Sunday, November 19, 2006

Education Writer's Block: A Defense

I've taught now for coming up on 13 1/2 years, and for around the last 10 I've considered writing some sort of book about education. On occasion this inclination has led to a bit of actual product, but each foray has lasted about 2,500 words before degenerating into an even bigger banal mess than readers see here in the typical Babble post.

I'm not one to practice much in the way of self-analysis, especially in regards to something as solipsistic as writing, but I have identified a few causes that have resulted in ever-weaker attempts to write 'bout education. Attempts even weaker than my writing norm.

It's hard not to notice that even the above is pretty lame-o stuff.

So why can't I give birth to a bouncing baby book about something I care about as much as education? Outside of the bio-systemic causes (my undiagnosed but quite obvious case of Attention Deficit Disorder prime among them) perhaps the biggest reason is my high level of concern for the topic itself. But is that really true?

I tell myself I care about education. I throw myself into it with a haphazard abandon that leads me to think of little else for nine months of the year. Yet, when I read what others write on the subject, I am quickly convinced once again that not only do I not care about education in the right way, but that others concerned about education inhabit an altogether different planet, galaxy, universe.

The inhabitants of this alternate universe exhibit the following characteristics:
  1. They are so &*%$#^* serious it makes your eyes bleed. Each and every one of them is written as if they are God chiseling on tablets. All education fun is dessicatingly sucked out of these works on the pretense that our "children" and "future" are too important for laughs. Such self-importance just cries out for satire and ridicule. Or maybe it's just me.
  2. Writers on education treat teachers/administrators as mad scientists and students as volatile chemicals. Education writing is all about experiments, failed experiments, untried experiments, unfunded mandated experiments. "If we only combined...." is a frequent phrase in education writing, as is hearty laughter at past failed experiments. Somehow the authors never consider that their own experiments might some day be just as laughable.
  3. Armed with supreme knoweldge of what was done wrong in the past, education writers bombastically proscribe what experiments should be put in place now and forever, immediately. Failure to do exactly what the writer proscribes is a crime against children. Opponents to the ideas of the author are freely compared to Hitler, or even worse, Albuquerque Public Schools.
  4. Underlying each of these works is a three-fold assumption: 1. K-12 education used to be better, but now it sucks; 2. The United States used to be smarter than it is now. 3. #1 has something to do with #2. Writing on education places supreme importance on what happens to students between 8:00 and 3:00 180 days of the year, and tends to forget what happens the other 17 hours a day and 185 days of the year. Possible influences in dumbing down Americans like television, video games and parents who watch tons of television are discounted relative to the supposed magic wand welded by educators on occasion from 8:00 to 3:00.
  5. Not to mention the possibility that Americans are no more stupid now than they have been since 1776. Let's face it...there have been a ton of not-too-terribly educated people...since...forever. Back in the Greek day, Plato wasn't exactly impressed with the knowledge base of the average Greek guy. Still, from reading today's education books one would get the impression that today's "citizens" are dumber than ever and getting dumber by the minute.
  6. Largely ignored by critics of the current educational system is the fact that for most of us the educational system of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s did plenty of asinine things to us, and look how we turned out. For instance, I remember being taught how to write by a teacher constantly wielding one of those rubber ball-bouncing-on-a-string-paddles with the rubber ball and string removed. She went around whacking us for little or no reason quite frequently. Now, I can't write legibly to save my life, but that hasn't stopped me from writing completely illegible comments on my students' creative writing papers. We learn to adapt, to compensate for our own educational deficits, and these writers never seem to acknowledge that.
So, for the reasons above, I've been wanting to write an education book that reflects a very different reality than I see in the education writing of others. A book that gets into the FUN of teaching and learning, a book that compares teaching to playing in a jazz combo in the sense that it is an interactive improvisation, a jointly creative journey constantly bobbing and weaving amid some intellectual melody. Or that it's not such a journey and is really boring.

Upon further meditation, perhaps it's exactly because of the last paragraph that I will probably never finish writing a book on education. That education for me boils down to one sentence comparing teaching/learning to jazz playing, and that writing 250 pages on the subject would just be repeating the same line over and over 150,000 times. And that would be exactly what is wrong with education and education writing, in my way of thinking. We wouldn't expect or want Sonny Rollins to write 250 pages about a particular solo on "Blue 7", not to mention our disinterest of such a retelling by a local player at a ABQ jazz club (if such a club, in fact, existed).

In other words, it don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that.... and you don't need to read, or write, a book to figure that out.


Tina D said...

You've been reading all the wrong books.

Check out "The Pen Commandments: A Guide for the Beginning Writer" by Steven Frank.

It's funny and sure, it's not about teaching, but it's written by a teacher who tells about how he teaches in a wayt that engages even those who don't teach or write.

Check it out.

Tina D
Taylor MS

Jess said...


I definitely approve the idea of you writing a book. It would be something I would read not only because you're a friend, but also because I know it'd kick some ass.

Maybe you should get into more thinking along the lines of just... how you started and maybe what you think about kids and their education and what exactly is needed. Not all of it has to be funny, even dealing with such an important subject.

Interesting to think, too, about how education is taken for granted here in America - in other countries they really love to learn and be at school, even if the schedule is grueling.

Think on it - I have ideas. Just ask.

Jess Bess