Monday, May 26, 2014

Rigor: The death of public education (no really)

Wish I could take credit for this bit of Photoshop
What's worse than education 'reform'? Educators who drink the reformy Kool-Aid.

As a product of 12 years of Catholic education in New Jersey the 60s and 70s I learned a thing or two about the roots of the English language. While I didn't have any art, music, science, PE or health classes until high school, I learned a great deal about phonics and diagramming sentences, and just enough about Latin to allow me to pass in freshman year.

I didn't want to take Latin, but Principal Sr. Anne Williams, told me that since I was smart enough to take French, I was smart enough to take Latin, too. Wait... what?!?! I didn't sign up for two languages! I signed up for French l and Intro to Physical Science, the basic freshman science class. I did not want to take Latin! I needed that science class! I didn't care that my sister—God bless her— was president of the Latin Club for four years; I was not looking to be a legacy! And besides, what kind of cockamamie logic says that a person is any smarter because of the language they choose to study? But that was a time when educators were respected. One did not argue with teachers or principals even if they were wrong, especially habit-wearing ones with a man's name. I guess enrollment numbers in Latin class were down and they needed to keep Sr. James Eileen busy.

Latin is a clumsy language. It doesn't roll off the tongue like Spanish, French or Italian. Because I was forced to take it, I hated it. I dug my heels in and did just enough to pass the class. I was not going to put one extra ounce of effort into something I didn't want to study. And I did not want to sing the Latin Declension Song! 

Ohhhhhh... are we having a 'Slowly I turned/Niagara Falls' moment? Yeeees... you remember the Declension song, don't you? That snappy little ditty invented to help Latin learners remember verb tenses and such. Are your eyes glazing over? On a whim I Googled it and found not only the lyrics, but a link to a You Tube video! Cue the fanfare! Here is The Latin Declension Song in all its glory!

This is a terrible rendition. A classroom full of 15 year-old girls sang it much more fluidly and melodically. But the author of the blog goes on to write a touching post about his Latin teacher, Sr. Anna Roberts:

How extraordinary that a quarter of a century after my last Latin class with Sister Anna I reflect not on how excruciating the study of an ancient tongue could be, but on how exciting; not on how pointless, but on how many times a week I still point to things I learned from her; not on the deadness of the language, but on the magnificence of the life that one amazing teacher could breathe into it. 

What a difference a great teacher can make! Maybe if she taught me Latin, I'd have taken more of an interest. Aside from most of the lyrics and Sr. James Eileen's very sledge hammer-like pronunciations, I don't remember much else. But the one thing I did learn was how to decode many words in many languages, a skill I still use and value to this day. And it did help boost my verbal score on the SAT. So in the end, it wasn't a total waste. Nothing really is if we learn the lesson from it. (I'll save my story about junior year chemistry class for another day.) 

So when ed 'reformers' started spewing 'rigor' as a cure-all for 'failing schools', my Latin radar kicked into high gear. Webster's Dictionary defines the roots of rigor as: 

Middle English rigour, from Anglo-French, from Latin rigor, literally, stiffness, from rigēre to be stiff. First Known Use: 14th century.

The full definition is even worse:

(1) :  harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment : severity (2) :  the quality of being unyielding or inflexible : strictness (3) :  severity of life :  austerity
b :  an act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty
:  a tremor caused by a chill
:  a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable; especially :  extremity of cold
:  strict precision :  exactness <logical rigor>
a obsolete :  rigiditystiffness
b :  rigidness or torpor of organs or tissue that prevents response to stimuli
c :  rigor mortis

Rigor mortis is what happens to dead bodies. I do not want my child nor my students exposed to this type of teaching. And I am very concerned when I see well-meaning, career educators with years of experience and boatloads of degrees drinking the Kool-Aid, nodding in agreement about the need to make public education more rigorous when they don't seem to realize it means 'dead'—like my freshman year Latin class and education in China! Education should never be those things. It should involve hard work, but that hard work should be inspiring, challenging and creative like Sr. Anna Roberts' Latin class, not Sr. James Eileen's. School isn't always fun, but we should never make it so dead as to rob children of the joy of learning. If we do, then we need to close up shop and find another profession. We sabotage our profession when we blindly go along instead of stepping out of our comfort zone and fighting back. 

If an educator harms a student and is found guilty, they will lose their job and could go to jail. Yet we are expected to dramatically change the way we teach, to implement methods that have never been proven to work, that could have lasting ill effects on our students' ability to learn because business people have convinced great swaths of the country that we are the problem, that we must be held accountable. And yet, when these reforms fail—and they will—who will be held accountable? 

Would Miss Crabtree do this?

I leave you with this quote from Diane Ravitch posted to Facebook by another of my education heroes, Chicago Teachers Union President, Karen Lewis, while I was drafting this post:
Can teachers successfully educate children to think for themselves if teachers are not treated as professionals who think for themselves? 

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