Monday, June 29, 2009

Reform Reform

Like all other community colleges in Oregon, the one at which I teach is reorganizing its writing program. The State decided to roll three three-unit courses into two four-unit classes. Which is fine. Whatever. I'm happy to have a job in a place where the unemployment rate is 14 percent.


We have been directed to teach MLA and ALA formatting. In eleven weeks.

I'm worried that this is where at least two of 22 class meetings (10%) of my instructional time is going to go. Instead of learning how to string together a cohesive sentence, a solid paragraph, a fluid paper, our students will be learning to underline that this way, but not that way, and to use a comma this time, but not next.

MLA is dying.

I love MLA. But all those psychology journals are winning in the style department. So if MLA is on its way out, I'll be the first one to wave good-bye.

Only I can't. I have to keep it on the respirator as it draws its last breath. While no one cares.

This is educational reform at its purest: do the most you can with what little you have, and do it quickly and well.

I should know.

In sixteen years of teaching, I've already survived three reforms: the first, in Sacramento, where credentialing was changing, ESL was at the forefront, and portfolios were assessment tools; the next, in Medford, where reading and math pushed out science, and history, and where Harry Wong was king; and years later, again in Medford, where double-language arts blocks replaced developing students' electives, and textbook companies were at war over the next contract.

It's all been very different from my own education: a Catholic elementary school at which we took timed multiplication tests and had spelling bees.

This year, my kids finished with outstanding report cards. Coming out of fifth, fourth, and first grade, they can now sculpt a clay cow, identify the red-winged blackbird, and sing "Baby You Can Drive My Car."

They can't add 120 and 120, however, especially without a page-long process involving estimation and subtraction.

Multiplication is tragic, too. When Daney uses flashcards (that are actually different shapes and grid squares), she can't spit out what is 9 times 9. Instead, she rounds up, then subtracts. It takes about five minutes.

So. I'm taking it upon myself to teach these kids the basics this summer. Daney is writing out her times tables, just as I did almost three decades ago.

Dominic is doing old-school long division, the one without a huge sidebar of estimation and rounding and whatever else.

And Reesie is using phonics.

They're picking up everything! It seems easy for them, these common sense basics that have become as obsolete as MLA.

Which all makes me wonder: Why are we making things so tough these days?

Maybe we need to reform reform. Stick to the fundamentals. Give kids skills they'll need in life, for jobs, at college. There's just something to be said for quick mental math.

And I'm waiting for the pendulum to swing back around. Any minute now.


Anonymous said...

After 40 years of teaching, I feel your pain. Actually I was lucky to have administrators who left me alone, and I did it "my way", and pretended to go along with all the changes of the pendulum along the way. A good teacher knows his/her students' learning styles, and teaches accordingly. Some of the "new" methods over the years were so time consuming and rediculous that students were lost in the process. (Your Math examples, for instance) I am glad you are giving your own kids the basics! Happy summer.
Carol (christy's mom)

Anonymous said...

I see I've forgotten how to spell in these retirement years :-)

Jennie Englund said...

You're totally right, Carol! Remember when there was even a phrase for teaching students what they wanted to learn: "teachable moment."

With a narrower scope of creativity, this teachable moment is disappearing.

Since Sputnik, America has been testing and trying new different approaches to education...and new ones are introduced even before we can see if the other ones are working.

I wonder, though, what it would be like now if we had just suffered through the fact that we were losing the space race, and just stuck with the old way.

Bottom line: it's lonely, being a purist.