Is That Penguin Stuffed or Real?

By Ohanian, Susan | Phi Delta Kappan, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Is That Penguin Stuffed or Real?


Ohanian, Susan, Phi Delta Kappan


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? …

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Is That Penguin Stuffed or Real?
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