I continue to finish up planning my curricula: honing in on the major projects that I want to do for each course, matching up key assessments with state standards and descriptors, finishing my syllabi (which I think are clear and honest). I feel good about this.

I come home from work and find a letter from my superintendent, one which has been sent to all returning and new teachers. It contains the agenda for our teacher institute the first day of school (before classes start the following day) and…a list of suggestions from the spring?

I think, Okay, this should be interesting to see what the teachers thought could be improved. Maybe I can get some idea of what I’m in for.

I was at least right on the last part.

See, the problem with having total control over the curriculum is this: other teachers have their own notions of what the curriculum should consist of, and without any real guidelines, they may not line up with mine. Apparently, there are some differences in opinion, although not particularly in unexpected ways.

The “suggestions” came in two parts: a list of positive things that are already happening, and a list of suggested improvements. I can’t take any credit for any of the positive stuff, but I like what I see there – positive student/teacher interaction, supportive administration, encouraging students to be life-long readers (including the use of Accelerated Reader, which I have mixed feelings about), and technology availability and usage. That’s great stuff, and I hope that it continues next year.

But the suggested improvements are more disconcerting to me. For one, there are a number of points made about writing, and I have very strong opinions about improving writing. Some points are understandable – “We need continuity in our writing program”, for instance – and I found myself nodding when one teacher apparently noted, “I don’t think 6th graders should spend 3 units in their language books learning what nouns, verbs, and adjectives are. They’ve been taught it since 2nd grade.” I agree that the repeated re-teaching of grammar is mostly pointless and doesn’t really show any net benefit, even in assessing how well students have learned the specific type of grammar that is taught (students of course understand grammar as a general set of informal rules for language, having picked it up when they learned to talk).

Then I ran into this in the same section on writing:

How writing is scored/ assessed on essay questions, short answer and extended responses needs to be consistent across the curriculum. A school-wide rubric which demands higher-level writing in all classes should be implemented. Grammar and sentence structure emphasized and more activities in English and grammar usage at the high school level. (emphasis mine)

Now, I don’t disagree with efforts to have consistent standards  for writing across the curriculum: consistency is almost always good for students to have, with perhaps some slight modifications that should be made for each discipline (and I don’t just mean format and style considerations like APA, Chicago style, MLA, etc.). But when someone says that grammar and sentence structure should not merely be taught but emphasized – yeah, I take a little umbrage with that, since I largely represent English at the high school level (along with my colleague who teaches English part-time along with Spanish).

It’s not altogether unsurprising, I admit, since I knew in my second interview that the junior high ELA teacher has a specific system for teaching grammar (something about color-coding parts of speech…it was one of those “Smile and nod knowingly” moments). There was even a point at which this teacher said something in the process of the second interview to the effect of, “Well, I think grammar should definitely still be taught during high school,” to which I replied (without betraying my own convictions on the subject), “Of course, grammar isn’t just going to go away in high school.” Which is true and still consistent with my view that explicit grammar instruction is mostly counterproductive.

It makes me want to ask the question of my colleagues concerned with this issue: What is the purpose of wanting to emphasize grammar instruction? If it is to help students learn what things like transitive verbs and gerunds are, I think the aim itself is misguided: most people don’t care a bit how grammar is classified once they learn how to use language appropriately for certain situations. If it is to improve student writing (and perhaps speaking), then I think that the best research on the issue shows that explicit grammar instruction is the wrong tool for the purpose.

Ugh. So now I have to figure out how to make it clear that I am paying attention to students’ ability to use language in order to account for why I’m choosing to teach grammar the way I do…well, that, or cave and go the way of traditional grammar instruction.

I hope not to compromise my teaching like that.

I also am not too encouraged at other very directed statements such as “Need to find a way to continue to improve reading and math scores on these high stakes tests in April – especially at the high school level” (emphasis mine again). At least that one isn’t my sole domain – the math teachers and I are in the same boat.

Nor do I find suggestions like “Re-establish a mentoring program for new teachers”, “Assist new teachers a little more”, “Improve mentoring of new teachers” to be overly comforting.

Or even things like “Parents and students have too much power over the teachers- students tend to ‘run the show’ in many areas”.

But maybe this is just the consequence of giving teachers a time to rant. Maybe things aren’t so bad on the whole. And some suggestions are definitely not indicative of problems but instead just areas to improve more, such as “Instill in students a greater awareness of the value of education and the effects it will have on the student’s lifestyle and success probability”, “Don’t allow students to talk about teachers/students negatively in class” (that one’s already on my list, partially from experience), and – one I especially like – “Creating a junior high and high school academic bowl team” (I expressed interest in sponsoring a Scholastic/Academic Bowl team in my first interview). So maybe I shouldn’t see this as such a bad omen.

Still, it reminds me that I must continue to think about my own pedagogy, in case I ever – in light of the suggestions of others – have to give a defense for myself and for my teaching practices. I can only hope that I can fend off the dogma of traditionalism in favor of methods that I think will result in better net rewards for my students, who are – after all – the reason that I teach.

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