He announces a quiz over the Washington Irving story
his students were supposed to have read in class on the previous day.
The quiz is designed to efficiently assess what, if anything,
they understood from their reading, dumb kinds of literal
comprehension prompts, the type of which he rarely, if ever, gives:
Explain why Rip Van Winkle went into the mountains
and provide three specific details of what happened to him there.
In one class of 28, 4 students can do it.
In another class of 29, no students can do it.
In one more class of 24, 4 students can do it.
Because it wasn’t about humiliating specific kids,
the teacher corrects the quiz publicly without names,
simply by saying
NO and placing the incorrect answers in a pile
and less frequently (hardly ever) saying
YES and putting those answers in a pile,
noting that even the answers going down in the
YES pile are about half the time incomplete
and only partially correct. Yes, Rip Van Winkle
did wake up with a beard, but he did NOT grow
the beard in a single night. Yes, he did get
drunk on some ghostly liquor, but he was NOT
attacked by a band of rabid squirrels.
Even though they understand that almost
all of them have failed the quiz, they manage
to share some pretty good laughs about the squirrels.
And then the teacher tries to be as
serious as he can possibly be,
because the third item on the quiz is the most
important one: Did you find this reading difficult,
and if so, what did you DO in the face of that difficulty?
Some frightening responses: I skimmed through. I plowed forward,
even though I was conscious of understanding not a single thing.
I simply gave up. I stopped reading altogether
and felt successful at not taking unfair advantage of my brain
and therefore avoiding any and all possible discomfort.
Better responses, and explanations of the 8 successful quizzes out of 81:
I reread over and over the difficult passages.
I looked up words or used the notations in the textbook.
I read out loud. I found an audio recording on youtube and read along, or not.
One of the success stories found a 6 minute youtube lesson
on “Rip Van Winkle” and was amazed how quickly one could “understand”
a 7,000 word work of fiction. And that provided the teacher a beautiful
opportunity to talk about the qualitative difference between
a six minute cartoon lecture and actually doing the work on one’s own.
But this kid, an outlier rock star who struggles with reading
but had a DESIRE to get it right, she does the youtube thing
and then GOES BACK TO THE TEXT! The American English
teacher loves this kid and owes the inspiration for this first aid kit
lesson plan almost entirely to her.
It’s announced that these quizzes will not be recorded
and a sigh of relief moves around the room like a wave.
And finally the American English Teacher says to his charges,
you can do better. You must do better.
You cannot be okay with mediocrity and you cannot
pack it in when the going gets tough.
So much depends upon it, far, far, far beyond
understanding a Washington Irving tale.
This is your life we’re talking about, people.
Reading actively, consciously, with intention
and attention will spill over into every other
facet of your existence. Word.
Next up: “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant.