High School 2 College

October 26, 2010

Rant: If I Ran The English Department at Your High School

Let me be very clear — I’m not faulting any particular high school. I’ve worked with kids throughout Westchester, kids from schools from Chappaqua and Scarsdale to Peekskill and White Plains. I’ve worked with kids from Rockland and Orange counties.  I’ve worked with kids from New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, and Alaska.  Very few schools are uniformly outstanding.  They each have weak departments and weak teachers.  Too often, it’s the English department that fails to offer students what they need to succeed.

I could do better.

I know it sounds arrogant, self-important, even smug.  You might say it’s easy for me to say, sitting here at home in my little messy office, working with only one student at a time.  But sometimes you can see problems — and can imagine solutions — when you’re not in the thick of it.

Here’s what’s wrong: Most English teachers become English teachers because they like to read.  If they didn’t like to read, they wouldn’t become an English teacher.  And because they like to read, they want to share that love of reading with others.  Students are a captive audience.  So English teachers present books to students and say, “Here.  Read this.  I’ll help you understand it, and then you’re bound to appreciate it.”  That’s what happened when they were in school:  A teacher gave them a book, they loved it, they read more, they majored in English in college, they became an English teacher.  They picked up good writing naturally as the result of loving reading.  They picked up good grammar because they read good grammar.  They know that good literature lifts your soul, enriches your life, expands your world.  Surely if they give kids the right books — and the right books are a mix of the books they had to read in school and the books they’ve enjoyed this past summer — surely if the kids are just exposed to good books, they’ll love reading.

It doesn’t always work that way.

My son understood subtraction before anyone taught him.  It’s the reverse of addition, he told me sometime around age 3.  The rest of us who don’t have an innate aptitude for math need to be taught.  It’s the same with English.  It’s not enough to be exposed to good writing and good grammar; some people need to be taught.

Our schools aren’t teaching.  They’re not teaching grammar. Most students learn grammar only from foreign language class.  When was the last time an English teacher said “direct object” in your English class? Do you know what a split infinitive is?  Do you know that you always use an object pronoun after a preposition?  If you DO know, I bet it wasn’t a high school English teacher who taught you.  Using good grammar not only clarifies your writing, it makes you sound intelligent– even if you’re not.  Poor grammar makes you sound uneducated — even if you’re not.

They’re not teaching reading. If a student loves to read, it’s rarely because of literature her English teacher introduced to her.  Few teachers articulate for students why any piece of writing is considered “great.”  Perhaps if a student knew BEFORE he or she started reading that a book was controversial when it was written (and why), he or she might approach it with greater interest, appreciation, and understanding. When I tell kids that iambic pentameter was like the rap of Shakespeare’s day, that no one spoke like that (just like no one speaks in rap) but that, like rap, it was stylized speech with a beat, they are less frustrated by some of the language that used to be just annoying.  Assigning a book and quizzing a student on a chapter a day prevents students who actually do like the book from consuming it in one or two sittings.  He must read it ploddingly and at the teacher’s pace so he can pass the chapter quizzes.  And since the goal of reading seems to be passing quizzes, what incentive does the student have to read the book itself?  If your goal is to pass a chapter quiz, you’d be foolish not to read the SparkNotes.

They’re not teaching writing. Most schools assign too few essays.  The essays they do assign tend to be in-class essays (easy for the teacher — she can catch up on paperwork while the students write essays).  I know that the Regents exam requires an in-class essay, but surely a student would learn more from writing an essay that he can revise over time and with more thought.  Slapping a B+ on an essay and writing, “Needs more detail” in the margin is not teaching writing.  Imagine a Little League boy stepping up to the plate with his bat.  The pitcher throws one pitch and the boy misses.  “Okay,” the coach says.  “Come back next month and you can try again.”  Do you think this kid would ever learn to hit a ball?  Of course not.  Then why do English teachers give an essay, write one or two terse remarks, and expect next month’s essay to be any better?

In my (fantasy) school, middle school and high school teachers would set aside 20 – 40 minutes each Friday for grammar. First, they’d give a pretest.  Anyone who scores better than 90% doesn’t have to sit through the lesson on that aspect of grammar.  He could sit in the back of the room — on a desk, on the floor, any place would do — and read the book of his choice.  That would teach the class that grammar is important (we’re making it a regular part of our curriculum), and would show kids that reading can be a reward, a pleasure, a treat.

In my school, students would read books in coordination with other subjects. If the juniors are studying the French Revolution in history, have the English teachers work on Tale of Two Cities.  If biology class is studying the circulatory system, have kids read Fantastic Voyage. If health class is studying the perils of drug addiction, ask the kids to read Go Ask Alice.  There are books on math, science, social studies, both non-fiction and novels.

In my school, only a few assigned books would be in the first person. Books written in the first person, even classics like Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby to say nothing of more current works, need to be written in colloquial, conversational style to imitate speech.  If kids primarily read books in the first person, they’ll always have difficulty reading sentences of any length or complexity.  In our local high school, the English department recently replaced Tale of Two Cities with Frankenstein.  I have nothing against Frankenstein, except that once again, they’ve replaced a fairly complex novel, both in plot and in language, with something written in the first person.  As in my Little League analogy, you can’t get good at something you never practice.

In my school, some assigned books would be funny. When was the last time your high schooler read something that the school assigned that made her laugh out loud?  Does she even know that books can be good AND funny?  Not only do humorous books, stories, and plays make reading a pleasure instead of a requirement, irony and sarcasm can build a young person’s confidence and logical thinking.  Why don’t schools assign O. Henry or P.G. Wodehouse or James Thurber stories?  Why don’t they read the play Harvey? When I was in high school (but then again I had a superb teacher, Joyce Garvin, and went to a middle-class suburban high school with a fair respect for intellectualism), we thought Theater of the Absurd was a hoot.

