Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Early Thirsty: What is Happening in High School English Classes?

I'm Normal Ned from Naples and I'm a second year t-t English proffie from, really, Florida.

I did my grad school time in the north east, and taught freshman writing to pretty good students. But now in a public uni for the first time, I'm overwhelmed that my students don't have the smallest idea of sentence fragments, comma splices, fused sentences, and on and on and on.

My course description specifically says we are not a developmental class, but that's what 90% of my students need.

My students, even the better ones, spew out unorganized word salads, sometimes not even in paragraphs. I get 300 word paragraphs with either 60 sentences, all fragments, or 4 sentences, all stream of consciousness drivel.

Q: Does anyone know what happens in high school English classes anymore?

21 comments:

  1. What happens all too often is "teaching to the test"--specifically, the End-Of-Grade (EOG) exam, wherein cynical and incompetent teachers train students to repeatedly rephrase the prompt to attain a word count. This syndrome reached critical mass a couple of years ago in my own classes and hasn't fully disappeared. "Discuss three examples of..." yields three cute little plot summaries; questions that demand analysis and definition of terms are simply repeated and/or recast as statements until the student crosses the finish line of 800 words, which they triumphantly enter at the end of the exam.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Answer: It seems the Florida legislature does not know. Perhaps you're seeing the effect of their silly policy? What did they think was going to happen?

    ReplyDelete
  3. One of my students yesterday told me her high school English teachers taught her to put in commas where she'd breathe. I think she found my exasperated noises amusing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I learned the same thing back in the 70s. I tend to still do it, which is one reason why my editors get frustrated. "WHY SO MANY COMMAS!"

      Delete
    2. I feel sorry for William Shatner's teachers.

      Delete
    3. I just read that in his voice: "I, feel sorry, for, William Shatner's, teachers."

      Delete
  4. I have a high school senior. Since middle school, my spawn's teachers have had 150 students, so although they do have writing as a topic, there has just never been much of an emphasis on lower-level construction issues. A LOT of work is peer edited and that is the only feedback on mechanical issues. And a LOT of that feedback is just wrong. I have had good luck with my college-level students with peer feedback, but it needs to be extremely structured (Here are 5 common comma errors. Look for these in Jimmy's writing, highlight them, and write a note explaining why they are errors). But Ms. English, my spawn's teacher of the year, usually is more worried about teaching literary analysis than basics. I think is because a lot of the testing in writing is actually testing reading. Writing is harder to test because it is more open ended and because there is only so much you can look for with the 3 minutes standardized test graders give an essay.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Our high school student does no grammar, no mechanics. As Amelia says above, it's lit analysis, which is poorly taught and done. For instance, the wilder or more creative the idea the more wonderful it's seen. Our kid has gamed the system by reading everything as a parable for a devolving America, and teachers lap it up! (The kid knows better, and I work pretty hard on things I know matter.)

    And my freshmen are incapable of writing multi paragraph responses. It's "word salad" in the language of the original post.

    It has me distraught, because no real work can get done in my classes until students can communicate something clearly.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'll tell you what's happening: our K-12 colleagues are under siege and get no support from their administrations. The good, veteran teachers have to contend with more and more bureaucratic bullshit as well as attempt to teach ever-changing curricula, which -- for our colleagues in high school -- may or may not give them the opportunity to really teach writing, either on an organizational level or in terms of content. I know a good many veteran teachers who are excellent who have either retired early or are counting the days. They feel completely overwhelmed and powerless to make education as effective as it once was. And if you think our misery is great, you should experience theirs for a little while.

    The newly minted teachers are the products of our post-NCLB world, which means they've been taught jack squat about teaching effectively. The better, newer teachers quickly flame out and leave the profession. There are, sadly, many teachers -- old and new alike -- who love the busywork that is now the backbone of K-12. You know the type. You're dealing with them more and more in higher ed.

    Our once-great public school system, the envy of the world, has become a policy cesspool that benefits very few, and every teacher worth his or her salt is overworked and hampered by the mechanisms of the K-12 world.

    While I feel sorry for our young people coming out of high school, I feel sorrier for their teachers. The entire K-12 world is designed to work against everything we know to be effective in education.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. plus they get 35-40 different students ever hour to try and teach. basically many are trying to teach a 6/6 schedule.

