Fast Food Education: The McEnglish Class
I drew this on Tuesday, when sitting in an English Department meeting. I usually find those meetings beyond the garden variety of unpleasantness, but this really “took the cake.” The day before, there was a triumphant victory over the meathook realities of scheduling, and the most adversarial Tool Site Council member I have ever encountered. During this meeting, a Professional Development, I found myself questioning why in fact I made the effort.
With three weeks to go until testing, the training was about ways to give students more “access to the curriculum” to provide them with a “framework for success” on standardized tests like the CST. I’ll be the first one to admit that schools live and die, quite literally, by the API generated from the CST scores, so it is pretty important. However, some of the suggestions being made were depressing.
One: the readings on tests are just too long, and “our kids” don’t have the testing stamina for it. You will never see this even remotely said in a westside of Los Angeles, lily white college prep environment without the PTA becoming a torch and pitchfork carrying mob. The idea that we even suggest it really speaks to the kind of expectations that are set for students in South Central, and thus, the self fulfilling prophecies. I have my students reading constantly, and in a week we can burn through a page count, with comprehension, that makes the CST look like a gentle day of leafing through glamour magazines. Why would we even want to teach a class where we would have another goal?
Soon afterward though, the idea that “reading isn’t that interesting” came up more than once. At a training in an English department meeting. You don’t need to be the witches from Macbeth to see the grim omens there. I admit, quite freely, that the selections on the CST are not high interest to students. However, we need to make reading something that is of high interest, if only as the means to access information you want, because that in itself is interesting. Forget the central idea that reading at a demanding level, in class, automatically exposes students to a better classification of ideas and creativity than I, or the average teacher, could ever generate on our own.
Let’s discount that Free Voluntary Reading has been shown by giants in linguistics like Krashen to have huge vocabulary gains, which is a massive part of the CST.
The works part was dividing a reading into the “skinnies and the fats.”
“Reading is hard and boring. You don’t want to read a whole thing if you can avoid it. Read the questions first. Then find all the skinny, or short paragraphs. Since they are short, you read the whole thing. The fat ones…just read the topic sentence and concluding sentence. That should be enough, with the questions to guide you.”
I’ve been having my students read Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Tolkien. We just compared a Star Trek episode thematically to a speech before Congress by Barbara Jordan. I think I’m giving them an easy week by letting them deconstruct “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes for plot structure. In everything, I am clear that writers who are good at it, writers who have a purpose, take time to craft their work with economy of language, that even the parts left out or implied by writers have value.
In one brief after school training, it was made clear that this goal of real literacy was not, in fact, the suggested goal. Instead, testing incentives suggest a more fast food approach to the business of English class. Quick, direct deconstruction of written information for the solution of the majority of multiple choice test items. For all the talk of “critical thinking” and lip service to the “higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy,” what is really desired is a McNugget like strategy set, a group of testing factoids that will allow a modicum of relative success.
Hence the art. I considered speech balloons and captions, but really, it is pretty clear. I certainly didn’t come up with anything that needed to be written in, given the visual. McDonald’s uniforms are even red, the same color as the teacher’s union shirts. At every level, right now, it appears that there is this concept of producing a fast, low quality product of education that serves some short term consumer need in testing. Everyone seems to want this…the Union, which seems to defend the idea of teachers providing very little in the way of real education… school administrations, which are beholden to test scores, and incentivized to do the quickest, lowest cost thing to increase them, and even students and parents, who seem to have simply lost the love of the written word, and the skill of reading and crafting it.
Our Post-Literate culture really only requests McLiteracy, and then criticizes the thinking skills of our workers and citizens. Not unlike recent lawsuits brought against McDonald’s for being unhealthy for kids….ironic in the expectation of the outcome being somehow different than the knowledge of the input would suggest.
I was basically told to settle for McLiteracy. I am not in fact, “lovin’ it.”