Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Beware of the gifts borne by Greek grammar

Every day, numerous students (which means anywhere from 4 to 15, depending on how many times I pursue it) will reflexively and self-righteously assert the integrity of and commitment to their work by thrusting a piece of paper—with some small amount of written material thereupon—toward me when I ask if they’re getting their work done.

Typically, I’m asking because, having given some class time to get work done, I see the student(s) in question doing something—chatting, daydreaming, fidgeting, playing, etc.—besides work, or the self-same student(s) rather consistently neglect(s) work.  Usually, it’s the combination of both those factors. 

This little game—a mime so frequent it could be a meme—occurs so regularly and so predictably that it’s beyond humorless.  It’s enervating.  Yes, I know, I ought to respond differently, find another way to get students to respond differently, by engaging them differently.  To that I’d say, you probably haven’t spent a hundred and eighty days with 8th graders.  For those who want not to do work, the powers of avoidance and creative reframing a situation are vastly superior to any teacher’s capacities to redirect, reconstruct or otherwise redesign material, pedagogy or curriculum.

Believe me, you can execute a delightfully creative and engaging 15-minute activity, then send the class off to do 10 minutes of work following the activity, and some number of students will simply decline to do that work.  Unless you make the work the playing of some sort of silly game on their smart phone, certain students will avoid anything that looks academic.  (I have had, for example, students declare that they’re not doing anything, because “8th grade don’t matter…I’ll start working in high school.”)

It seems to me that this process, these claims by students, are a repudiation of our very way of thinking, and--more importantly, of course!--the renunciation of the standardized testing process!

I say this because the test, and the standards behind it, are clearly Greek, by which I mean they engage in hypotaxis*.  That is to say, both grammar and thinking are constructed to make one point, with subordinate ideas and evidence supporting or elaborating that point.  If you've had--what?--five minutes of writing in an American public school, you know what I'm saying.  The five paragraph theme, the "kite" graphic organizer, Step Up To Writing (no doubt, with that little TM symbol appended), "tell me what you're going to tell me, tell me, tell me what you told me," or whatever other structure or mnemonic you know or use, are all creatures of hypotaxis.

So, a student who is clearly not working, can--when called out for the same--confidently show a piece of (bad) evidence to "prove" that they are working.  Or, they had, at one point worked, as in, they wrote--in the last 7 minutes-- one thing on a piece of paper.  And on the standardized test, following the expectations driven by our commitment to the forms of hypotaxis, if not serious content within that form, a detail supporting a key idea in service to a main point is, in fact, the point.  The quality of the details doesn't much matter on the test--the graders can't spend a ton of time on them, so if you have a quote and a statistic and an expert opinion, you're gold.  Get the right type of stuff, and we'll say that correlates reasonably well with actually having good stuff, so we'll call it good.

Or, if you want to talk with your neighbor during class, make sure you have a piece of paper with a few words scratched on it, so you can show evidence that you're working.  Then everything else--talking with your neighbor, spinning this year's ridiculous fidget toy, whatever--isn't relevant, because it is not confounding evidence refuting the "I'm working" thesis.

Has the slovenly evaluation of the standardized test wrought this intellectual laziness?  It's a circuitous claim...but it may not be a leap.

*  Yes, there are Greek texts that use parataxis (the use of coordinating rather subordinating grammatical relationships, and characterized by sharp juxtaposition of different--but equal--ideas or images), but as a rule, Greek has bequeathed us the very hierarchical logic embodied in hypotaxis.

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