Forsooth what manner of scholars these, who want all kids to grasp Aristophanes?

March 21, 2004|by John Burtner

Maybe it should be said, "Beware the Ides of March," as another way of saying beware a mid-life crisis. Rather difficult to tell, when one finds himself in the midst of it all, whether it is a fellow that is whacked, or the system that surrounds him.

The system I find myself in the middle of in this mid-life juncture is the educational system. The last time I was where I am today, I had the same feelings of bewilderment. At that time, 30 years ago, I was running for student body president and said, "I feel like a mosquito in a nudist colony, I know what I want but hardly know where to begin!"

I find myself a retired dairy farmer, past lay leader and Sunday school teacher, past Farm Bureau president, father of three, husband of 27 years, carpenter, and now a qualified educator in the county rather mystified once again by the school system, but more particularly the concept of "No Child Left Behind."


I need ask basic yet complex questions about the proper process to fail a child, the process by which a child may be disciplined, the process required to determine suitable curriculum, the process by which I might maintain my sanity and the process by which I might maintain the sanity and self-esteem of the students in my classroom.

The latter seems most important, as that was the reason for which I have arrived in my present position. Yes, that is where "My Purpose Driven Life" began this quest four years ago. During the course of those years it was Dr. Carter who encouraged me to do something about the system, if I ever found myself in a position to do so. Well, I'm not sure that is where I am, but I am convinced I may be as close as I will ever get.

We, (I do mean all of us), have created a system that summarily tells kids that they are a failure every day of their lives. There does exist a need to educate our youth, but we must find a way to do it that does not so hopelessly demoralize a third of them.

As we strive for excellence in the classroom, we have forgotten that that does not mean the same thing for every student. I would remind those in places of authority of a quote from Harper Lee: "Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal a phrase that the executive branch in Washington are fond of hurling at us. There is a tendency for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious - because all men are created equal educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe - some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they're born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others - some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men." (To Kill a Mockingbird, p 205).

Our public education system is adequately prepared for that person who is "beyond the normal scope of most men" but we are grossly unprepared for the more modestly driven individual; an individual just as deserving of being developed, encouraged and educated.

I live and breathe each day of my life in a system that routinely demeans the self-esteem of that kind of student. One that daily does not adequately encourage and develop the future average worker for what will be required in the real work world.

If literature is meant to be enjoyed by those few who are enamored by the intricacies and nuances of language, it is taught to be abhorred by equally as many as we cram it down the gullets of countless uninterested, and yet equally capable young people. The need to read and read proficiently is not arguable, and yet our methods must be reconsidered.

The advantages to discerning who will benefit from an academic approach to English and a more fundamental approach to teaching language skills is desperately needed in our public schools. The concept and inclination towards more AP classes and fewer positions available in technical training is misguided, biased and fundamentally unjustifiable.

Our inclination to teach students literature as a means of developing language creates a scenario in the classroom that enables a few and undermines the self-esteem of the many who do not "get it." The fundamental requirements of reading and writing need to be addressed early on and reinforced, but should not necessarily include the intricacies of literature for a vast population of students who are uninterested, unmotivated and feel demeaned by their inability to "connect" in a meaningful manner.

Let us not remove English from the classroom, but let us begin to build and prepare students in a realistic fashion for their future positions in life. The feelings of frustration and failure that many students have could be avoided by effectively recognizing, evaluating and placing students at an earlier age.

This would instead create a situation where success and self-esteem are fostered and encouraged for students who equally deserve that opportunity. Let's take off the blinders of academia and develop a clearer and realistic vision of success for all our students!

John Burtner is a secondary education English teacher.

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