Back in the eighth grade my English teacher loved all us brats and did her best to teach grammar. She even saw the wisdom of forcing us wildcats to diagram sentences – a concept so useless and inane I thought at the time, that I could never imagined wanting to know or need. Forty-five years later I finally go, “Damn, I wish I had paid attention.”
Tonight I started listening to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White on my evening walk and it made me remember all those painfully boring grammar lessons. I wonder if I had started blogging in elementary school if I would have been a different person and actually wanted to learn what my English teacher was dishing out.
Now that I’m studying the history of physics I sure wish I had paid more attention in math class too. Why has it taken so long to want to learn? Now, don’t get me wrong, I wanted to learn back in 1965 – I just wanted to study science fiction, rock and roll and Estes rocketry.
I work at a College of Education and I hear a lot of talk about teaching. I can’t believe anyone would want to be a teacher. Lion taming would be easier. I think my problem as a student was I had no reason to learn what they so desperately wished to shove into my noggin. The whole system of teaching us ideas before we needed them was putting the cart before the horse. Of course I understand they needed to stuff a certain amount of data into our brains as soon as possible but why didn’t they trick us into wanting to learn?
I’ve seen copies of my report cards for the first, second and third grades. The big complaint was I was a daydreamer. Jesus, what’s a little person to do when a big person is going blah, blah, blah, blah, blah for hours? Hell, they didn’t even think I could read. Between the third and fourth grade they even sent me to summer school to learn how to read. I ended up in a cramped room with a few other kids and a bored old man (he could have been twenty-five or forty-five for all I knew). He didn’t bother to teach me anything, but gave me a copy of Up Periscope, a book about submarine warfare. Damn, I could read – all it took was something I wanted read. I bet if you gave little boys, who hate to read. books about war and sex, they’d start reading. Don’t underestimate the value of smut and violence on the young male mind, even second graders.
I wished I had been introduced to science and astronomy as a tiny kid. I wish I had been introduced to boat building and plane building and car building too. If teachers had given us projects that required me to figure things out so I’d end up asking “How do I do this?” – They could have replied, “Well kid, you need something called mathematics,” maybe I would have gotten the math bug.
I was just reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Death By Black Hole and he had a chapter about how much astronomy you could learn with a stick. If some enterprising teacher would have taught me that when I was ten and the mathematics that went with it, maybe I would have calculated the size of the Earth on my own. It’s one thing to tell a kid to memorize a fact and another thing to teach him how to discover the fact. It’s hard to say, but I’ve got to wonder how different my educational years would have been.
Maybe I’m expecting too much. The trouble with this educational pie-in-the-sky system is you have to customize it for every kid. If one kid says he wants to build a plane and another kid says she wants to play the guitar and another says he wants to dissect a frog, how many teachers will you need? Is it any wonder that home school kids often turn out better educated?
While walking and listening to the sage advice of William Strunk I couldn’t help but wonder if we should be encouraging little kids to blog. Not every kid will want to, but those that do, wouldn’t it start them on the track of wanting to know how to write better? How many activities that appeal to teens and grown-ups could be offered to kids that might inspire them to want to learn more? I remember reading a story about a teacher that had his elementary class build a wooden boat. Eventually that led to math and a lot of mechanical skills.
That eighth grade English teacher of mine did divert the course of my life, but maybe not in the way she expected. She had one great trick. She said anyone who read five books, five newspaper articles and five magazine articles and wrote a report on them each six-week grading period would get their grade raised by one letter. That’s how I made up for not learning grammar and not having to take a C home but got to brag about a B instead. She also had an approved reading list and Robert A. Heinlein was on it. That little trick got me to reading hundreds of books.
Now that I’m writing for public consumption, I actually need to understand language and grammar. Back in grade school one of the most embarrassing things around was if someone read your paper when it was handed back. We did everything in the world not to have our words seen. Today kids put their diaries on the world wide web – you’d think they’d be literary geniuses if they weren’t embarrassed to do that. Today’s kids write more than ever for their peers to read. Why hasn’t that encouraged them to write better? I guess I just proved my assumption wrong – but maybe not.