Thursday, April 05, 2007

Playing school...

Remember the famous Jack Nicholson line, "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!"
If you're a student in France you better be able to handle the truth because it's coming ready or not. It helps to develop a thick skin when it comes to dealing with teachers because even though as people they tend to be wonderfully engaging and pleasant, as professionals they tend not to mince words with their students. There is an appreciation here of the idea of encouragement which I have often heard expressed during conseils des classes in phrases like,
elle est serieuse
il fait des efforts
but when responding to student work there seems to be something of a culutral bias against going too far in the direction of positive reinforcement, especially if the quality of student performance is what my colleagues sometimes refer to as catastrophique or franchment nulle.
It seems to me that my colleagues operate from a premise that is defensible even if not altogether laced with the milk of human kindness...the only way for a student to produce better results is for him to know what he is doing wrong.
Here are some sample teacher comments I found affixed to tests my students recently took - it helps to remember here that for this particular "common exam" we didn't grade our own students' work hence there was a certain built in distance between the evaluator and the student.
(what follows are my English translations of course...)
  • alarmingly low level of vocabulary
  • What English! Absolutely no idea of verb forms, absolutely no vocabulary, prepositions are consistently misused.
  • very weak writing, total ignorance of verb forms, articles and prepositions. Very poor vocabulary etc...
  • You even confuse the verbs to say and to see!
  • You haven't grasped the topic at all.
  • Your English is bad, sentences are poorly formed, your vocabulary is lifted from the text.
  • This is not serious work.
  • You have no clue what to do with a verb when it is in the past tense. Furthermore your essay is completely off the subject and it is incomplete.
  • You don't know how to compose a story in the past tense.
  • Impenetrable, not only due to your misuse of language but also because of the lack of any coherent organisation to your story.
Let me say first off, that everything expressed in the list above is "true" insofar as I read the student work myself and understand the teachers' assessments. My colleagues are very capable and astute people. Their penchant for delivering tough truth reminds not a little bit of some basketball coaches I've played for.
It's interesting to me to note that I gravitate toward the domain of athletics to find an American cultural correlative. That seems to be the domain where we most commonly embrace and expect this kind of no nonsense, hard edged drill seargant, shape up maggot or ship out kind of rapport with young people. (Forgive the over the top rhetoric but that last sentence was fun to write.)
Of course this sort of ethos really works with some kids, it reaches them on some fundamental level and triggers oftentimes a sense of commitment and discipline that empowers them to achieve greater and greater things. On the other hand, it doesn't reach all kids, perhaps not even most of them, which is simply to make an obvious point, not every kid will respond to the football coach if they don't love football, and even some who do love footbal still may not respond to that brand of pedagogy.
For the classroom teacher this of course poses a real dilemna. As a friend and colleague of mine recently told me, in marriages one often needs to ask the question, "Do I want to be right or do I want to have a relationsip?" Indeed.
As a classroom teacher how far can I take the taskmaster persona before I lose people (kids)? How much hard truth, in other words, can each kid handle before he tunes the teacher out? It's one thing to lose a football player to a different activity, say, soccer or theater or skateboarding, it is quite another to lose a kid to English or History or Mathematics. In fairness, I should point out that there is an American romance with the idea of "saving" kids that has some merit but which also can provide cover for any number of questionable pedagogical practices done in the name of "connecting with kids".
I actually find it impossible to suppress a smile when I reread the comments on the list above. On the other hand, there is the student perspective. When I handed back the corrected tests to my students I first gave them the range of scores in the class (the high was18.5 out of 20 the low was 3) this caused a buzz and people craned their necks around to spot the usual suspects. A couple of my low achievers were displaying some false bravado and claiming they had the lowest score.
Several others were quiet however; it seemed to clear to me that they had considerable apprehension about the results. As the got their copies back and set to work deciphering the red ink marks and digesting the final results, I felt like some of them were absorbing a shock. One girl scrutinized her copy carefully, she was clearly distressed. I had been distressed on her behalf seeing as how she is an extremely diligent worker but her results were only 6 out of 20. She approached me later; she had found an error in the calculation...I was more than happy to correct it from a 6 to an 8. In her case, it seemed to lift her spirits. Her grade had risen from the catastrophique to the almost passing.
A couple of others were speculating as to who had corrected their tests. One kid, a redoublant, who was taking the course for the second time was sure it was Madame X (she was wrong, it was Madame Y) because she was sure this teacher hated her from the previous year.
Another boy asked to know who had corrected his test. When I asked him why, he pointed to the final comment written in red ink just below his concluding sentence which was itself a mangled attempt at levity, broken syntax, missing words, apostrophes all over the place...the teacher had written, "I understand finally what your level of English is."
"What's wrong?" I asked him.
"It's mean. She shouldn't say things like that." The three girls who sit around him all nodded gravely and repeated, "It's mean."
I told him a white lie and said that I didn't know who had corrected it but that I would find out and let him know after Easter vacation. I wanted a chance to check with the teacher and perhaps give her a heads up about an impending encounter with an angry young man. Also I hoped the time might cool him off a bit. He told me that he would wait but he gave the impression that he was not going to let the matter drop. Later that morning I found my colleague and explained the situation to her. Her surprise at the boy's reaction struck me as utterly genuine; what's more, she was completely comfortable with the idea of him coming to talk to her. She smiled and encouraged me to tell the boy to seek her out.
As I reflect on this it seems to drive home the fact that teachers and students for all their proximity to one another perhaps seldom see one another truly. The masks we all wear serve a variety of purposes, some personal and even intimate, others strategic and practical. We tend to carry on our everyday business masked in ways that insulate us from having to "be real" all the time. T.S. Eliot characterized it thus, "The faces we put on to meet the faces that we meet."
Every once in awhile there occurs an unmasking, perhaps intentional but more often perhaps accidental. In these moments, the teacher and/or the student finds himself being more candid, more revelatory than usual...these can be awkward, even painful moments that may produce a full scale retreat behind an even more impenetrable mask; they can also trigger the kinds of epiphanies that help illuminate the differences between what a colleague of mine back home likes to call "playing school" and being a student or between getting a diploma and getting an education or between teaching a discipline and teaching a student.
For me these dichotomies are not mutually exclusive options, they stake out rather the field of play. The game of life and learning takes place within these parameters. It's interesting to see what parts of the field some folks are most comfortable playing on.


Anonymous cjones said...


6:59 AM  
Anonymous erin said...

I agree with Chuck- WOW! To be fair, though, I don't remember the niceities that I heard from teachers. I remember Mr Coxen telling me in 7th grade that I did not, in fact need science, because I was going to grow up to be "just a secretary". Sounds harsh, but I'll never forget it, and of course he was right to handle me that way. (No offense to secretaries, of course, I'm sure)

5:36 PM  
Blogger kc said...

Let me know if any warmer, fuzzier memories of teacher comments do in fact surface ... whether he was right or not, he made an impression that lasted, I still have scars on my body that help me remember childhood accidents...can I remember one specific kiss from Mom?...not really, just the sum total of her love.

9:33 PM  

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