Thursday, October 04, 2018

The ELLs, the Regents, and the Meaning of Life

Tonight I'm going to the UFT ELL Focus Group over at 52. I go pretty much monthly. Though I do that, I'm not always sure why. To me, the only priority for our students is fixing CR Part 154. For the last few years ESL teachers have become dinosaurs. Here we are, knowing how English works, but we aren't supposed to explain or teach it. That's because the geniuses in Albany have gotten together and decided that English is not actually a subject.

OK, they haven't quite gone that far, I mean, if you were born here and have been speaking English all your life, you can study English. You can read novels. Of course that's become frowned upon over the last few years, so maybe instead of novels you can read non-fiction. Who isn't enthralled by The History of Cement? Not me. Not you either? So why are we making our kids read that stuff?

It's hard to say. I'm not breathing the rarefied air in some building in Albany that could be easily mistaken for Hogwarts. If I were, I might understand better. As things stand, I hate reading stuff like that, and it's hard for me to understand why I ought to teach things like that. As it happens, a colleague who always calls while I'm walking my dog has a very good answer. Because it will be on the Regents exam and they don't graduate unless they pass the Regents exam.

I don't want my kids stuck in high school until they're octogenarians, so I will help them. But this system doesn't make sense to me. I love to read. I grew up reading comic books, and graduated to paperbacks my mom left lying around the house. I'm fond of fiction, and if it's some trashy detective or lawyer saga, so much the better. But I will read whatever I have to in a pinch. When I was sitting in El Piñal, Venezuela for a few weeks I read The Godfather in Spanish. It was there. And let me tell you, there isn't a whole lot there in El Piñal, Venezuela.

If I have to read The History of Cement, I'll be okay with it. That's because I learned how to read via things I loved and enjoyed. We're using a different approach with ELLs. We're dumping all this crap into their laps, whether or not they know enough English to appreciate it, and hoping for the best. Quite possibly, we're making them pass the English Regents exam. But at what cost?

Right now in my advanced class we're reading The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency, a beautiful little book that uses simple language to make points that border on profound. I'm kind of interspersing book discussion with things I know will be useful on the exam. This week we spoke about characterization. What is she like, and what in the book shows she's like that? This is probably the most common and easy to identify element that the Regents have offered.

Why are we taking a piece of art and reducing it into maybe half a dozen literary elements? I read book reviews in the New York Times and I don't see one paragraph about characterization, another about tone, and another about irony or whatever. Somehow we have to reduce everything to a formula. Writing is like that too. First we write an introductory paragraph. Then three paragraphs, each explaining one reason. Then a conclusion. See? Now I know how to write.

I haven't taught kids how to pass the Regents in almost ten years, so I'm not sure how it's changed since then. I'll find out. My inclination was, and will be, to give them very formulaic suggestions. Last time I worked out a formula for each essay, usually four rather than five paragraphs, that did what the Regents wanted them to do. I kind of hate that, because that is not teaching how to write. It's teaching how to pass one single test--nothing more. I don't write like that, and I don't know anyone who does.

Meanwhile, I have these kids handing me short pieces of writing as homework, and here's what I notice. They don't know subject-verb agreement. They don't know past tense. They don't know to capitalize the first letter of a sentence. They don't understand how to join clauses. But you know what? These things have little value in the Regents exam. I can ignore these things and just show them how to pass The Test, because that's what matters.

Until, of course, they go to college. Then, their professors will examine their writing and ask, "Hey, who is the idiot who taught you English?" What can I say in my defense? "Yeah, sure I sent them unprepared, with a poor to nonexistent understanding of English structure and usage, but hey, they passed the test." I'm not feeling particularly proud right now.

The more I think about it, the more I think the NY State Regents are a bunch of hacks who sit in fancy offices, go to gala luncheons and haven't got the remotest notion what my kids need. Nor do they care one whit.
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