Today has been a long day, one without the comfort of my cooperating teacher (who is away dealing with the death of her mother). I have had a very capable substitute teacher (who is actually an English teacher who will be looking for a position next fall – my competition!), but it has truly felt like my own class in terms of dealing with matters myself. One student in an early class refused to do the task I had given, insteading preferring to do an assignment for another class, and I told him once to put it away. He acted like he did, but I promptly found him doing the same. I told him he had a detention, but even this did not stop him – I had to go so far as to take away the book and worksheet he was using. I followed through, though; he should have received the detention slip a few periods later.

I also had to deal with a problem that has bugged me for the longest time, a problem that I suspected might come up given the nature of my high school students (who are in fairly advanced honors and AP courses).

We have been covering T.S. Eliot this week, reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Hollow Men,” both some of my favorite poems ever. They have been less than enthusiastic (the typical response to “Prufrock” was “It’s so random!”), but things sort of came to a head today.

My main method for looking at the texts is to examine the major images used in them; for instance, the mermaids are incredibly significant to the meaning of “Prufrock” (e.g. “I do not think that they [the mermaids] will sing to me”). I did this for both poems, and I told them today that I would give them a quiz tomorrow asking them to give the significance of some of the images, following thereafter with a recap of the images they found in the poem. My first class did fine with this, but the second decided they would be difficult.

The problem came when I told a student that their interpretation of an element (the yellow smoke at the beginning of “Prufrock”) wasn’t really to the point; he said it symbolized baldness in that it hides who you really are, thereby creating a veil of yellow smoke. While this isn’t a bad image to paint, I told him that it didn’t really get to the point of the image (which is to symbolize death or to create a feeling of mystery or haziness). This apparently brought up some pent-up emotions, as one student (who undoubtedly has the highest grade in the course) then proceeded to tell me that I should just tell them the answers rather than asking them (after telling me that they haven’t learned anything in the class, which warms my heart so).

This is a major problem in education that I have resented for ages: the tendency to indicate to students that learning is about getting the right information from the teacher that is then regurgitated back. I admit that a fair amount of “regurgitation” is simply a part of modern education, for better or worse, but I hate – hate, hate, hate – the idea that the teacher is the one responsible for making the facts available. What happened to the idea of teachers facilitating learning? What about student input? Why don’t they care about that?

I don’t want to remove all responsibility from the students in this regard, but I am fairly certain that this is somewhat symptomatic of a major failing of modern education. Students have been given so many goals that in so many cases incorporate rote knowledge that they have begun to associate it with learning, to define learning by it. This is of course horribly false in multiple levels. But students have become so used to assessments that involve memorization – or prefer it because it’s easy – that they don’t even think of learning as something that they do.

I don’t know entirely how to deal with this, except perhaps not to give in to these implicit “demands,” but I know I hate it. I know that students need to see how they construct knowledge – and they do this in my class! But they don’t see it, or they are more concerned about constructing knowledge based on poor logic or reasoning. Instead, they see me a “gatekeeper” figure who approves their responses – which I have to be, but they see it as an inherently unfair position. I don’t know how to convince them that I’m trying to be fair and consider different viewpoints as long as they are reasonable; they simply don’t like the subjectivity. But life is full of it, and they won’t be served well by thinking of life as a big multiple-choice question, the answer to which they can simply memorize in order to survive.

My only consolation is tell myself, “They’ll learn some day.” But that is a small comfort for being attacked as a bad teacher, unfair and unwilling to lay out all of the answers in neat little packages for quick consumption.

As I think about this, I have to sigh and remember that I can only do so much. I want to change more than I am capable of, and this might be the hardest thing (although I keep coming up with more and more “hardest things” as the days go on).

We’ll see how things go from here.

On the up side, I took the liberty of having the students make a very large card – a folded display board for presentations – and sign it for my co-op, which I’m hoping she will be somewhat comforted by. Despite all of my struggles in the classroom, her problems right now are far greater, and this day will be a success if she at least enjoys the card and the sentiment behind it. If I remember that perspective, then I might be better off in the long run.