I posed a question to one of my English classes the other day: “Have you ever read something that touches you? That inspires you? That has changed you in some fundamental way?
Although I could tell that many of my kids were thinking about my queries, and a few had even raised their hands to share responses with me, I also could see that too many of them had no idea what I meant in asking, not because they didn’t understand my words, but because the concept behind them seemed strangely foreign.
Most of what those young men and women read in school now is not for inspiration or even interest. It is for test preparation, for answering multiple-choice reading comprehension questions. It is boring and bland or incomplete, hardly inspirational stuff. Mark Twain and John Steinbeck and Emily Dickinson be damned; we have train schedules and endless excerpts to study; letter C and bubble sheets await. After all, that type of reading leads to diplomas and certificates of completion and more qualified entrance into a shrinking job market.
I teach a subject that has been under assault for a long time.
The ages-old stereotype of the English teacher persists. She is often clothed in a conservative skirt and heels, the proverbial bun, reading glasses, and pearls as part of her ensemble. Her male counterpart is dressed in a conservatively dull suit and outdated narrow tie, a pocket protector filled with ballpoint pens among his requisite accessories.
Both versions carry sack lunches and copies of Byron, and among their limited interests are red marking pens, diagramming sentences, and informing weary teens that they have once again misinterpreted their Tennyson. Both prudes silently labor at secretly writing novels that will take them away from the doldrums of their everyday existence.
If students only knew that their harried and harassed instructors desperately want to implode those images, as well as return to a time when they passionately taught literature, a time when they taught a subject simply because they loved words and the ideas that they generate.
In the aftermath of yet another state-mandated performance test — given just this week — I have been thinking about the demise of teaching literature, about why this most fundamental of educational tools has gotten such a bad rap…
I am not so far out of touch with reality not to realize that we are most certainly shifting away from a society of words toward one of video and digital images and special effects; e-mail and text messaging have replaced the hand-written letter; 30-second sound bites are sending the language as it was taught to older generations to the showers. The in-depth reporting of news is yielding to the bloggers; research involves nothing more than an Internet quotation site. We are living more and more in a world of the literal instead of the figurative.
At the same time, I believe the entire focus of education — or rather the lack of one — has moved toward the retention of facts. Reading comprehension, which so many of our students so sadly lack, is a reasonable goal; however, much of what they are now asked to retain seems to have no purpose, and much of it makes no sense to them other than the attainment of another hour or two on the testing treadmill.
The late Ray Recchi wrote a column over a decade ago for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel; I have kept it all these years, and it has become required reading for my seniors. Recchi felt even then that there was a “redefinition of education because it means we no longer would attempt to teach children how to think, only how to find answers to questions.”
We have gotten so concerned with test scores and “annual yearly progress” and target areas and sub-groups that we have forgotten that somewhere in the mix, we should be trying to get kids to read because it is fun, and yes, because they may come to love books, and perhaps, if we are lucky, become more literate, more compassionate people along the way.
Recchi seems to be speaking to us from the grave. Even then, he feared that schools of the future “are no longer institutions where students become educated and ennobled. Instead, they essentially would become job-training grounds.”
As I sat that day on a stool that’s nestled near the corner of my cluttered desk, I picked up the first book I saw on a stack of books I keep amid an expanding mass of ungraded papers and testing manuals; it was an 87-year-old copy of Edgar Guest’s “When Day Is Done,” a gift from my mother a dozen years ago. Its pages fell open to his poem, “The Simple Things,” and the note my mom had left in the book to mark a favorite piece: “I thought this was very good,” she wrote to me.
After I read Guest’s handful of plain but eloquent stanzas to the group, I told my students that his words justified my question. Guest has never failed to touch me with his homespun words and uncomplicated subjects. That poem often has made me stop and reflect and reconsider where I’ve been and where I want to go. I told them that, on that very night, after all my work was done, I was eager to sit down for a while with a good book, a simple pleasure after a hectic day.
We are slowly, but surely, dismissing poetry and art and literature as unessential; they are at recess while our kids and their teachers labor incessantly at test preparation, at completely filling in their spaces with a No. 2 pencil.
George Will has said that Americans have “grown accustomed to the narcotic effect of their own passive reception of today’s sensory blitzkrieg.” He says, “… reading requires two things that are increasingly scarce and to which increasing numbers of Americans seem allergic — solitude and silence.”
At least our kids are getting those two things while they take their tests …
Mike Lunsford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more about his book, “The Off Season: The Newspaper Stories of Mike Lunsford,” at www.mikelunsford.com.
I posed a question to one of my English classes the other day: “Have you ever read something that touches you? That inspires you? That has changed you in some fundamental way?
- Mike Lunsford
MIKE LUNSFORD: We’ve created a honey of a problem
The Dutch clover is making its appearance in my yard this week. A cooler-than-usual spring has slowed its arrival by a few days, but it is here for now, bringing the honeybees and bumblebees with it.
