I am deeply torn about the obsession with celebrities in the U.S. because seeking to be a celebrity brings with the rewards of fame a sort of 24-hour surveillance that no human deserves, or can survive.
When I see a media report on Celebrity X finally finding the love of their life, I immediately anticipate the cheating or break-up coverage to come. And then, the next story years later about Celebrity X finally finding the love of their life.
There exists in the U.S. a fundamental misunderstanding about the causal relationship between celebrity and happiness—that celebrity causes happiness.
I think teaching and learning suffer from both an over-exaggerated media and public focus as well as the same misunderstanding.
Let me share here that over the first few years of my becoming a high school English teacher I was racked with doubt about my work as a teacher because I routinely noticed that despite my teaching student often failed to demonstrate learning.
But something else bothered me as well.
Those first years in the early and mid-1980s included a common practice of issuing to students and then teaching from Warriner’s grammar text. Although I knew isolated grammar instruction was at least problematic, if not harmful (which George Hillocks showed within a decade of this experience), I tried to somehow follow the expectations of my department (use the grammar book!) and teach well my students to write.
Here’s the concern: Students were driven dutifully through, for example, “who/whom” chapters of Warriner’s, exercises and tests, from about 5th grade through 12th grade.
I watched as my students scored poorly on the “who/whom” assessments, waded through the worksheets.
Looking back, I connect this “who/whom” foolishness with my own high school adventures with “shall/will” exercises and tests.
First, “whom” is nearly dead, soon to join dear-departed “shall.” In a weird way, student ambivalence about “who/whom” will eventually be justified—just as those of us who failed to care about “shall/will” have won out.
More importantly, however, I realized in those first few years of teaching that there is in fact a very weak causal relationship between teaching and learning.
That I teach cannot guarantee learning, and students demonstrating (or not) learning often is not proof they have or haven’t been taught.
I have been brought back to this because so much of the current phonics fundamentalism I witness on social media is grounded in two deeply flawed premises.
Phonics fundamentalists are mired in anecdote. Broach the topic of reading on social media and legions will weight in with “I know a student” or “I have a child,” which leads to the second problem.
Phonics fundamentalists are trapped in weak evidence that students can’t read and then are convinced that lack of reading ability is caused by a failure of teaching.
A middle schooler reads poorly, they argue, and it is because that middle schoolers has weak decoding skills—because nobody teaches phonics anymore!
This resonates with me because as a literacy educator focusing mainly on the teaching of writing for 35 years and counting, I hear regularly the “nobody teaches grammar anymore” refrain—posed similarly by those making rash claims based on flimsy evidence.
Both phonics and grammar fundamentalism suffer as well from a serious lack of historical perspective.
Since at least 1900, roughly a beginning point of broad formal public education (although that promise was marred for about 7 more decades by all sorts of failures in assuring racial and gender equity), there has not been a moment when the media and the public was not lamenting that “kids today can’t read or write.”
When intensive phonics had its heyday: The media and public screamed students couldn’t read.
When isolated grammar was all the rage: The media and public screamed students couldn’t write correctly.
In this fourth decade of being a teacher, I am weary of fundamentalism and missionary zeal.
I have little patient for adults who have lower standards for themselves than the children and young people they claim to be serving.
I also have a heaping helping of humility.
I am a teacher.
However, teaching is no guarantee of learning.
Students failing to demonstrate learning is no proof they haven’t been taught before they entered my classroom—or while they have been in my classroom.
Teaching and learning are a dysfunctional celebrity couple.
We must stop staring and expecting them to fulfill some idealistic vision we are imposing on the universe.
And we would all be better off checking our fundamentalism and missionary zeal.
You know, kids today, they are wonderful, and to be perfectly honest, they make me happy to be alive to witness their becoming.
They can do without the worksheet, phonics and grammar rules. Maybe patience and adults who are kind and attentive.
You see, I, too, dwell in idealism, of a different kind.
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