By Mary Grabar
The teenage girl standing with her father in line behind me at Kroger was clearly annoyed with her teacher. "I just gave her some b.s.," she said.
They were discussing the school day, and a writing assignment. Her father asked her what the topic had been and between loading my items onto the conveyor belt I gathered that the assignment had involved a journal entry regarding feelings about family and living arrangements.
"Well," her father replied, "you could have answered that with fewer than twenty words: 'My parents went through a ten-year custody battle and now I live with my father.'"
"Yeah," the daughter replied, "she has no business knowing about that stuff."
I cheered her on inside, for her resistance to an intrusive English teacher.
When I started teaching college English as a graduate teaching assistant in the 1990s, I dutifully assigned the journals that were recommended in teaching workshops and instructors manuals. Such prewriting was supposed to free up the student's creativity.
But the journaling ended up producing exactly "b.s." Still, my colleagues lug around heavy piles of spiral notebooks with emotive scribblings of college freshmen. They also assign topics from the required textbooks.
I did too. In response to one topic that asked students to describe a learning experience, I received essays about first jobs, joy rides in parents' cars, and joyful births of out-of-wedlock children.
But I embargoed those writing assignments because I also received the heartbreaking story of a teenage girl forced by relatives to have an abortion. I spent the rest of the semester with this awful knowledge about the nice, quiet young woman in the nurse's uniform in the back of the classroom.
Obviously, it is difficult to give a fair grade to such an essay or to write constructive comments on it. It is not information I want to have. As a freshman, I would have known better than to write about such intimate events for a college professor.
But after I had attended some workshops at the National Council for the Social Studies annual conference in November, I understood why some of my students reveal their most intimate experiences in essays: They have been told to do so by their teachers since elementary school.
For example, in one of the workshops, "Exploring the Human Rights of Illegal Immigrant Students and Communities," Los Angeles middle school teacher Martha Infante described how she uses a book that has become mandatory reading for many high school and college students, Enrique's Journey. Infante does not seem to assign papers, but has middle-school students do activities like drawing and acting out feelings.
In one of her exercises, "Sensory Figures," students are instructed to quickly draw a character from the book and then fill in the blanks after following prompts for the character: "I think," "I see," "I hear," "I smell," "I touch," "I taste," "I feel," "I want," "My feet," "I wonder." For the prompt about feet, it soon became apparent that the expected answer would concern their soreness.
Two sample figures drawn by students were included in the packet Infante handed out to us. Both were of Enrique, the main character, a sixteen-year-old boy who travels from Honduras to rejoin his mother--in patched and tattered clothing. One had a large tear drawn on his cheek. Around him were the completed prompts: "I taste the blood coming out of my mouth," "I touch mud, water, grass, dirt," and "My feets looks [sic] [illegible]." (Grammar and penmanship do not seem to be of primary concern.) The other drawing too seems to display a lesson well learned as evidenced by the writing accompanying it: "I smell the blood of beaten immigrants" and "My feet hurt from all the walking."
Over two dozen literature prompts were included in Ms. Infante's assignment, among them,
"Enrique begins drug and alcohol abuse as he enters his teenage years. Tell of how these vices have affected anyone you know."
"Lourdes' [Enrique's mother] boyfriend in the US abuses her physically. What are your thoughts on domestic violence?"
"Lourdes has a child in the US with her boyfriend. Write a diary entry about this event from the point of view of Enrique."
"The people of Chiapas are depicted as 'takers' who take away the dignity and material possessions of the migrants. The people of Veracruz are depicted as givers, who share food and drinks with migrants in spite of their own dismal poverty. Are you more Chiapas or Veracruz?"
The final question was "Enrique has left his girlfriend in Honduras pregnant, with his child. He now wants Maria Isabel to join him in the US and leave their child behind. What do you think he should do?"
Although Enrique's Journey is classified by the School Library Journal as "Adult/High School" level, children as young as ten were badgered with these adult questions. Class time that should have been devoted to history and civics was being used to manipulate children with age-inappropriate material. It would take a stout-hearted and unusually well-informed ten-year-old to resist these emotional pressures and counter them with arguments against illegal immigration.
But I learned that Infante's methods are standard fare. In another demonstration, on the question, "How did change and conflict shape the American West?" (part of the all-day series called "Doing Social Studies") students from Eagle's Landing High School in McDonough, Georgia, gathered in groups of four and five to collaborate after the song "Home on the Range" was played for them. Question prompts from the teacher of this class of eleventh-grade students included
"What kind of feelings does the song bring up?"
"Do you think the experience was good or bad?"
"Did it go well for everyone?"
Using hand-outs with prompts of pictures of faces and instructions to use "I statements," students were told to take on the identities of such historical figures as railroad workers, railroad owners, settlers, African-Americans, and miners.
Other workshops at the conference had elementary school children tackling social problems they had neither the knowledge nor the maturity to deal with. The questions and comments from the teachers in the audience, though, revealed an approving familiarity with such pedagogy. These teachers earned continuing education or graduate school credit for participating in the workshops.
Indeed, I learned when I wrote my report on Bill Ayers, former Weatherman-turned-Distinguished-Professor-of-Education that his multiple books on education are found frequently on the syllabi in education schools, including the University of Texas, Georgia Southern University, and University of California Santa Cruz. In To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher, a bestseller among education textbooks, Ayers offers a pedagogy that revolves around touchy-feely "exploration," "social justice," and "love." Moravian College Professor Joseph Shosh quotes Bill Ayers favorably (along with Paulo Freire) and tells students in all capital letters not to miss Ayers' lecture for extra credit. One of Shosh's objectives is "To teach and learn in an environment where knowing is negotiated, distributed, situated, constructed, developmental, and affective."
Indeed, most colleges of education emphasize such "affective" and "cooperative learning"---even if they don't put Ayers or Freire on the syllabus. At Vanderbilt University, for example, future teachers are told that they should "understand learning as a process of participation that shapes and is shaped by persons, contents, and contexts. They seek to identify and learn about students' linguistic, social, behavioral, cognitive and cultural histories and repertoires. . . . Specifically, candidates plan for learners' unique strengths, resources, goals, and motivations, connecting to the experiences of students and their families" (hence the assignment of the student in line behind me). Teacher candidates should also "demonstrate the ability to enter into the learner's thinking/reasoning as reflected in learner's talk and work, and to use these insights to inform planning and instruction." Education students enrolled in ENED 2380/3380 Teaching Writing and Multimedia Composition last fall were assigned exercises to meet these objectives. Two of their four textbooks were from an extensive list published by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The January issue of the NCTE journal for high school English teachers, English Education, features a typical article in which the authors "push the response to literature limits by first exploring 'expressive response'". . . ." ("Deconstructing 'Aesthetic Response' in Small-Group Discussions about Literature"). But why "enter into the learner's thinking/reasoning as reflected in learner's talk and work"? Shouldn't the student emulate the adult and use logic? And doesn't this seemingly well-intentioned desire to understand adolescent psychology while facilitating "expressive response" and other similar exercises blur the boundaries in a rather disturbing manner?
Pink Floyd's lyrics, "Leave the kids alone," come to mind.
The lyrics came to mind when I encountered the girl and her father at the grocery checkout line. She knows when her boundaries have been violated. But what about other kids? What about those who want to please the teacher, who want the good grade, who may be needy precisely because of problems at home?
I think about that young woman in the back of my classroom, her high school classroom atmosphere so suffused with moral relativism, her poor family situation making her more vulnerable to her teachers.
I think about the other kind of students---burned out from having to feel the pain of all the oppressed, pressured into feeling the right feelings, overwhelmed by the adult problems they are asked to address in little peer groups, and ending up cynical. While much of the curriculum focuses on the oppression of certain groups of people, it seems that it is students who are oppressed by these constant demands to explain themselves---their opinions and feelings. No wonder they are not motivated to engage in an intellectual discussion on a limited topic when they should be ready for it--as young adults. Their attitude already is "It's all b.s."
For the full report on the NCSS conference, click here.
Mary Grabar is an English instructor in Atlanta