Friday, October 29, 2010

The Jolly Experience

"The Class,"an award-winning movie
I'm teaching two adult education classes this fall.  
It is not a career. One teaches these because of a passion for the subject, not for monetary rewards.  I don’t go in 9-5, fill out forms, attend union meetings, or deal with test scores.  My subject was cut long ago from most school curricula.   I talked my way into the adult ed program because I thought academic classes had possibilities.  

But I've had to do my bit quietly.  After my first class last fall, my superintendent was up in arms because I was teaching grammar.  I couldn’t figure out a way to teach a language without grammar, so I went ahead and secretly taught it anyway.   
Vocabulary and grammar are the stuff of life to language teachers.  A certain amount of discipline and analysis is necessary to gain proficiency in a language, and, alas, that particular kind of discipline disappears as cuts to the liberal arts eliminate German, Latin, Russian, and other departments.  Without the study of languages our society loses so much.  The ability to see patterns in words and sentences, to analyze structure and style, to understand other cultures, to discover that some languages very sensibly have words for different kinds of snow, and to enrich one's vocabulary with English derivatives.  Grammar can even influence the way people think.  What happens as we become a society without grammar?  A society that thinks "between you and I" is correct (the correct phrase is "between you and me," because the preposition  "between" takes the direct object),  nominates a book called Who Do You Love for the National Book Award ("Whom" is correct, as it is the direct object of the verb "love"), and says "everybody loves their cars" (the singular form of the possessive adjective", his" or "her," is correct because the possessive adjective refers back to "everybody," a singular form)? 
One of my classes is excellent:  students study, translate, write, and tell me up-front that they want to complete chapters, not do parts.  They understand that a certain amount of boredom and memorization is necessary. Of course, many aren't really bored, are fascinated by grammar, enjoy the readings.  And they do their homework.  It’s not that much, honestly.  But as long as they’re taking a class, they might as well learn something, no?  

 This year the other class, alas, is there to socialize.  I am told that I must put up with it.  They are there to have fun. Don't give homework.  It doesn't matter if they do it.  (But I'm still teaching grammar and...oh no, I'd better not go that route.)
For the first time, I really understand the problem with the public schools.  Standards are kept very low.  Students have a right to be there, regardless of behavior. Instead of raising the level by assuming intelligence, one must assume idiocy. One class can go down the drain because of the incivility of a few.  It's all very well to try to teach an academic subject, but teachers can be kept from teaching by the need to make it  "fun" and to please everybody.  One size fits all--or rather, one size fits none.  

One wonders:  do teachers have the right to teach?  


_lethe_ said...

Hi, first-time commenter here.

my superintendent was up in arms because I was teaching grammar.

WHY?? What does s/he have against it? Grammar is essential for learning a language.

Ugh. Good luck with your classes, and the superintendent.

the correct phrase is "between you and me"

Yes! So glad to see this, I began to think that either I was crazy, or the rules of logic (and grammar) did not apply in English (I'm not a native speaker).

Frisbee said...

It's very sad. Grammar used to be passed down from generation to generation. The focus on teaching in this program is on entertainment. Perhaps the superintendent doesn't know grammar and it is threatening that others would study it. I have taught language (and secretly grammar) to a couple of appreciative classes, though. I'm simply floored that it's considered wrong of me to have attempted to teach it to a class. "They're not taking it for a grade," I was told. What do grades have to do with it?

Yes, the grammar breaks down because it isn't taught anymore. Many people love words and there are excellent writers out there, but pop culture also promotes the uncoolness of grammar. It's frankly a disgrace that the TV writers reinforce ungrammatical phrases like "between you and I." You can't tell me that many of them don't know it's incorrect...they're networking into those jobs from Harvard.

interpolations said...

I've noticed the same thing re: grammar, and have chalked up to the belief that language users can internalize rules without making them explicit. While this is certainly true in a large number of cases, it's undoubtedly a benefit to reduce a shady instance of worse/worst or who/whom or bad/badly, etc. to a rule that helps even a proficient student get things right. Cheers, Kevin

Tony S. said...

One of my greatest education experiences was a two semester adult night course in art history. The instructor had his own unique viewpoints which were far off the beaten path, he truly loved the pictures he used in his presentations. Those two semesters were probably my most unforgettable classroom experience.