A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Friday, July 29, 2005

It was a dark and stormy night in English class....

Whoopee! The annual Bulwer-Lytton Writing Contest has just cranked out another -- do we call it a winner?

Here's the 411: The Bulwer-Lytton contest is sponsored by the English Department at San Jose State University and is named after the 19th century writer who penned an immortally abysmal opening line to his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Those of you who read the comic strip Peanuts as kids are familiar with Snoopy consistently getting writer's block after typing the first seven words of the infamous sentence:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

(Yikes! After nearly twenty years of teaching, you think I would be inoculated, but I still giggle in a kind of hysterical way when I read it. So many flashbacks of papers I've had to grade, it's dizzying.)

This year's winner, Dan McKay, who sought to plumb the depths of wordsmithing in an equally appalling fashion, gives us this gem:

"As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual."

Wow. If you've ever owned a Triumph Spitfire, and I have, you know exactly what he means, as owning a Triumph requires that you spend more hours (by a multiple of at least 3) under the hood than behind the wheel. But that's not my main point.

In my English classes, I used to have my middle-schoolers study the putrid prose of Mr Bulwer-Lytton, and then attempt to do their own imitation. There are also contests to mimic the styles of Faulkner and Hemingway, and sometimes we would do some of those, too. The hope was that they could recognize good and bad writing when they saw it, not to mention the added benefit of becoming familiar with a little literature in a reading curriculum that mandated boring primer material-- the most exciting thing they got to read every year was "To Build a Fire" and "A Sound of Thunder." I rebelled by trying to sneak in a little variety when the classroom door was firmly closed, such as "The Lottery" or "The Cremation of Sam McGee" (read them aloud for best effect so that the faster readers won't blow it for the slower ones), or "By the Waters of Babylon." (You know, in light of 9/11, you could really do something with that last one.) One class actually read and passed the tests for the entire reader 8 weeks early so we could then have the freedom to read a novel at the end of the year. If I never read "Raymond's Run" again, it will be too darn soon, and it's not because it's horrible, it's because we read it over and over again year after year.

Unfortunately, you will see very little interesting, classic, or challenging literature in today's English classrooms, especially in the middle schools. And don't blame the teachers, who often have no background in reading or literature, but instead are usually generalists in adolescent education instead of specialists in a discipline. Principals like to hire these candidates because they can be plugged in anywhere-- I have friends who have taught science one year and history the next, or, worse, taught both plus a section of reading. Generalists often don't have the time or expertise to devote to teaching reading-- they have just one planning period. In that orphaned reading class, the teacher could have over thirty students with reading levels stretching from three grades below grade level to three grades above grade level. I know, because I had that situation more than once.

The crush to meet standards has left the study of literature or the teaching of anything beyond the most rudimentary expository or narrative writing skills to be regarded as luxuries. The reading selections or writing prompts the kids encounter on these high stakes tests is usually carefully homogenized pap, so as to minimize "cultural bias" or other jargonny claptrap.

If we don't give our students the chance to read great literature or at least intellectually challenging material in class, they probably will never lay eyes on it. They certainly won't get it at home, unless they accidentally run across it online while looking for one of those websites that sells research papers and book reports.

Not that this micromanagement is a new phenomenon. I still remember my boredom in high school when Macbeth appeared for the third time in my four years of high school. My school district had a district-wide curriculum in its twelve or so high schools that was strictly followed. Why couldn't we read Julius Caesar, Henry V, The Taming of the Shrew, or A Midsummer Night's Dream? Not on the currriculum. And this was an Honors class. So I sat in the back of the room and composed Ogden Nash- style doggerel in my head until it was over (It's true, there is no word that rhymes with orange.)

Good reading and good writing. That's supposedly what the standards should encourage. But when accountability is a cry that means quantifiable, easy-to-measure-but-mentally-deadening standards that attempt to fit all sizes of situations-- for it's in Washington that our scene lies--then that makes all the difference.

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