Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Oh patient readers, brace yourself for yet another angry, and dreadfully long, rant! Kona is getting to me in all kinds of ways.

The more I interact with people here, the more I realize that I am very different. Not better than or worse than, just DIFFERENT. My thinking, my beliefs, my aims...all of it, and what's disturbing is that the more I see these differences, the more I am overcome with waves of self-doubt. Am I really wrong? Is everyone getting something that I'm not? Am I losing grip on reality and seeing things that just aren't there?

My most recent panic attack was provoked by a class I attended this evening. As mentioned previously, I have been offered a job as a substitute teacher. However, before being eligible to start this job, one must complete a certification course and pass a test. This course happens to be taught by the brilliant and wonderful Mrs. Y who was actually a teacher of mine in middle school. The course runs a duration of two weeks and we are already half way through it. Thus far it's OK. I say OK and not excellent, or even good, because 1. I was required to pay for this course in order to attend it, 2. After teaching for five years already, I find some of the material a bit redundant, and 3. Our sessions are held every night for four hours and let's face it, my attention span is fickle. But like I said, it's OK. It's good having a reason to get out of the house and the other people in the course are pretty nice and for the most part, impressively dedicated and enthusiastic about becoming good substitute teachers.

Now, getting back to my panic attack; two things got the ball rolling. The first was more obvious than the second. Being eager adults, keen to share our experiences, and sometimes forgetful of the fact that our job will be to FILL IN occasionally for a teacher out with illness, as opposed to being PROPER TEACHERS, our simple classroom discussions often take a turn for philosophical ramblings about educational theories. Such was the case this evening when a conversation about writing instruction led to an involved comment on "modern" theories of how students should develop a mastery of their own language, spoken and written. The fantastic Mrs. Y shocked me by saying that when evaluating students' written work, we should pay careful attention to the students' ability to express their ideas, as well as the depth and breadth of their ideas, while things that might inspire vicious red marks, such as a failure to remember the pesky rules for spelling and grammar, should be regarded as secondary.


(Yes, patient readers, I AM so uptight that this really did upset me.)

Young learners should only concern themselves with taking an accurate command of their own (and usually ONLY) language AFTER they have successfully been able to express their esoteric childhood thoughts?!

"But Mrs. Y," I protested, still unable at my age to refer to her by her first name, "in the real world, not knowing how to spell and writing with poor grammar inhibits people from being articulate and what's more, professional people see written mistakes as a sign of a lack of education, laziness, sloppiness and careless attention to detail."

"You don't want to discourage children from writing at all. How would you feel if you got an essay back with all kinds of red marks on it?", or something along those lines, she said.

WHAT NONSENSE, I thought. How the hell are you supposed to learn if no one will correct you? And what are we as teachers and adults doing coddling underachieving students like that? Really, if a student can't handle some constructive correction from their schoolteacher as a child, how the hell will they survive less friendly criticism in their life as an adult?

"Well, when do they learn things like spelling and grammar?" I asked, still amazed that such a well-spoken, dedicated teaching professional (and primary school principal also faced with bringing all of her students up to nationally mandated achievement standards) believes that red ink will damage a child's psyche.

"In the correct context," she offered with little explanation. "Besides, nowadays we have spell check and computer programs and editors and things. What we really need to do is inspire the children to be creative and express themselves."

WOW. Do I feel old fashioned for feeling like this is a crock. I'll get to why in a moment.

The second point in the evening where I felt that I just didn't get it is when the class started talking about students with disabilities and how they should be accommodated. (Now, before I continue, I want say I am a firm believer in education for everyone and because learning disabilities do in fact exist, I understand completely that some students just need special help. Please don't get me wrong on that point.) However, the conversation moved to autism and how it's becoming more of a problem in America and members of my class knew this because of something Oprah said. The women in the room, mostly mothers, looked very concerned as this topic evolved.

Now again, before I continue, I don't want anyone to believe that I don't think autism is a serious problem. I know it is. But then I said, "Mrs. Y, do you really think autism is becoming a bigger problem because it really is, or do you think it's just an indication of our times? Surely, people have been educated for centuries without labels such as ADD, ADHD or whatever other 'learning disabilities'?" And I gave her this example: "In China, where I have worked for three and a half years, there are NO MENTAL DEFICIENCIES. That's the official line, anyway. Of course, there are lots of people who suffer from mental illness and other social disorders, but as a rule, no one acknowledges it. While that's an extreme at the opposite end with its own negative effects, most students, whatever their condition, are expected to work to the best of their abilities. Obviously, not everyone is the best student in the class, but they all try hard."

(Actually, that wasn't word for word, what I said. I am usually not that articulate on the fly. I admit right now that I have fine-tuned a lot of the arguments here. [Ha ha. I can do that because it's MY blog.])