In my high school, we would read essays and speeches and articles. Reading a novel is not like reading a speech, which is not like reading a play, which is not like reading a biography.  Each genre has its own vocabulary, its own flow and style and pacing.  Very few students will be reading Shakespeare in their thirties, but they should all be reading TIME or Newsweek or The New York Times.  You’d be surprised how few of my students can make sense of a political speech.  Kids need practice with all types of reading, especially kids who want to do well on the SATs or ACTs, or kids who want to be able to analyze a report for work when they grow up.

Finally, in my school, English teachers would set aside some time for reading. Imagine if every Friday for 20 minutes, everyone — teacher, too — took out a book of his or her choice and read.  I know they do this in some elementary schools, but why stop at fifth grade?  Why not continue all the way through high school?  Students might actually want to continue reading over the weekend.  The whole class might get to see what other students are reading.  They might even get to see what the teacher, that same teacher who became an English teacher because she loves to read, is reading.

But if I ran the English department, I would put myself, the tutor-for-hire, out of business so forget you ever read this.

Wendy Segal


October 20, 2010

What’s Up With Psychology?

Okay, I give up.  What’s up with psychology?

About 15 years ago, nearly every student I had, especially the guys, wanted to go into “business.” When I asked them what business meant or what they liked about business, they shrugged.  As long as they got to carry a briefcase and make lots of money, they were going to major in business in college.

Then it became Elementary Education.  Every girl student and half of the boys wanted to go into elementary education.  “Does that include fifth grade?” I asked.  “Oh, no, I’d only want to teach kindergarten or first grade because those kids are so cute!”  I had a feeling that these students felt fairly sure they knew at least as much as a first grader but weren’t at all sure they knew as much as a fifth grader.  And that was well before the quiz show!

Then it was Sports Management.  Everyone, male and female, wanted to go into Sports Management.  If all my students who wanted to major in sports management actually became sports managers, there would be more sports managers than athletes.

And it’s that way now with psychology. If all the students I have who are interested in majoring in psychology become psychologists, there will be WAY more psychologists than crazy people.  I recently met an old neighborhood friend I hadn’t seen in 30 years.  He told me he had a daughter who was going into her senior year of high school.  I couldn’t resist saying, “What does she want to major in — is it perhaps PSYCHOLOGY?”  Yup, it was.  In the same day, I had a two new students start working with me on SAT tutoring.  One was an A student taking mostly AP and honors classes.  The other was a B student (when she tried hard) with no honors classes.  Guess what BOTH of them wanted to major in?

Do you guys know that to do anything in the field of psychology you need at least a master’s degree — and that’s only to do the most grueling work.  To psychoanalyze anyone, you need a doctorate degree.  Are you ready to go to school for the next eight years?  Can you afford to?

Did you know that you’ll be studying the brain and the eye for at least a year or two before you ever get to find out why your mother treats you like a baby or why your roommate is nuts?  Were you especially good in biology in high school?

And did you know that psychologists don’t particularly like what they do?  Check out this article that lists professions by how satisfied the practitioners of that field actually are.

To pick a major, start off by considering which high school classes you liked.  Now think about which ones you did well in.  Ask your guidance counselor and some adults you trust which careers would make best use of your academic strengths.

Now think about what you like to do with your free time.  Do you prefer to be alone?  Do you have a million best friends?   Do you dread group projects?  Do you feel most comfortable with a small group of old friends or do you like to meet new people?  Do you like to talk more than write?  Would you rather read than play sports (yes, some people do!)?  Do you love to shop?  Do you have notebooks full of magazine articles or hairdos?  Do you want to be in a competitive field or do you only want to work hard enough to provide a roof, a car, and some beer?

Ask people about what they do, what they like about it, how they got their first jobs, how they got the job they’re in now.  Ask your parents, their friends, your relatives, your guidance counselors, your friends’ older brothers and sisters.  Ask me.  Ask people about what careers they thought they’d like when they were in school and why they did or didn’t pursue those careers.  Poke around websites like www.princetonreview.com – they have a little quiz about your interests and what careers might fit and they have descriptions of tons of careers you never even heard of.

Whatever you decide, please rethink majoring in psychology. If you insist that you were born to major in psychology, consider applying “undecided” so you’re not just one of the crowd.

Wendy Segal

October 8, 2010

Postscript to Vocabulary Question

I heard these words on The Daily Show on September 29th.  Imagine — all these words in a show that lasted about 24 minutes.  How many do you know ?  How many do your parents know?  How many could you define or use in a sentence?  And why aren’t you watching The Daily Show?

  • midterm elections
  • salivating
  • transformative
  • corroded
  • cerebral
  • apathy
  • demoralized
  • subverted
  • grueling
  • legislative
  • touting
  • hyperbolic
  • rhetoric (not rhetorical)
  • public square
  • paraphrasing
  • fundamentalist
  • zealot
  • polarizing
  • anecdotal
  • extrapolate
  • aggregators
  • bereft
  • regimes
  • font (of knowledge)

And the next day, September 30th, I heard all of these words:

  • austerity
  • deficit
  • perils
  • entitlement
  • laissez-faire
  • capitalism
  • tabled
  • derail
  • legislation
  • bureaucratic
  • redundancy
  • rubble
  • regaling
  • anecdotes
  • riveting
  • monumental
  • plugged (a movie)
  • objectify

What a tremendous vocab-building resource this show is — and it’s free!  (And so much more fun than studying lists or flashcards.)

I’d be curious to see if you can watch an episode and come up with your own list.

Wendy Segal

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