelseyourEnglishgradewillsuffer reading (I made that one word intentionally).

    The only year I was assigned take home essays was in 11th grade when I was taking AP English Language; however, I was assigned papers to write the other three years of high school English in addition to the rare poster or presentation.

    Two of the English teachers I had did teach grammar and some vocabulary, but I’m not sure effective their efforts were.

    On the subject of rants, I want to rant about how students today do not care about their schoolwork. I’ve seen it throughout high school from other students, and I am seeing it now as a college freshman.


    Comment by Rebecca Kwong — December 3, 2009 @ 2:00 am | Reply

    • Thank you so much for responding. I’m curious about where you live and which school district you attended. I was just talking this evening about mandatory “read for points” programs in school. If you could design a program for middle school students to encourage them to read for pleasure, what would your program look like?


      Comment by highschool2college — December 3, 2009 @ 3:35 am | Reply

  10. […] Filed under: Uncategorized — highschool2college @ 8:12 pm Tags: advice, English, high school My first rant allowed me to vent a little, but the steam is building up […]


    Pingback by My Second Rant: If I Could Parent Every Teenager « High School 2 College — September 13, 2010 @ 8:12 pm | Reply

  11. I am a student going into 8th grade. I couldn’t agree with you more. I often get looked down on because of the way i talk or write. I take advanced classes but for the past three years have not been learning anything more in English then authors purpose and making inferences. The class can be extremely frustrating because we never learn anything new. The hardest thing we did last year was read a modernized version of a midsummer’s night’s dream. i had read the original play when i was in 6th grade and was disappointing with how silly the play sounded.

    I really wish we would learn more advanced material in class.


    Comment by Alex — August 10, 2011 @ 3:51 pm | Reply

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