Well, this example caused a laugh and instead of focusing on my point about students trying to achieve to the best of their abilities high expectations placed on them, everyone thought it was so sad that China doesn't believe in mental illness.

Then I added, "Maybe all of this special attention is giving students an excuse to underachieve, and maybe little boys jump and scream because they are little boys and maybe we should set high standards for everyone and maybe parents should be parents."

This fell mostly flat. Someone then suggested that maybe so many kids have attention problems because of television. His theory was that horizontal lines that run down the screen at a pace too quick to see normally, but evident when filmed, are processed in the minds of young children to damaging effects. I didn't want to come off rude, or as a know-it-all, so kept to myself the fact that those lines are seen on film as a result of a difference in playback frame rates, and that it seems rather likely that adults and children process them identically. But who knows? Maybe there was something to what he said, anyway.

Then we had a break and a woman in our class told me that two of her children are ADD, as well as her husband, and while she tried and tried to help her kids and didn't want to put them on Ritalin, in the end she tried it and found that it was the best solution for their problem. I listened patiently, but her argument did not change my position. And then she said, "You know, maybe China doesn't acknowledge mental illness because they don't want their people to ever think about all of the problems in their country."

OK. So there was my breakdown. I felt painfully alone in my thoughts. I was told that spelling wasn't important and grammar is hard to teach. I was told that creative thinking is the ultimate aim of a well-rounded education, and I was told, probably by someone with limited information, that the China doesn't want to properly educate its people for fear they will revolt, find God and pop psychology.

Now, let's talk about why I'm different. This is how I see things.

First, let's break down globalization. This great stuff called capitalism that we kill and die for is spreading all over the world and we made it so. For the most part, this has been good for America. We send stuff abroad and people bring us ugly, poorly made clothes at a steal. After WWII, for all kinds of reasons, America got rich, we built up our military, life got easy, people went to college and Mom got a Hoover. The 60s and 70s went, social life changed, but for the most part, life was still pretty good. But, let's take a look at what's happening today. Rapidly developing technology has allowed for instantaneous communication throughout the world. Economies that were once behind are zipping and booming and lots of new people are getting rich. But here's the catch: For economies to grow, people, or rather businesses have to find way to get more bang for their dollar (or euro or pound or renminbi). If people or materials are expensive in one place, business savvy people go elsewhere, to other cities or, as it is happening now, other countries, to set up shop.

So now, pray tell, what the hell does this have to do with spelling and grammar and kids with ADD? As I see it, America is in trouble. For far too many years, we have rested on the fact that we are the richest, most powerful country in the world. Simply having the good sense to be born to American citizens, or on American soil, means that life is automatically better than it would be most elsewhere. But this is the problem: That yummy capitalism we've spread all over the world is coming to bite us in the ass. As history has proven, economies must evolve: countries that develop economically by making stuff, such as clothes, for other people must eventually shift into high skilled services, such as banking or pharmaceuticals, to keep alive; they must do so because they won't be able to make stuff cheaper than other poorer countries can. Now, of course, America leads the way in professional services, but exactly how long can we do that for? With the current state of math and science in this country (to be read: bad, and almost non-existent if we didn't let in ambitious and high-achieving students from poor countries hungry for the knowledge they can't get at home), I'd say, not long.

"Close the borders and stop sending jobs to China and India!" the people yell. But let's face it. That won't happen. Capitalism is a hungry beast that can't be stopped; the people making money have all the power and there ain't nothing coming between them and their precious profit. Besides, China has all of our cash, anyway.

And finally, to my point: While people in Hawaii, and perhaps the rest of America, worry about whether little Jonny feels good about himself and his pre-pubescent profundity and his ADD, the rest of the world biting the bitter bullet of life, learning English the old fashioned way, AS WELL AS THEIR OWN LANGUAGE, and preparing for life in a not-so-friendly, not-so-caring, and definitely not-fair world of global competition. Now, some of you offended naysayers may tut-tut and remind me that America is the land of invention and innovation and China can't ever touch us 'cause they're all bunch of commie pinkos who can't think for themselves. Perhaps that's true. And who knows what the future holds? But if things carry on as they do, let us hope that in our American future full of lots of people who can't spell, but have healthy egos and vivid imaginations, someone will find a cure for the widespread depression and listlessness that will come as a result of the inability to find a job, despite being so damned creative, expressive and special. Perhaps someone will even invent a pill for it.

Now, having had this opportunity to present my ideas in graphemes (that's a word I learned in class--it means letters), I console myself in that I am not totally wrong. Different, but maybe not too far off the mark.

**Afterward: If when reading this you come across any typos or misspelling or grammatical errors, I want to remind you that it doesn't matter because I think I've expressed well my ideas.

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