      Delete
  7. Previous generations had the parts of speech drilled into us in grammar school. We had no choice in the matter. We were taught about forming complete sentences, identifying subjects and predicates, learning correct punctuation and grammar, direct and indirect objects, blah blah, until we grasped the mechanics of writing. Plus we had spelling and vocabulary tests every week, forcing us to learn to spell and widen our vocabularies.

    Many have argued that these techniques do not work and only cause panic when students sit down to write, because they aren't sure their sentence construction is correct. But the mechanics of English grammar aren't THAT difficult - it's not like learning Latin or Old High German. By fifth grade, the vast majority of us could construct correct sentences. At that point they began to teach us the finer aspects of composition and style.

    There is less tolerance for drilling and rote memorization in K-12 education today. And yet, some things can't be learned any other way, like the multiplication tables. I would argue that writing's the same. Without a foundation of correct sentence construction, it's impossible to write well, and a certain amount of rote memorization and practice drilling is necessary to learn it.

    The sad thing is because the younger generations weren't forced to learn to write correctly, only those who happen to enjoy reading and writing are proficient. And this means that most of them who can't write, can't speak well, either. The two skills are connected. If you can't form a correct sentence when writing, then you will have even more trouble doing so when speaking. If you do not have a decent vocabulary when writing, your vocabulary when speaking isn't going to be any better.

    It's sad, because there's no reason to believe younger people are inherently any stupider than previous generations, but because they have difficult writing correctly and therefore their speaking skills are also very poor, they come across as stupid.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Terrific point of view. That last part really resonates with my experiences.

      Fab

      Delete
  8. They write poorly because none of them read for pleasure anymore. While formal coursework in the mechanics of writing is still needed, a lot is grasped simply by reading (good) literature. My kids are excellent writers because they are voracious readers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, that's absolutely true. I can remember teachers who helped me to understand the mechanics (and part of that was studying other languages that required attention to mechanics), but a lot of my ability to write (if I have any) comes from appreciating the written word of many authors, because I read.

      Delete
    2. Not only do they not read for pleasure any more, but they balk at the work required to read actively. I quiz my students mercilessly on their reading -- very low-stakes in terms of their overall grades, but such an eye-opener for them. I warn them that I'm going to ask them questions about place names, concepts, and other things they're likely in need of looking up. Very few actually do the work. They laugh when they fail their five-point quizzes. And they still don't do the reading well subsequent times. They don't see the value in it.

      Delete
  9. It's even worse in the sciences, because the students push back against any assignment deductions that arise from poor grammar, punctuation, format etc. (even though it is in the rubric that they all have), as far as they are concerned it is "ridiculous" to be evaluated on writing when they are going to be doctors etc. I challenge them to describe to me any science job they expect to go into that doesn't require writing a report of some sort, be it to a client, patient, co-workers or colleagues, supervisor, employer, etc. , and whether they expect no negative repercussions due to submitting poorly written reports as a part of their job duties. Maybe such a job exists, somewhere, but none of the students have managed to come up with a good answer.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dammit, Jim, I'm going to be a doctor, not a novelist!

      Delete
  10. I also teach in Florida. I teach developmental writing. My students were complaining today in class that they never learned ANYTHING we were covering. They may be telling the truth. Most of the students who enter my college need remedial classes, but as long as they have a high school diploma, they cannot be required to take them.

    On a related note, our failure rates in ENC 1101 have gone up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I teach developmental writing as well, but I do know some of the local high school teachers who absolutely have taught what my students did not grasp in their courses. Some of them, that is. Some of them have come up through special education. Some of them have been out of school so long they've forgotten what they learned in high school. Some of them didn't pay attention at all in high school -- regardless of how long ago or recently that was.

      And then there are the damaged, by drugs, emotional trauma, or physical injury. Those students break my heart.

      At LD3C, we have mandatory placement for writing, reading, and math, and it has made a huge difference for many of our students. Getting them to take the courses they need before they take college classes -- as you know -- is essential for their success.

      I feel your pain. When I started here eight years ago, there was no mandatory placement for writing. It was a nightmare. Not only did many students flame out in college-level comp once they got there, but when they chose to skip the remediation they needed, many of them exhibited horrible behavioral issues in comp classes because of their anger and frustration at not being able to do the work.

      Delete
  11. They learn how to put on condoms. I learned this by reading the instructions on the back of the box, but one can't do this if one can't---or won't---read.

    ReplyDelete