Tag Archives: not reading

#81: The American English Teacher Addresses His Students About the Failed Lesson on Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”

037-Rip-Van-Winkle-port

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.

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Filed under Education, Poetry, Teaching, Writing and Reading

The Technology Is Killing Me

I’ll begin by patting myself on the back, railing against the machine–and I’ll conclude with a number of confessions and some serious hand-wringing.  I might even gnash my teeth together regarding the various ways in which technology is killing me.

I congratulate myself for abstaining from cell phone use for a very long time.  I purchased my first cell phone ever in the summer of 2011–and I bought a shitty 3G iPhone for fifty bucks.  Most of the calls I get I miss because the phone is rarely on my person.  It’s no big deal.  People leave messages, just like they used to do on those crazy answering machines with the little micro cassettes, and when I get their messages, I call them back.  Because it’s a shitty 3G, it does only what I really need it to do: it functions as a telephone and as a message sending device.  There are no games or fancy apps.  Every once in a while I’ll check the weather or use the calculator, but rarely.  I feel pretty good, smug actually, about my propensity for resisting the smart phone siren call–and the siren call of half a dozen other technological advances that tend to use humans more than they are used by them.

This is what I’ve seen.  People walking together in public places, each with a phone in use, carrying on conversations with people who are not the people they are walking with in public places.  I have seen students in my classroom who cannot, literally, be without their phones in their hands, in their faces, in their ears, or on the desk in front of them.   They are attached to these devices as if they were appendages to their actual bodies.  If you removed the phone from the possession of many of these children you might expect to see them break out in cold sweats, convulse, maybe even vomit or bleed, or at least get out-of-control angry.  One student told a colleague of mine that if he took her phone her mother would kill him.  I’ve seen couples in clubs or in restaurants who sit together snuggly while they each surf the web on their phones.  I’ve seen students of mine on the road, driving and texting. Did you hear the story of the young couple in a fatal  auto accident who turned out to be texting each other in the car?  Moving from phones for a minute, I’ve seen kid after kid at my high school at the boy’s restroom urinals with their iPods blasting dub-step, metal, hip-hop, power pop, yes, blasting.  These kids can’t even take a piss without the stimulus of technology.  I hope to some day see a kid who’s pissing accidentally drop his phone or his pod into the toilet.  This would bring joy to my heart. I have countless times seen groups of kids in a standing huddle all simultaneously wearing ear-buds and trying to talk to each other over the noise drowning out the noise in their heads.

I worry that smart phones are making us dumb. We can’t find a place on a  map.  We can’t look up words in dictionaries.  We can’t wait.  We must have instant gratification.  We are constantly distracted.  We can’t be in a room by ourselves.  We can’t do ANYTHING without telling someone about it in a text or a post, and yet, we can’t look each other in the eye.  We can’t listen. We cannot endure silence.  We can’t do simple arithmetic. We don’t need to remember anything. Wikipedia will immediately answer all of our questions and we will immediately forget those answers. Twitter has reduced social discourse to a sound that birds make.  Henry David Thoreau was suspicious of the post office and the railroad.  Henry David Thoreau would hate us.

Okay, all you smart-phone-Mp3-player-kindle-reader-game-player-you-tube-facebook addicts: don’t you feel terrible?  Well, I have some issues of my own.  To wit:

Confession #1:  I got the dumb phone, but I bought my lovely wife a smart one.  She can’t stop playing with it.  I wish sometimes that her phone was as dumb as mine.

Confession #2:  I joined Facebook.

Confession #3: I bought an iPad.

Confession #4:  I got a Wii for the boy.

Confession #5: I fantasize about getting a new computer so I don’t have to carry the laptop up and down the stairs from the studio to the study.

So while I criticize from my lofty blog all these problems I see in our culture with the abuse of technology, I can’t leave Facebook alone for a day.  I go to the Huffington post several times in an hour.  It’s difficult to get my lovely wife and my sweet boy to stop playing with their devices.  Most of the daily cravings I have for new ways to improve my life come from images or toys or trinkets I’ve seen advertised in some way on the internet.  The web is an ever-present almost omniscient beast of distraction:  It keeps me from reading books, it keeps me from writing more often, it keeps me in a state of anxiety about what I must be missing–and while I could brag a blue streak about how great I am for not watching ANY commercial television for nearly a decade now, I know it’s true: the computer has replaced the television.  It’s no different.  It’s influences are deeper and more pernicious.  I would love to be able to unplug, but I can’t unplug.  I’ve got to see if I have new friends, find out what stupid things Republicans are doing, check out the bicycle I’ve been drooling over, look at tiny houses, see if anyone new has read or commented on my blog, stream some late-night TV, or, yes, I still do this, check to see if I have any email.  So old school.  The technology is killing me.

I’m not so far gone as some people I know or some people I see every day.  After all, my phone is dumb and I’d like to keep it that way.  But I worry  about my son.  I fret on a daily basis whether or not the iPad or the Wii were not the worst purchasing decisions I’ve ever made in terms of the health of my family.  But then I say to myself, dude, the technology will not go away.  The best you can do, perhaps, is not to abstain, but to learn and teach how best to live along side of it.  The greatest victory is perhaps that you’re still reading and writing, you’re still engaged in other endeavors, and when the weather is good, you’re still outside playing badminton or having light saber duels with your six year old.

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Filed under Culture