teach-i-cide n.: the systematic and intentional debilitation of a teacher's ability and passion for teaching via the insistent application of "standards-based" education and testing in an attempt to turn students into a profit margin.
I hate, really, to sound like a broken record, but it always happens that when I have the opportunity to attend a workshop, or training, or take education classes, I find myself in a pedagogical tailspin. I'm forced to use a specific teaching method all the time, and am monitored rather closely to ensure that I am employing said method (Teach For Success) because, in the estimation of the Director of Secondary Curriculum, that is the best way for our under-performing students to learn.
How ironic it was, then, to have the Director in the room for the training I attended, and to have the director read the very same information I was reading about how "drill and kill" and "rote memorization" are not the way to encourage critical thinking - or even any sort of real learning - in students.
Allow me to quote some of the more memorable moments from a chapter in the book Focus by Mike Schmoker, a piece of reading the trainer brought to us:
"Here is a simple fact: Wide, abundant reading is the surest route out of poverty and the limitations that impose themselves on the less literate."
Immediately, I thought of the quote from Mark Twain, which is the signature line of my personal email: "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read good books." I am in no way saying that other disciplines are not necessary, or that they are not essential to the development of a productive individual. What I am saying, and something that is a very fundamental principle, is that one must be able to read in order to be able to function in any discipline, even maths. After all, as Schmoker said, "All disciplines connect to and contribute to success in other disciplines."
Schmoker also made a point about "absurdly over-emphasized state standards" that ruin any chances for students actually developing an appreciation of literature. Instead of students recognizing literature as an exploration of humanity trying to understand each other, our past, future, and potential, fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests have turned literature into just another coded system, where it's all about "'figuring out' symbolism or figurative language or setting or mood or structure." As an English teacher, of course I want exploration; but I want exploration outside the realm of a bullet-sized bubble that allows for no interpretation.
Therein lies one of the direct causes of "teach-i-cide" - we, as teachers in all disciplines, have to drill our students with the definitions for mood, tone, symbolism, imagery, setting, main idea, and on and on, without allowing them any of the time to simply discover their own meaning in the works of literature under study. Literature is about recognizing the human experience (which I believe was some of the verbiage from a state standard here in CO some time ago). If I keep telling my students what they should be recognizing, how do they recognize it themselves? How do they learn to appreciate the perspectives of others? Therein lies the problem of teaching "fiction...as though it is an abstract game or code."
Another important component is students reading contemporary pieces - newspapers, magazines, commentary, timely pieces that remind students of the world in which they live. In the workshop, when the Director of Secondary Curriculum stepped out for a moment, one of the middle school teachers said how she was using a contemporary Science article to teach her students about nonfiction principles. During one of our Tuesday walk-throughs, though, she was told, "You shouldn't be teaching that, you need to let the Science teacher do that." So, instead of making the meaning relevant for the students by using a contemporary piece of nonfiction that related to their final assessment, the teacher was forced to forgo the assignment and revert back to drilling and killing the students for memorizing the components of nonfiction rather than recognizing them in context.
Again, I'll quote Schmoker, because it seems only appropriate and I really can't think of another way to phrase it:
"I would argue that many, if not most, of the current language arts standards are not literacy standards at all; they are pseudo-standards that divert precious time and attention from the most simple, authentic kinds of literacy activities."
What Schmoker is driving at, and what I see in my classroom and hear from other English teachers, is that our "literacy" standards do not stress the fact that students should learn to read at all - merely that they should learn terms and structures and, in theory, skills required to recognize those terms and structures.
Another memorable quote actually comes from John Taylor Gatto, who said that "highly literate societies of the past never had to undergo the inanities of modern reading instruction." Not suggesting that I am part of a past society - I graduated high school in 1997 - but I believe education has gone so far in such a short period of time that I could be. I learned to read, and then I read to learn. That doesn't happen anymore.
Memorization of terms, structures and vocabulary is not learning - as is evidenced by the fact that, although I had to memorize Shakespeare speeches during my four years of high school, I don't remember one of them; I do remember thinking critically about who the true antagonist was in Julius Caesar, and how in an essay I argued my way to an 'A' because I applied the skills my teacher taught me to completely disagree with what she said about the topic.
What does all of this have to do with the definition I created? Simply put, in all areas of teaching, over-emphasis on "drill and kill" activities to build vocabulary recognition or even skills - some of which cannot be directly taught - is removing the emphasis from students actually learning, and removing the power from teachers to actually teach. Teachers are more and more forced into the "bubble box" where we have to teach to the test - our district's standards are prioritized in terms of what the state test emphasizes. In many cases, those standards are not what our students need, and therefore we, as teachers, are not meeting their needs.
I'll leave you with this final quote, amalgamated from Gallagher and Schmoker:
As Gallagher (2009) writes, "a terrible price is paid" when the exigencies of testing supersede authentic literacy [or any true learning] activities (p.26). Teaching to the test, which so many continue to do, is both unethical and patently counterproductive.
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