Sugaring and teaching are not projects for the impatient, Ms. Ohanian reminds us. Even in these days of instant everything, you can't hurry maple syrup - or third-graders or seventh-graders.
Essayist Will Cuppy once noted that penguins are dignified, they get their names in the newspaper, and only an expert can tell a live penguin from a stuffed one. I feel the same way about plans for revamping the schools. Curriculum reform must be at the heart of any substantive change, but too many people who talk the talk of reform can't tell a live curriculum from a stuffed one. And, as every teacher knows, it is easier to move a graveyard than to change a district's existing curriculum. For people who plan the school curriculum, God is in charge of the SAT, and Santa Claus presides over Title I. Now, with the chancellor of the New York City Public Schools joining the crowd that declares every third-grader will read on grade level and every 12th-grader will take calculus, schools need a direct line to the fairy godmother, too.
Because I'm the kind of teacher who focuses on what I'm doing this minute with this kid, when curriculum reform stalks the corridors I try to duck, but more often than not I weep. My husband asks how anybody can possibly cry over curriculum, but he's never tried to obey the mandate of teaching Silas Marner to ninth-graders. Nor has he ever tried to convince a primary teacher not to teach the comma in apposition. Saying she had "no time for supplementary reading" when I offered to lend her my collection of rhyming books, my colleague insisted that, to "maintain standards" and "get students ready" for the rigors of third grade (well, every third grade but mine), she had to teach commas in all their exotica. Being no greenhorn, I knew that in the schoolhouse mythical standards invariably win out over sense or sensibility. Nonetheless, I somehow became involved in this comma confrontation. My colleague stood safe and secure behind her teacher's manual. I ended up in tears.
My husband did get involved in a curricular dispute that cuts to the heart of the university territorialism that undermines every attempt to bring about significant reform in the schools. At the time, he was teaching physics at a liberal arts college. When the English Department suggested revamping freshman English, he volunteered to teach a new course in which students would fulfill the composition requirement in the department of their major instead of in the English Department. My husband and I prepared a great reading list for science majors. "Oh, no," protested the English Department. "We still want everybody to read Plato and Gulliver's Travels. We just want you to teach them."
Why was I surprised? I guess I thought professors might be collegial toward their colleagues, even though, when dealing with teachers, they typically make all the choices from the safety of the Cave, where there are few teachers and no children. Then, the choices made, the mandates passed, the certifications issued, they'll leave us to teach the kids. I once spent several years being retrained as part of a big National Endowment for the Humanities grant, administered by a prestigious university. I'm a dutiful, even good, student; I do all the reading and write all the papers. And so I was considered an asset to the course. The only problem was I taught the wrong kind of kids. The good professors did not regard seventh- and eighth-grade rotten readers as worthy of being included in a sophisticated NEH project. And so, caught up in the esoteric intellectualism of the endeavor, early every morning, before our school began, I went next door to the high school and taught humanities to a ninth-grade honors class.
I loved that honors class, but I loved my rotten readers, too, and after a while I was troubled by the exclusionary zone imposed by the university. If a humanities approach to teaching literature was good for honors students, why wasn't it good for rotten readers? So I began working on ways to make the university scheme meaningful to my own students.
Michael was one of those students, and Michael already knew about some of the humanities material because an 11th-grade history teacher used material I had developed and Michael's brother had talked about it at the dinner table. The fact that Michael was dumbfounded, impressed, and pleased that his teacher's work was being used at the high school should remind us that kids in remedial classes, so often relegated to the academic slag heap, think their teachers must be remedial rejects too.
If such a thing as dyslexia exists, Michael had it in spades. He also had wit, humor, and a very real charm that made it easy to forgive the whining and wheedling he routinely did to get out of work. The students and I had a daily note exchange, which Michael complained about every day. When I asked students to fill in the open-ended statements "I'd rather read than . . ." and "I'd rather write than . . ." Michael wrote that he'd rather read than die and he'd rather write than read.
All winter my notes were filled with complaints about the snow and ice. Michael counseled me, "I just take the months as they come." I began to write about the first signs of spring, and I wrote my students that I looked forward to asparagus ads in the newspaper as a sure sign that winter was ending. They thought this was hilarious - only a teacher would come up with asparagus. They also began to scan the paper for asparagus ads and leave them on my desk.
One day Michael came in and went straight for the typewriter. He left this letter on my desk:
Dear Mrs. O,
As you no I went to Boston firday. It was a lot fo fun. Wen I first got to Boston we drov aron looking for a parking plas. We fond one and then we got out of the car. We walkt to a fance markit and had a bite to aet.
Then we went to the aquarium and that was eciting. That was a shoe with dolphins and seals. Wan we got out we went by a fruit markt. I thot of yoou and chekt the pric of asprgus. It is $1.00 a lb in Boston and 3 heds of letis for $1.00. Boston is a long way to go for asprgus tho.
Your freind, Michael
Michael asked me how to spell "aquarium." Thinking that at last I could show the university professor why my work was so important to me, I felt proud when I gave him Michael's letter. He looked at it and then turned to me with a sad face. "Sue, when are you going to stop wasting your life with these kids, join our doctoral program, …