A walk in the woods
I went for a walk in the woods one day last week after work. It was a warm and green afternoon, and a fresh blue breeze blew in from the west like a new spring friend.
MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘Dowsers’ provide hope more than science
My grandfather was a man of God. Many times I saw him, his right hand held high in the air at his Wednesday night “prayer meeting,” praising the Lord before weeping at the altar on his knees. And yet, he was a “dowser,” a “diviner,” a “witcher” who, as a favor, would grab a forked sassafras stick and find water for some poor unfortunate whose well had gone dry.
MIKE LUNSFORD: As of today, it’s unofficially spring
Despite the calendar telling us not to rush things, I think it is all right to go ahead and say spring is here. The Ides of March has passed, Easter is coming soon, and I have already been out in my yard with a rake, getting my boots muddy. It looks like spring to me.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Twain’s Sawyer helps us yearn for ‘wilderness of childhood’
My cousin, Roger, stopped in one day last summer for a glass of tea and a little conversation. Rog has lived an hour’s drive away for years and now, and besides summer reunions, I don’t see him nearly often enough. He’s a good man who has raised a good family, and he owns a healthy sense of appreciation for not only the life he has now, but also the lives we had years ago as kids.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Cheerful green of wheat fights winter blahs
There is a light drizzle of freezing rain tapping at the door of my cabin today. It is little more than a week before the words I am writing are due to appear on your breakfast table or work desk with your morning coffee and scrambled eggs. But I write when I can, and today, despite a full schedule of televised football games, and the stacks of ungraded papers in my briefcase, and a good book lying open on my nightstand, I am clacking away on a keyboard to the whir of a heater and the steady drip of my gutters.
MIKE LUNSFORD: On the simple joys of watching it snow ...
It began to snow about 20 minutes ago, as I write this, light, wind-driven flakes that fall silently into my woods as I watch from a window.
MIKE LUNSFORD: On this day above all, ‘Peace on earth, good will to men’
More than a year after his wife’s death, the great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote in his diary on Christmas Day.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Remembering a Lefty Frizzell-kind of Christmas ...
My brother and sister and I sat around a Thanksgiving dinner table a month ago, shifting in our seats just enough to make our yet-to-be digested turkey sit a little more easily, and, as we often do when we get together, we reminisced about our childhoods for a while.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The wonders of wading in ‘The Iridescence of a Shallow Stream’
I have no idea how many times I have written a story that begins with the wistful phrase, “When I was a boy. ...”
MIKE LUNSFORD: Little man who came to dinner changes feel of household
My 7-year-old nephew, Carson, came to visit us last week. That in itself isn’t earth-shattering news, for he often drops by with one of his parents or the other, the last time dressed as a ghoul for Halloween. But for a couple like Joanie and me, whose youngest child is now nearly two decades past Carson’s age, having a little guy like him in the house, even for a few hours, takes a bit of adjusting.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Reflections: a bit of red glass and our daily thanksgivings
I sat in the half-light of my old desk lamp a few nights ago, a chilly wind blowing in from the northwest that made me appreciative of my long-sleeved shirt and purring heater.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Growing up — and ‘old’ — with many mouths to feed
At our family reunion last summer, I asked my brother if I could borrow a pair of photo albums he had put together. Over the past couple of years, I have committed quite a few of our family’s old yellowing snapshots to newly cropped and digitalized lives, and I wanted to do the same with some of the pictures John has collected for himself.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Violets in October – a pleasant surprise
I guess I don’t pay much attention to the weather forecasts these days because it surprised me a bit when our furnace kicked on a few nights ago.
MIKE LUNSFORD: A library is a good thing — even a little, homegrown one
I grew up with libraries, and I can’t imagine there ever being a time when I won’t want to wander one exploring it like some bookworm-Balboa, finding an author or title that I never really knew existed before. Creating those “Eureka” moments seems to be a dying interest now that so many of us download and digest books electronically without ever really considering that there just might be some hidden gem we’d have liked even more had we simply stumbled upon it on a shelf by accident. I think those moments of discovery are not unlike kicking up lost treasure a mile from where X marks the spot.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The ‘soothsayer’ who came to dinner
I’ve had a good time opening my mail these past few weeks. Sure, I still received the usual junk about lower credit card rates and satellite television packages, but the genuine letters made me smile; most were about a story I wrote in late August.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The agony of de‘feet’ has this writer on his heels
I don’t know if I can electrocute myself by using a computer and soaking my feet in a pan of warm water at the same time, but I am contemplating taking the risk. My feet, particularly the right foot, have staged a 10-digit rebellion over the past few months. After a half-century of commendable service, my pods are screaming to be taken in for repairs, a big inconvenience for a guy who works on his feet all day and whose “sole” form of serious exercise is putting one foot in front of another walking the local roadways.
