Friday, February 08, 2019

Everything but the Voice

This year I'm teaching a supposedly advanced class of ELLs. I say "supposedly" because a whole lot of them have either tested advanced on the NYSESLAT, which supposedly measures language level (but doesn't), or tested out of ESL altogether. It doesn't necessarily mean they know anything.

Many of these kids are lovely in one way, another, or many. There are 34 of them in my class. Many of them passed the English Regents exam this year. To my mind, though, exactly one of them knows how to write.

My young writer went through something very difficult and learned something. It doesn't matter what it was. It only matters that it's a compelling story, she related it, and she came to a very sharp conclusion. My writing prompt was to tell about something that was a turning point. She was the only one of my 34 who really grabbed the topic and went with it.

Several  of my other students have been handing me personal statements for college. I will read them and make suggestions if asked. I have to say, though, that I've read half a dozen of them from this class, and one is more abysmal than the next. You'd think that these students, all of whom came from other countries, had never experienced anything whatsoever. To me, uprooting yourself and facing a new culture is a remarkable thing. I've never done it, nor have most people I know. One kid said she was told not to write about that, as it's an overplayed topic.

I disagree completely. Your trip to the United States is not my trip. Your family is not my family. Your experiences are not my experiences. Most importantly, your voice is not my voice.

We all have a voice. Sometimes I think that's all we have. Certainly it's what keeps me writing this blog. But when I teach writing, voice plays little part. You see, there's this thing called the English Regents exam, and my kids can't graduate high school unless they pass it. I'll help them pass it, but for years I've thought that showing them how to sputter out a tightly scripted essay using canned terms taught them is, well, how to sputter out a tightly scripted essay using canned terms.

That's okay as far as it goes, but it isn't really writing. David Coleman, Common Core architect/ troglodyte, famously said no one gives a crap what you think or feel. (Imagine a teacher with that attitude.) Coleman set us on the course of spitting out tidbits of crap in a certain order, and branding it an argumentative essay. I'll grant you there's a skill set to read four articles, pick out which crap supports your point of view, pick out which crap is the opposing argument, and then piece together 300 words to compose whatever crap the Regents exams asks of you.

Still, it's not anything I want to read. I mean, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez makes an argument that Americans need health care, that we need to get paid a living wage, or that we ought to stop destroying the earth I perk up and listen, because she's speaking from the heart and because these are important issues. She cares, and other people see that. Then they care too. When some kid reads eight pages of crap on a test and regurgitates a bunch of arguments, well, if I get sent to some high school and am forced to rate it, I will.

That's not what argument is, though. Argument worth considering comes from the heart and is supported by the brain. If it hasn't touched the heart somehow, there's likely nothing worth reading. And if there isn't anything worth reading, there wasn't anything worth writing either.

I have a student I will call Sara. Sara is from China. She is lovely. She is good-natured, eager to do well in class, and gets excellent grades. If she were your daughter you'd want to wear a sandwich sign, beat a big bass drum, and walk up and down the street telling the world about it. Despite this, her personal statement was an ungodly mess, bereft of purpose, almost impossible to follow, and if you like her the way I do, heartbreaking to read.

I'm not usually at a loss for words, but I can't tell kids their work is crap. I told her to think of an interesting or funny experience she had, and she looked at me as though I'd just fallen from the sky. She never brought a revision.

When I was in college I did well on papers. I would usually try to make them amusing somehow, or put some kind of interesting slant to them. I tried to make them things I might want to read. I suspect professors, after reading piles of crap, were mostly amused. One English professor insisted I'd plagiarized when I hadn't. I suppose I should've taken that as a compliment.

Here's the thing--sometimes I love to read. Some authors keep me spellbound. I can read Catch 22 over and over again. It's the voice there, the one that sees the humor and absurdity in absolutely everything. To me, it's perfect.

We bring our kids through over a decade of school and we give no attention whatsoever to their voices. We aren't turning out thinkers or writers. We're basically just showing them how to make a sandwich out of words, rather than cold cuts.

Now don't get me wrong. I like sandwiches. I can devour a good book. But the crap we make kids write makes me feel like I'm eating a ream of looseleaf paper, with no seasoning or dressing. It's just not the kind of thing we ought to be forcing our children to do.
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