On one of the education blogs I read, can't remember which one now, the author spoke about a high school math teacher passing the buck back to middle school. I think this was in reference to the recent story about the high school valedictorian who wasn't able to graduate because she couldn't pass her state's exit exam. It had a lot to do with math, and the girl herself reported in some frustration that the algebra on the exam didn't look like anything she'd ever seen in class.
I think it was with reference to this case that a high-school math teacher was quoted in the media saying something about not being able to teach high-school level algebra to kids who come in from middle school unable to perform simple computations like adding two negative numbers. The blogger responded (not a direct quote, but my memory), "That's a big cop-out. If your job is to teach algebra, you need to teach algebra. Stop passing the buck!"
I've been thinking about that, because "How am I supposed to teach advanced argumentation to students who don't know how to write a coherent paragraph?" is a common lament among me and my colleagues. I am always trying to strike the right balance between offering "remedial" lessons and simply refusing to spend my time and energy teaching skills students are supposed to come into my class possessing (this is especially frustrating for me, because I teach the second in the required writing series--so people are coming to me from within my own department, having passsed the hurdle of a fairly rigorous portfolio and external review process to pass the first course, acting like they've never heard of a "paragraph," a "thesis," or "documentation").
My department provides a detailed multi-page list of course objectives for the class I teach, and at a faculty meeting earlier this week my boss brought up the need to define our expectations for incoming students in the second writing class. I'll be glad to be in on that conversation, because I don't know what I think my responsibility is, exactly. Is it (A): to teach certain material and certain skills, with a presumption on my part that students already possess the foundational skills they need to do work in my class--or that, if they don't, it's their responsibility to seek additional help outside class? Or is it (B): to bring students up to the standard my class requires, even if that means teaching back into material they should have mastered before they ever walked in my door? (When I tell you that I have, in the past, had to begin lessons on complex and compound sentences by reviewing "noun," "verb," "subject," and "predicate," you'll understand why I prefer "A.")
This question was rattling around in the back of mind in an idle way as I was reading an out-of-date "what's wrong with education" polemic called Endangered Minds. I got to page 93, which discusses the problem of small children not being exposed to nursery rhymes. This is bad, because rhymes "teach valuable skills," including "patterns" which are "the most important for early reading--and even for math."
This is followed by a quote from a kindergarten teacher who complaines that she can't follow the reading readiness curriculum she's supposed to because it is predicated on the assumption that, through exposure to nursery rhymes, children will have been exposed to rhyme, meter, and wordplay. "I have to start from scratch with most of these kids," she laments. "I'm supposed to teach rhyming words in the reading readiness program, but half these kids don't know what a rhyme is. And a lot seem to be missing that internal sense of rhythm."
And I thought: when a kindergarten teacher is complaining that she can't do her job because the children aren't coming in with the skills they should already have, buck-passing has gone too far.Posted by Su Penn at November 14, 2003 07:49 AM | TrackBack