Monday, January 08, 2007

Tutoring – A Story from the Front-Lines of Kids and Education Today

From Ash:

Normally, I don't like to write much about Tutoring, but we're about to come back after our Christmas break, and recently my professional work had a dead-on collision with my Tutoring – and I just gotta' share.

Sick of seeing kids who write essays that are a single page-long paragraph, I started pop-quizzing the kids with two questions: "What is a sentence?" and "What's a paragraph?" From my second-graders to my Sophomores and Juniors in High School, not a single kid had a clue as to a definition for a sentence – but from fourth grade on, they all immediately had the same answer for a paragraph. I knew what was coming, but there it was, all the same.

"A paragraph is five to sentences long," they all parroted, almost in unison. They nodded to each other, so pleased they'd gotten that one correct.

"Wrong!" I yelled out.

A bomb of disbelief hit. Stunned silence and puzzled looks replaced the nodding.

"A paragraph is a collection of sentences about an idea. If you look in the dictionary, it doesn't say anything about five to seven sentences. A sentence can be a perfectly good sentence with just one word – say, 'Hello.' And a paragraph can be a perfectly good one with just a single sentence."

I didn't have them sold until I reminded the older kids (by now the younger kids just went back to ignoring me, but the older kids were sort of still with me) that when they wrote dialogue, they were supposed to start a new paragraph every time a different person spoke. And I asked how they could even apply their the five-to-seven sentence, open with an introduction, have a body, then conclusion, structure to writing fiction: once again, they were stumped.

We grabbed nearby copies of Time and Newsweek (which I forceread to the kids), and we looked to see how many of their writers used the paragraph structure the kids were slavishly following. (And, of course, none of them used that, ever.)

It took a while – but a light was slowing dawning – a paragraph was about an idea.

I went home all glow-y, thinking that I'd just shot these kids straight from remedial to college-level composition work. I'd instantly solved a young writer mystery for them that had eluded me for years.

Then a few weeks later, one of the high schoolers heard me explaining this – my genius insight – to others who'd missed it the first time. When he mumbled that he'd done just what I said, and he'd gotten an "F" on an English assignment because his paragraphs weren't long enough. He wouldn't tell me the teacher's name (knowing that I would have been on the phone with that guy that very minute), but I could tell that my credibility with him took a serious hit.

I mean, I make no claims to being a math tutor (when I'm stuck, I pick up the phone and call Po or another friend), but I know my way around Strunk & White. I've written for the White House and Time friggin' Magazine, for Pete's Sake. So both of us were wounded – I think me more than the kid.

Still, another one of my high schoolers thought my theory still made sense to him, so he decided to risk it. He wrote an essay after the manner I'd suggested, and then told his English teacher about what he'd learned.

His teacher first said that I was wrong. Then, he thought about it for a minute.

"Okay, she's right. That's what it is," he slowly admitted.

Then, the teacher proceeded to agree with every single point I made. But then seeing a minor educational revolution in the making, the teacher made the kid promise not to tell any of his friends. It was just too potentially explosive – or at least too troublesome – to allow other kids hear that the size of a paragraph should be determined by its content.

My student's quite thrilled with his secret. (The other kid's still bitter about his "F.")

And I'm demoralized, as I'm now having to tell kids, "A paragraph is an idea – unless your teacher tells you it's five to seven sentences, and then that's what it is."


Blogger Lord Zim said...

Wow, makes me wanna holler. “Keep it a secret” -- criminal! At least that slug copped to his own laziness. I know that teaching inner-city kids is hard -- I've tutored those same kids -- but it’s scary to see the mental scars it leaves, and to see how those injuries drive each teacher to infect dozens and dozens of his/her young charges with these brain-deadening limitations each year. When I was a new manager, my firm hired management trainers to help us learn the basics and even a few nuances of management. Professors get sabbaticals. I wonder if high-school teachers could get the occasional restorative weekend. Or be forced to sit through that new Hilary Swank movie.

In the absence of such pie-sky solutions, tutoring and other private-sector efforts are more important than ever.

5:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A teacher once told me that the best teacher is new, unmarried, and not in a relationship. Why? They've got a childlike excitement about the job, and they've no personal life to interfere with the constant work it takes to be a amazing teacher. Ever wonder why every movie about a great teacher includes stroke, divorce...? Why do we celebrate the teachers who sacrifice their lives--can't a teacher be good AND have a healthy, happy life?

This blog entry begs the question, paragraph length aside: Was the paper any good? The fact that the student refused to share the teacher's name suggests hidden truths--that there's more to the F than paragraph lenth. That half truth alarm is yelping for attention.

8:25 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman said...

From Ash:

I never saw either student's paper, but I know the student. He may not have executed it well, but I believe that he did his best, and he specifically tried to do something at my direction. His unwillingness to tell me about it is more about his personality than his work.

But to me, the real issue is that one teacher isn't willing to even hear an argument, and another agrees with an argument, but doesn't want to teach it, because it's too difficult. That to me is the problem: the kids' particular results are less important to me in this case.

8:09 AM  
Blogger Crimson Wife said...

Yet another reinforcement of my decision to homeschool our children!

9:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just started teaching a GED class. Yesterday I found out that the GED essay requires no idea development. The students just fill in the formula with X words: Essay = Intro + 3 x(Idea+Specifics)+ Conclusion.
Okay, it is a form test read by anonymous persons who read dozens a week. Still....


7:47 AM  
Anonymous Anton Lebedev said...

Thanks a lot for sharing this.

9:30 PM  
Anonymous David Harrington said...

I thought a paragraph was a collection of words that was indented at the beginning and included at least 3 periods? Joking. Thanks.

9:11 PM  
Anonymous Anton Lebedev said...

It seems that some teachers do not even understand what they are teaching.

11:21 PM  
Blogger Awan said...

It's not just the inner-city kids that get this kind of education. Even in reasonably good middle-class high schools, kids get taught all kinds of stupid things about how to write essays. They might teach the kids that a paragraph is based on a single idea, but they'll still also teach them that no paragraph should be shorter than 5 sentences (lest the kids get lazy) and that an essay consists of 5 paragraphs.

They don't get sorted out until college - assuming they go to college - at which point we have to tell them to forget whatever their high school teachers taught them and start from scratch.

11:31 AM  

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