Mike Lunsford: Summer’s hidden beauty worth the wait
The great naturalist John Burroughs once said that nature teaches more than she preaches. I can’t recall a summer where that rings true more than this one, for that old sun of ours truly taught us a thing or two these past three months.
MIKE LUNSFORD: It’s time to redefine the concept of ‘assisted living’
Although it has been nearly two months now, I can’t forget the few afternoon hours I spent on a hot June day this summer at a local “assisted living” facility in town. I had been asked to speak to a group of men there about Father’s Day, but for most part, the wonderful old guys who came to listen certainly made my day more memorable than I did theirs.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Observations on smooth stones and blue-green water…
It was raining when I began to write this. Although no one could rightfully call what we got this afternoon a “downpour,” it was nice to have my windows open to hear the steady drops of a passing shower tapping on my dry-as-dust deck and hard-as-concrete yard.
MIKE LUNSFORD: This summer has us recalling the heat of ’36
It was “only” 99 degrees one afternoon last week when I decided to work on a backyard deck. With a jack and a drill and a little more sweat than I wanted to invest in the project, I went about the business of leveling its sags and dips a bit. The sun pounded down on my head and shoulders like a thug’s blackjack, but as I packed my tools and drank a glass of cool water under a big maple tree a few hours later, I couldn’t help but think about how lucky I’ve been these past few dusty and drought-stricken weeks. I have worked under this summer’s heat lamp for only a few hours at a time, but God help the roofers and utility linesmen and firemen, and so many others, who are out in it day after long hot day.
MIKE LUNSFORD: We had no better friend than Andy Taylor
The world is a sadder place now that Andy Griffith has died, but at least we still have Andy Taylor.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Wading deeper into the subject of Blue Herons
Like a relative who has worn out his welcome, the hot, parched weather of this young summer has already overstayed its visit with us, so my wife and I have found ourselves walking our road later in the evenings to keep our feet cool and our backs dry.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Thanking two dads whose gifts have never stopped coming…
It is nearly a week until Father’s Day, but I have had my dad, and my father-in-law — a second dad to me — on my mind today. I wrote about both men just a few weeks ago, but I have set my mind to write about them again anyway. I don’t want this story to be sad; they both loved to laugh and wouldn’t want that. No, I just wanted to tell them hello, and to thank them again for what they still do for me.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Raising a flag for my father, veteran or not
My daughter, Ellen, and I stood at my parents’ graves on Mother’s Day a few weeks back and talked about how it couldn’t possibly have been so long since we lost them. My dad, for instance, has been gone for 16 years, and that is nearly unimaginable
MIKE LUNSFORD: Time to become one of the boys of summer again …
Besides writing for a living, I teach school, and I’m not ashamed to tell people that I still love my classroom. I’ve been a teacher for 33 years, all of them in the same school district, and virtually all of them in the same building. But I also have to tell you that if the next few weeks don’t slide by pretty quickly, I may just let loose of the last thread of sanity from which I have been dangling for a while now. There are a lot of teachers out there who feel the same way.
MIKE LUNSFORD: It’s time for us to get the real lowdown on dirt…
I have had my hands in the soil as of late. Two Fridays ago, I planted a viburnum bush, three chrysanthemums and a yellow poplar, not because it happened to be Earth Day, but because it was sunny and warm, and I had the whole afternoon to myself. The dirt I scraped out of and back into the shallow holes I dug near a backyard picket fence smelled good, and when dampened with a few sprinkles of water, it soon found its way into the deep wrinkles of my knuckles and under my fingernails. For the most part, I have nothing but good things to say about dirt.
MIKE LUNSFORD: Make big money: Raise worms at home for fun and profit…
When I think about all of the crazy things my brother and sister and I did just to make a few dollars when we were kids, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for teens this summer as they try to find jobs in what is supposed to be a very tight market. Money, to say the least, was a rare commodity when we were growing up, but you have to at least give us credit for trying.
MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d…’
Had white lace curtains been hanging in the west window of my cabin, I would have had a perfect Wyeth painting to watch last Thursday. A gentle breeze was wafting through my screens, and the sunlight of a warm late March day was fractured by the window sill as it poured onto my legs and feet. I could catch the scent of lilacs as it was carried in by that wind, and it and the subtle melody of the chimes that hang just outside made me as lazy as an old cat.
MIKE LUNSFORD: A report from the country as a new season brings sense of renewal
Regardless of what the calendar may yet say, spring has happened. It couldn’t have come too soon, and it wasn’t just last week and its windy 70s that have convinced me. I have been keeping a journal of sorts in my head for a fortnight now, stashing away reports of birds and buds and sounds in the crammed cabinets of my mind, all in a file marked, “The New Season.”
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