I finished the book I’ve been reading this week earlier today, Why Do We Gotta Do This, Mr. Nehring?: Notes from a Teacher’s Day in School by James Nehring, and I have to give it my highest recommendations for any junior high or high school teacher (although it will be more topical for the latter). It is a very compelling book, equal parts narrative and commentary but all contained within a narrative framework that is very approachable. Nehring does a great job of telling the story of education – not a history, but the way things are. I say “are” because I don’t think things have changed a whole lot in the 20 years since this book was written and published; in fact, if you replaced all instances of “Walkmen” with “iPods,” there would be virtually no dissonance with the reality of education in 2009.

There is much that can be said about Nehring’s commentary – perhaps the most important part of the book, although the narrative is entertaining and engaging – but I want to return to that dreaded question that I wrote about a few days ago*.

The question, of course, is in the title of the book, and Nehring returns to it on multiple occasions. Later on, when Nehring is talking about explaining the reason for “why we gotta do this” to a low-achieving class, he turns the lens inward:

Teachers have grown weary of telling kids why they gotta do stuff. Worse yet, I fear we’ve stopped asking ourselves. So we tell the kids with knuckleheaded determination that they gotta do it, so just do it. And when pressed, we say it’s on the test or it’s just something that an educated person should know. So a kid tries his best, under the circumstances, to learn what he must conclude is meaningless, and he either learns it or doesn’t learn it or he learns it partially, then turns around and forgets it completely because after all it’s meaningless. The next year, when a different teacher starts teaching the same stuff, the kid figures, why ask why we gotta do it since we gotta do it, anyway. Third time around, if the kid’s sense of justice has not been completely subdued, acceptance turns to resentment: All right, I’ll do it, dammit. While all this is going on in the kid’s mind, the teachers follow a related mental path. You learned this last year, says the teacher. Don’t you guys remember anything? Then, in the faculty room, teachers talk. We teach this every year to these kids, and you’d think by the time they reach high school, they’d know it. If concern among the staff becomes great enough, then a departmental meeting is called (sometimes multidepartmental) and at this meeting all jointly exclaim how terrible it is that kids don’t know this stuff, and it’s TV, and it wasn’t this way twenty years ago, and it’s time we set up some rules and policies. If there are educationists in the group, they talk about “articulating the curriculum,” which means that instead of making the kids do the same meaningless stuff every year, we make them do a little of it each year on the incorrect assumption that the kids can’t do it because it’s too difficult, when of course the real reason is that they don’t do it because it’s meaningless. (pp. 124-125)

There’s a lot in that passage, much of which isn’t all extraordinary in education. But what it does make me think about is what I’m doing and what I should be thinking about.

It’s a fundamental problem with the way we set up curricula, in my opinion, and I can’t say that I’ve done much to change it despite having the power to control what I teach almost absolutely (that is, my curricular choices have really only been limited by the available materials, not really by top-down proscriptions on required material). Why do we read Moby-Dick in American lit (or at least study it)? Generally, the answer is something like “Because it’s one of the classics” or “Because that’s part of the standard curriculum for an American lit survey.” If you want to go for a more intellectual answer, you might say something like “Because it provides excellent material to compare the elements of Dark Romantic or Anti-Transcendentalist literature with Romantic and Transcendentalist literature,” but that of course just pushes the question back one step further to “Why do we gotta worry about stuff like transcendentalism?” Eventually, that question needs a satisfactory response.

Some of the material I’ve been teaching has an easy explanation. My sophomores have been preparing informational speeches, which they will begin presenting on Monday, and the answer there is easy: “Because knowing how to speak well in a formal setting is an incredibly important that will help make you successful in the real world.” My seniors wrote a college application essay, and…well, I didn’t have to explain the relevance of that assignment to them. Neither did I have to draw out the reason for writing autoethnographies, which my seniors really dug into and explored in interesting ways.

But I can think of opportunities that I’ve missed to really connect my curriculum to the real world. When I got remarks like this when studying Native American creation myths in junior English, I could have said, “Because it’s important to understand what oral cultures valued” or even “Because it provides us an opportunity to look at our own myths with a critical eye.” I could have more fully explained to my sophomores how reading about individuals from different cultures can allow us to draw connections to our own lives and see how some themes and issues, like missing a loved one who you are apart from (a theme of one of our stories, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” by Jhumpa Lahiri), are somewhat universal; the answer here is “Because making these connections will help us empathize with other cultures and think of them not as strange and uncivilized but as fellow humans” or “Because understanding those who are different from us is important for us to coexist with them as citizens in an increasingly globalized world.”

It’s a question I want to keep asking myself, in the hopes that I don’t press on to teach my students something that I don’t think is worthwhile. I’m in a place to make my classes fairly customized and relevant to my students, in a way that perhaps many teachers don’t have the flexibility to do. Don’t want to teach Julius Caesar? See ya, Brutus and Cassius. Want to teach something that is outside the canon? Go ahead, if it’s appropriate for the audience (reading level, maturity level, etc.). So why don’t I do that?

Truthfully, because it’s a lot of work. But that doesn’t make it out of the question, and it’s a goal I still hope to achieve at some point, even if it’s not attainable in the first year.

One more thing that I want to add (this is long enough already) – Nehring talks about a student in the early days of personal computers and word processors (and we’re talking early, given that this is the late ’80s) who starts plagiarizing information for reports, even going so far as to offer the service for other students. In the same way that he turns the lens inward regarding the rationale for our curricular choices, Nehring states why this often happens:

When kids are not taught how to do something, they learn how not to do it. Teachers call this cheating. Kids call it survival. (p.130)

Having had a student cheat, I agree with this – it took a conversation to understand that the student didn’t know what to do and had resorted to plagiarism instead of coming to ask me. When I understood that, it was easy to offer a second chance and rethink my own pedagogy.

It’s not easy to look at teaching this way, and certainly we get blamed for a lot as teachers that we don’t deserve blame for, but it’s a different perspective, one that can make us re-examine what we do. We must remember that out of all the people that walk into our classrooms, there is only one person whose actions we will ever be able to change: ourselves.

*Ever since I started thinking about this question, I have had the following lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in my head: Streets that follow like a tedious argument/Of insidious intent/To lead you to an overwhelming question…/Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”/Let us go and make our visit.