Saturday, December 02, 2006

One Common Language I'm Afraid We'll Never Get

The Black Hole: Generalizing About Problems in Education

I have a bone to pick with Dr. Richard Gilder, friend and colleague, but right only in part in his generalizations about English teachers. He laments:

. . . students today, at least in the United States, have no idea how their own language works. English and its grammar are a mystery to them. How did this happen? And what can and should we do about it? The notion that grammar is boring, and is therefore an impediment to the learning of English, made its insidious way into the minds of those who teach English and subjects of a similar ilk.

Having been both an English teacher and a teacher of "subjects of a similar ilk" (writing and many other topics apart from language within the humanities), I protest quite with great ardor.

There certainly is a feeling among certain groups of teachers that correcting or teaching language structure impedes or prevents the kind of engagement that comes with expressing ideas without reference to grammar. Sometimes, grammar needs to be blended in and enforced after confidence is built from the first forays into writing.

Why Don't Americans Teach Their Children How to Speak?

Norwegians learn Norwegian -- the Greeks are taught their Greek.

Here are a couple of reasons derived from primary research:

Many teachers of all age-groups believe English grammar and logic should have been taught by someone else. This is anecdotal evidence rather than scientific -- my pool of data is restricted to 50 subjects.

These teachers of classes from first grade through the last year of graduate school all agree that it's not his or her job. The system is not designed for instructors of different age levels to collaborate. I didn't interview kindergarten teachers -- but I'm guessing they would say that learning good English comes from the home.

And now a Latin teacher is passing the buck as well.

The Black Hole: Where Does Good English Come From?

Grammar and and writing are hard to teach even for the Shakespeares among us. Both subjects are labor intensive on the part of the teacher and the student. They both require repeated and consistent feedback over a long period of time.

This is a lot of work for teachers worried about state requirements (for public schools) or getting articulate students into good colleges by cultivating their ideas. What's more, it's hard to engage students in either as a discipline. Even when courses give time to the subjects, students often don't absorb them.

Here's a bigger problem: grammar and writing are particularly hard to teach if no one ever taught them to you. How can you emphasize the importance of a discipline you don't feel comfortable with yourself?

Grab the Opportunity Where it Lies -- And Forget the Blame Game

I taught at and Ivy League university for years, and my students often had very weak skills in grammar and writing. At first, like Richard, I cursed the darkness (after all, I wanted to teach new material -- material that interested me enough to grind through graduate school to get a PhD).

Then I got practical. Over the course of five years, I came up with a system to integrate the material I loved with strong writing practices. Richard's done the same with his book on Latin for English speakers.

What Next?

It would be helpful if he took the energy he uses cursing the darkness (and teachers of other subjects) and uses instead to transform the black hole (where English has been lost) into a new galaxy. Why not organize a forum where teachers of all subjects can talk to each other about common challenges and strategies to master them.

Invite some businesses along as well. Employees are just older students. Perhaps there's a way to get funding from a business that wants to improve its collective communications skills.

After all, markets are conversations. What could be more profitable than starting one?

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