February 4, 2009

The Useless English Text

Today one of my students asked me if they were ever going to use "the green books I gave them." That would be the new writing and grammar textbook that I was required to check out to all students. I'd probably complain if I didn't have enough textbooks, just like I'm complaining about having to check out the grammar text.

(This is where some of you will hate me. I deserve it. We have so many resources, both print and online, that using any of to excess is probably not going to happen. It is nice to be able to piece things together. And it is actually necessary to piece things together. Read on.)

However, what I said to my student, whose question compelled her classmates to listen up, was, "Well, it's hard to say. So far I can't find anything in here that we can use. Earlier this week, I wanted to find something that might help you write better conclusions, but there is a barely a paragraph on it--and that is basically telling you that an effective essay needs a good conclusion."

I felt a rant boiling up, "And you know, I had a student who came in after school asking for clarification about which titles should be underlined and which should be in quotations, so I explain it to her again, and I was going to have her go home and read her text, too. And maybe practice a little. She totally would have done it, too! Only there were no lessons for that! There was just a two-sentence explanation."

Maybe 8th grade students should know that book titles should be underlined and magazine titles go in quotation marks, so perhaps that is why there is virtually nothing about it in the writing and grammar book. But what about conclusions? It's a writing book! In my experience as a writing teacher, I have found that essay beginnings and endings are the hardest for students--at all levels. They'll even admit it! Yesterday I took an informal poll and asked, "How many of you have read a peer's paper that suddenly ended and you weren't sure if the essay was finished or if you were missing a page?" Half of the students in each of my classes raised their hands. Some of them started joking about how often they had simply stopped short of the conclusion themselves. How about some tips, examples, or practice in a writing textbook for writing conclusions?

I have a textbook that has such things. My high school students use it. It's a text specifically designed to help students pass the proficiency exam. Now, the company that prints the text does such texts for many states, and they are all probably the same. I've used this particular text in two different schools--in proficiency writing classes. You know, the class for the students who either didn't pass the test and are receiving desperate remediation so they can graduate, or students who are unlikely to pass the test without taking a special, focused class. That's not to say that the text can only be used for proficiency classes, but I betcha anything, that's how it's used in most schools.

It's a major pain in the ass being an English teacher sometimes. For one thing, our curriculum isn't linear. There are so many different things we have to teach. Sometimes it's divided up into writing and literature, but the course I teach is both. (At my school, in the 6th and 7th grades students have both an English class and a reading class, but 8th grade is just English, a combination of the two.) Teaching both means that I need a lot of resources, and sometimes even two official textbooks. And what a blessing if I have two different textbooks, which I do. What would be an extra special blessing if the texts were of any use at all.

I'll keep looking for reasons to use the text. I hope something pans out soon. We are moving into research soon. What do you think the likelihood of a nice fat chapter on research in the digital age? I mean, it is a new textbook...

And what you do you think? Might we save some students from taking proficiency classes if their middle school texts were more useful? Actually, I've seen some of the writing and grammar texts for high school, too. Not much more useful.

So it's all on the teacher. And teachers expect and are expected to use textbooks in their instruction. It's taken me years to build my files of instructional tools, for without those tools, my students and I would be left with the mere textbook.

In my first years of teaching, that's all I had. My poor students. I hope they eventually turned out okay.

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