Assumptions and Expectations: I juggle, but I’m concerned

by Mr. Sheehy

Two maxims of education and teaching can be tricky to balance properly: Assume nothing, and expect great things.

Assume nothing is what my middle school shop teacher used to yell to us, and, yes, he would help us fill in what it made of you and me. He could do many things I wouldn’t do, or couldn’t do, as a teacher. For example, he could wander over to a table of young teens and completely pacify us by waving his finger in our direction. At least, it would completely pacify me. I don’t know for sure how my classmates reacted, because I was fully focused, transfixed by this waggling finger that extended about a half-inch farther than it should have. I wondered about that finger for months and then one day while he was helping me with a drafting assignment I realized why it was so long: it was his middle finger. He had no index finger, which meant all his talk about safety on the machinery was a bit personal for him. It also meant, in a round-about way, that he was the kind of guy who wouldn’t hesitate to tell a 14-year old kid what happens when he assumes.

Aside from my memories of that waggling middle finger (seriously–wave your middle finger around like it’s your index finger and consider how odd it looks. I don’t think I’m the only one of my classmates who vividly remembers this), I’m finding it fitting that a teacher first drilled this concept of no assumptions into my head. In my own work in the classroom, I have never been able to assume anything in any unit I’ve ever taught.

The classic assumption, of course, is that students have already learned this, whatever “this” might be at a given time. As any teacher knows, a student’s having learned something once (or twice, or three times) means nothing. It might actually be why teaching grammar is similar to pounding your feet daily with an ice chopper–demanding that students recall what the little context-specific grammatical terms are, the terms that have never popped into their minds since the last time a geeky English teacher blathered on about it. Of course, now that it’s 2008 and the number of geeky English teachers who repeat these terms is diminishing, the cause is even more hopeless, the ice chopper that much sharper.

Anyway, I caught myself assuming last week and it fit that classic example, proving I’ll never learn. My sophomores delivered an informative speech and I’d required them to use an outline. I demonstrated how to deliver the speech, showed them my outline, and attached to the assignment’s description a sample of a good outline. Something about the process, however, struck me as too abbreviated, and I mentioned that hunch to the co-teacher I have for this particular section. A couple days later, as the speeches trickled by, I realized where I’d gone wrong: I assumed my students knew what outlines were and that I simply needed to remind them to use one. Instead of teaching it, I referred to it, and the products looked like I’d dismissed it.

I might as well have dismissed it, and on Thursday, in the middle of a lesson on note-taking and outlining, I discovered that if I had not revisited the topic, I would have stepped into a long line of colleagues who had done the same. I discovered this rather innocently, actually. Students had been sitting and listening for a long stretch and during a transition to a new activity I asked them to tell each other a story about the teacher who first taught them how to outline. In the ensuing small talk, one gal declared to me that I was the one–she’d just learned about outlining that day with me, for the first time. Like my shop teacher said, assume nothing.

This brings to mind the other classic maxim: expect great things. If a teacher does not disentangle these two aphorisms, it can lead to a frustrating existence. My initial reaction upon realizing that many of my 10th grade students were unable to read a piece of informative text and produce an outline from it was typical for people in my position: “What did they do in middle school?” I admit it, that’s what my reaction was, and my second reaction was similar: I recalled doing a research outline (from an Encyclopedia) for my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Sutton. It was a classic moment of “What’s this world coming to nowadays?”

I may be a bit justified in my wonderings, but then so are the folks who wonder what I am doing with these students (These would be the ones who ask me if I teach “grammar or literature?” and then do not like my answer). The big point, the only point that matters, is that however just those accusatory thoughts, they don’t change my situation, and they don’t change the situation of my students. Right now, my students do not know how to outline (some of them did do it the first time, please realize). I need them to know how. That leaves only one option, really: teach them.

Once I teach them, if I teach them well, that is when I begin with the high expectations. Now I can drive them ahead with a bull whip, screaming “Outline! Outline! He-yah!”

There’s more to all this, however, than a simple separation of assumptions and expectations. One has to admit a crucial conversation is taking place in our culture, and I for one think it’s worthwhile to engage it.

The conversation circles around the state of our students’ knowledge and skills. I have been reading a lot about it lately, and I haven’t been seeking it out–it’s everywhere. A typical example is Mark Bauerlein’s book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). I have read only a review/synopsis of Bauerlein’s book (would I had time for reading the actual books, but alas), but I felt the tone of alarm. Among the concerning trends Bauerlein cites: in the 18-24 year old age bracket, the rate of literary readers has declined by 17 percentage points (Thomas 11). No wonder, I think when I hear this, no wonder students think literature is irrelevant. They’ve quit reading literature, and so have their friends, so it is in fact becoming irrelevant. Eventually, they’ll be right and I’ll be wrong for calling it relevant.

For the most part, I am willing to say that different is usually alarming and does not always turn out to be bad. Perhaps the trend of changing cultural knowledge reflects a casting off of the traditional educational model, the one Ken Robinson so aptly criticizes. One of my writing heroes, E.B. White, seemed to lament the consequences of every modern convenience I enjoy, and looking back at his lamentations, I think it’s fair to claim he sometimes overreacted and often romanticized the past. But I also admit that, as a father, when I consider the country my children will inherit, I am concerned, and I share the alarmed tone of writers like Bauerlein (and White before him), and I doubt these trends are what Robinson has in mind when he aims his thinking at the school system we’ve created.

Like I said, I am willing to assume nothing, but I must confess I am concerned. I am concerned that many of my students cannot outline. I am concerned that many of my upperclassmen’s sentences are not complete and that there is no language or background knowledge to which I can appeal to explain why they are not complete. I am concerned that my knowledge of grammar appears to have been a rare blessing, derived from a renegade 7th grade English teacher, a traditionalist who used ratty old books with instructions for diagramming sentences (a teacher whose class, I should note, I hated and about which I complained incessantly). I am concerned not just that our graduating students have not read so many of the anchors of our cultural and literary history, but that they aren’t able to read them.

I am concerned because while I can assume nothing, I do not have time for everything.

I think my students are brilliant. They hold amazing talents and insight and I seek to provide them opportunities to impress each other and me. I also think it likely that my own classmates were not too different from the batch of students I have in my classes today, and that the biggest difference is my perspective. As a student, I did not have the omniscient-like view of their work and knowledge that I now possess as a teacher (Who knew what kind of garbage Johnny Fellow-Student was handing in? Only the teacher).

But there is a but, and it is this: If Bauerlein and I are both right, it means my students are brilliant, but they do not know much. According to that theory, they would be smart, but they would be uninformed. They would be gifted, but also unskilled. Those could be dangerous combinations, and tonight, unfortunately, they sound fairly accurate.

I suppose it means I have work to do, and that I need to begin at the beginning. I feel like there’s a giant finger wagging in my face right now.

Thanks for reading.

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*Thomas, Sally. “iPhones Have Consequences.” First Things (November 2008): 11-13.

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