A Writer’s First Duty: Surving the Failures of Education
“What was so wrong with those poetry classes? Well, I want to learn how to write poetry: I wanted to be told, this week we are studying sonnets, so here is the history of the sonnet, here are sonnets to read, go write a sonnet and make it your own. Let’s see how you do. That’s how I would teach a poetry class. But that’s not what we did. Week after dreary week, students would bring in their dreary poems and we would go around in a circle, workshopping them.” – Theodora Goss
I taught college-level journalism in (apparently) a similar manner to the way Dora Goss teaches poetry. Here’s a form and how it developed and some of my favorite examples of it. In my case, I wasn’t talking about sonnets, I was talking about news stories, feature stories, editorial columns, and the other focus areas of a good reporter.
As a member of the college’s English department, I was the black sheep because (a) many of the veterans of mainstream composition, exposition, lit surveys, and creative writing courses looked down on journalists; (b) I didn’t force square pegs into round holes in the classroom and took a did view of those who did.
Most of my K-12 high school English teachers taught English as though it weren’t my native language. In fact, they taught it rather the same way my Spanish and German teachers taught languages that were new to me: they loved rote, drill, lock-step classes, formal language structure, conjugation, lists, sub-lists and the lecture method of imparting knowledge to students.
I feel sorry for today’s secondary education students floundering in a world where teaching the test is the “shining star” of our departments of education.
With apologies to Nikos Kazantzakis (“Zorba the Greek”) for twisting my favorite phrase from “First Duty” to a purpose he didn’t intend, I decided early on as a student at the end of each horrid English course that I had to: “Say farewell to all things at every moment. Fix your eyes slowly, passionately, on all things and say: ‘Never again!'”
Before I went to my first English class, I was–like most people who grow up in an English-speaking country–fluent in English. To live in the house of my upbringing with two writers and more books than the elementary school library–a never-ending (but unofficial) process of being home-schooled in English. My opinion then and now was that my parents knew more about English than my teachers. This caused many clashes in class and subsequently many parent-teacher conferences about the stubborn student who refused to memorize the rules of grammar and then parrot them back.
When my teachers graded my papers, I often struck out their comments and said “no” or “incorrect” and then supplied my rationale which, while technically correct, were outside the scope and spirit of the lesson.
My parents helped me nurture a strong will to write. It served as an antidote to the mechanical methodology of my teachers who–had I grown up with other parents–would have completely killed my love of reading and my evolving skills as a writer. Studies show, I think, that a large percentage of people stop reading after they leave school and are no longer forced to do it by teachers who analyze literature at an atomistic level.
If you’re in school, or have a child in school, may I suggest that you can survive English classes and/or help your child survive by finding a copy of Mark David Gerson’s The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write. The blurb on his web site for this book is correct: Whether you’re a seasoned writer or just starting out, whatever your genre or form, The Voice of the Muse will deepen your creative experience and awaken you to new skills, new stories and a renewed confidence in your innate gifts.
The important thing to me as a young student was that I was fluent already and–as Gerson says–my abilities were innate gifts. My home life already provided me with a natural and organic immersion in the language, a process many say is best for learning new languages. What I needed was an introduction and some inspiration for the various uses, styles and genres of my native language, and then be given a chance to make it mine and see what I could do.
It took me years to escape the damage of education’s failures in junior high, high school and college English departments. Perhaps you will escape sooner or find a wonderful teacher who sees you as an individual and not one of the many purported widget-kids in the classroom.
P.S. I talk about several teachers who were the exception to the cookie-cutter rule in The Influence of First Teachers.