January 22nd, 2008

More fun with school...

Syd is loving having me in school. He feels vindicated hearing me make the same complaints he makes about rigidity and stupidity and boredom.

I was looking ahead at the syllabus because I am that kind of obnoxious student. Soon, when our reading assignments begin, I will be asked to “notate vocabulary.” That didn’t sound right to me, so I looked it up (in Webster’s, since I was at school and away from my laptop. Luddite confession: I prefer to draft most of my writing with an actual pen on actual paper. This does make me, however, truly wireless.) “Notate” does not appear as a verb. “Notation” is an “act, process or method of representation…” or the “act of noting; observation; also an annotation; note.” Continuing down the page, I found “note” and its eleven definitions, of which the seventh was relevant: “a comment or explanation, as in the margin of a page.” To be thorough, I flipped over to “annotate.” As I suspected, it is “to furnish with notes, usually critical or explanatory.” Below, “gloss” is suggested as a synonym, although, “Annotate implies furnishing a text with critical, historical, or explanatory notes touching any word, passage, or detail in need of such comment; gloss implies supplying a text with definitions of difficult words or phrases.” Using my amazing psychic powers, then, I have concluded that what my instructor really wants is glosses of words we don’t know. (I wonder if he has read Pedagogy of the Oppressed and if he is approaching this teaching task as one in which we are all learners together. If so, it could possibly be safe to point out that he might want to consult his dictionary of choice while making his syllabus. I doubt both potential premises, so I will not risk disaster over this point. Particularly since I knew what he wanted to begin with. It’s just one of those annoying language tics I have.)

When I had pre-literate children, I read a lot about phonics versus whole language reading instruction. I have one kid who learned mostly one way and one who learned mostly the other. I think both are essential.I tend, myself, toward whole language learning. I have acquired vocabulary through reading and definitions through contextual clues. Therefore, it was something of a struggle to make a dictionary habit at all. Nothing breaks up the flow of a story like setting the book down, finding the dictionary, finding the word in the dictionary in spite of alluring header words and diagrams that want to suck me away into a feast of verbiage, and absorbing the definition before returning to the sentence left hanging. I won’t do it unless I can’t make the smallest sense of things on context alone. (I am tempted to digress into reading Proust, which requires looking up words in the French dictionary and then the translations in the English dictionary just because he happens to want to discuss architecture using words that aren’t “that thingie that holds up the ceiling,” but I will stop now before it gets out of control.) (You may think it is already too late for that.)

The solution, for me, to the dictionary issue, is marking the spot with the unknown word with a page point (or a Post-It note, or a pencil mark and dog-ear, if desperate circumstances occur). Later I can go back and write the word in a little notebook I have for the purpose. Then, in a batch, I look up all the words I don’t know and help myself to learn them by writing out the definitions. I also have a handy record of my learning. It’s not a perfect system. Ideally, I’d go back and check out the original context. On the other hand, I do learn more words than I would otherwise.

Which brings me back to the assignment. Vocabulary assignments always frustrate me. They have since I was in high school. I was thrilled to read Thoreau as a sophomore because, for once, I wouldn’t have to look up and write down some word I already knew; he gave me the gift of “antepenultimate” to keep forever. I am not particularly sanguine about the word prospects in our upcoming reading. Thus, I will write, in my class journal so that it will be chock-full (Webster says that means full to the brim. What it has to do with chocks is unclear) by the end of the semester, some words that may, perchance, have a nuance of meaning I have failed to grasp, because I must demonstrate that I am going through the process of learning. What I know doesn’t matter. How I learn best doesn’t matter. I have to do it this way or lose (God forbid!) points.

I don’t think I want to know how many times I have told Syd that part of what you are learning in school is how to follow directions, even if they are dumb. I still think that is true. But I am, in this instance, confronted with some uncomfortable conclusions about school in general.

One: Far more of it than necessary is geared toward teaching one particular method of learning. I have had many, many classes in which I had to have a binder or notebook organized in an extremely specific way. I can do that. But perhaps it would be fine to organize a binder in a different way? Maybe it would be okay to demonstrate that I have the ability to organize my work in a way that makes me an effective learner?

Two: A lot of the dogmatism comes from two sources, what will save work for the teacher and what will prevent arguments. I am all in favor of saving work for teachers. They have heaps to do. But they are there to teach. I don’t want to be shortchanged because teaching me is too much work. I also understand the need for clear boundaries on assignments to prevent arguments. On the other hand, how about a rubric rather than a recipe?

Three: I’m being treated like a Chrysler. So is everyone else. The default idea is to install a carburetor (or French) into everyone the same way. If I happen to be missing pistons (or grammar), too bad.

If I think too long in this vein, I may endanger my life by deciding that my children need home-schooling, or schooling from some one individual who will give them instruction tailored to their individual needs at a pace suited to their learning styles. Worse, I may feel the need to go become a teacher.


In other news, I carried my dictionary to class and the instructor did not check to see if we had our books or give out points. Sigh. All that angst for nothing.