Technology-literate kids can't see value of English

November 18, 2001|By Michael Olesker

SIMPLE SOULS worried about the future of the written word can turn to the Baltimore Convention Center for solace. About 6,000 of the nation's experts have gathered there over the last few days. And the verdict is: They're worried, too.

They're high school and college English instructors from around the country, who stand before oceans of students each day and try to wade through a culture built on television and the Internet, and MTV and sound-bite journalism, and cell phones, and insist that reading and writing are important to kids who cannot imagine such a possibility.

"It's not easy," said Judith Gosbee, a 12th-grade English teacher from Haverhill, Mass. She held a printed sheet in her hand, which noted that the panel discussion on "Writing and Literacy: Public Battle" had been canceled. The gods of irony had struck again.

"The kids come from homes where there are no books," said Gosbee, who's taught for 32 years. She had an air about her of seriousness and chalk dust. "The parents work two jobs - if there are two parents. The kids are very literate in technology, but they don't see where reading is something they need for their lives.

"And they live in a culture of sound bites and quick fixes. That mentality permeates everything, including the schools. Administrators figure, if you can't fix something in a year, let's change it. Now," said Gosbee, "we're trying to get kids to write in their authentic voices."

Earlier generations were taught that the writing ideal was something that sounded like refined English gentlemen of perhaps the 18th century. But because such creatures never exactly connected to the speech patterns of 20th-century boys and girls, the model turned off several generations of would-be readers and writers.

"Now," said Gosbee, "we're trying to get them to write in their own voices, and write about things that matter to them. We used to worry about grammar. Now, you say `dangling modifier,' and they don't know what you're talking about. Somewhere in here, we've got to find a blend."

What Gosbee sees in her working-class Massachusetts town is what English teachers see in Baltimore - or in rural Remus, Mich., or in Brooklyn's Bedford Stuyvesant section.

"We've become spectators," said Carol Deurloo, a 35-year teaching veteran from Remus. "But reading involves thinking, engaging your imagination. TV does everything for you. It's all this dream factory stuff, game shows and lotteries. The kids think they're supposed to admire the person who hasn't had to work for success."

With reading, the brain has to be engaged. All those letters await deciphering - unlike television, where you sit back and let images wash over you. What's the difference how we get our information? Simple: Reading lets us slow things down, lets us digest at our own pace, and lets us get into the details of a thing, where truth is found.

Television's got to blind us with visuals so we don't hit the remote control before the commercials arrive.

"What we're trying to do here is look at the learning styles of different students," John Barber said. He's chairman of the English department at the Fairmont-Harford Alternative High School here. It used to be Clifton Middle School. He's also one of three coordinators at the National Council of Teachers of English gathered at the Convention Center.

"There are kids," said Barber, "who can learn in a certain kind of setting, but not in another. We've got to learn to make those distinctions."

"Times have changed," agreed Myrdis Kelley, who teaches English in Brooklyn's tough Bedford Stuyvesant district. "We used to have desks that were bolted to the floor. We all did the same thing at the same time. We never asked why. We never thought about cultural differences."

"That's right," Barber said. "We were told, `Never question.' These kids question today."

"My mother," said Kelley, "told me, `Get an education or scrub floors.'"

"Value," said Barber. "But kids today don't value education."

"They see education," said Kelley, "as `the other' way to make money."

She said many of her senior high students read a book called Push, by Sapphire. Kelley said she made it a point to read it. There's a scene where a guidance counselor's telling a teen-age girl, "Education's important." But the girl notices the guidance counselor's nails aren't done, and she wears no brand-name clothes. And thinks, "This is why I should go to college, and you don't even look good afterwards?"

"Values," Kelley was saying now. "We've got to read the things they're reading to find out what their values are. And talk about literature in those terms, too."

That connection struck a chord with Pat Miller, coordinating supervisor of academics for Prince George's County. She stood in the Convention Center lobby watching teachers file in. Some had the classic Seventh-Period Slouch.

"There's pleasure in reading," Miller said. "Without thinking about it, the schools took a lot of pleasure out of that process."

The reference was to years of English classes where the reading of Shakespeare was followed by tests of multiple-choice questions, true-false, and fill-in-the-blanks. It was easier for teachers to grade such questions. What was lost, though, was the sheer joy of language.

"And that's what we're trying to get back," said Miller.

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