The National Council on Teacher Quality recently did a study that rated teacher preparation programs using a four-star system; only four out of 1,200 Ed progams earned four stars, with 163 earning less than one star, causing them to be marked with a “warning” symbol because applicants “are unlikely to obtain much return on their investment.”
As you can imagine, a firestorm of controversy ensued over the appropriateness of rating academic programs as though they were a hamburger stand you were reviewing on yelp; others complained of the NCTE’s thin list of criteria, which included syllabi, handbooks, student surveys and teacher evaluation “instruments.” The NCTE responded by complaining that most of the universities had, not surprisingly, been “uncooperative.”
So here’s my attempt to evaluate my teacher preparation. I include as evidence only a single incident from my own experience in my program at Cal State Northridge. As I mentioned in my first post, I did all my teacher training while I was already in the classroom under California’s Intern program which placed teachers in hard-to-staff schools. Most of the time, I was so exhausted in my night school classes that I could hardly function. In other words, I had no stars to give.
But I remember Kathy Rowlands’ English Methods class. Dr. Rowlands, a brisk, smart, funny woman with decades of teaching under her belt, packed our 3-hour class with incredibly useful ways to approach the teaching of grammar, writing and literature. In her class, I’d stop being exhausted because the discussions were so engaging. Every time I left, I’d learned something I could use the next day.
The crazy thing is, that’s not what I remember. I’m sorry to tell you that I’ve forgotten most of the techniques I learned in Methods. What I remember is the way that class felt. There were at least forty of us in that class, but somehow, when she closed the door, we were a community, bonded by our love of English literature and of language itself. “How does a poem mean?” she used to ask, quoting the poet John Ciardi. After a 16-hour, often very discouraging day, her class reminded me that what we were doing was deeply worthwhile.
Here’s what I do remember: one day, to demonstrate a technique for analyzing poetry, she brought in a poem by Richard Wilbur that I’d never read before:
My dog lay dead five days without a grave In the thick of summer, hid in a clump of pine And a jungle of grass and honey-suckle vine. I who had loved him while he kept alive
Went only close enough to where he was To sniff the heavy honeysuckle-smell Twined with another odor heavier still And hear the flies’ intolerable buzz.
Well, I was ten and very much afraid. In my kind world the dead were out of range And I could not forgive the sad or strange In beast or man. My father took the spade
And buried him. Last night I saw the grass Slowly divide (it was the same scene But now it glowed a fierce and mortal green) And saw the dog emerging. I confess
I felt afraid again, but still he came In the carnal sun, clothed in a hymn of flies, And death was breeding in his lively eyes. I started in to cry and call his name,
Asking forgiveness of his tongueless head. ..I dreamt the past was never past redeeming: But whether this was false or honest dreaming I beg death’s pardon now. And mourn the dead.
As it happens, I’m a dog person. All I could think of was the many dogs in my life, especially the dog of my childhood, Barney, a deranged half-Collie, half-poodle who spent his life trying to jump over the fence and out into the exciting world of passing cars. Over time, he grew crazier and more arthritic, but even when we’d all grown up and left home, when Barney was seventeen and could barely walk any more, my parents couldn’t bear to put him to sleep.
No one knows how Barney was able, at the end of his life, to escape from the yard; he’d recently electrocuted himself by managing to locate and chew on the electrical cords in the back of the refrigerator, so he may have been animated by this accidental blast of energy. However he accomplished it, on the last day of his life Barney jumped the gate and achieved his life dream of freedom. He staggered into town, where the police grabbed him, hoisted his bony, matted furball of a body into the squad car and drove him home like the felon he’d always longed to be.
He died that night, probably of a heart attack, though all of us secretly believed that Barney died of happiness. The poem made me think of him and also of my sister, now dead many years, who had loved Barney so much as a little girl even though her allergies made her sneeze uncontrollably whenever she was within ten feet of him.
The night we read “The Pardon,” our class discussion was spirited; I raised my hand with a realization, I don’t remember what it was, but it had to do with all that I wished I’d said to those I’d loved who were now gone, of how we were dust, and helpless in the face of mortality. In the middle of my comment, I started crying and couldn’t continue. It was incredibly embarrassing, though everybody in the class was really tactful about the fact that I was sitting at my desk weeping into my worksheet like a nutcase. But it was as if the poem had named something I’d never been able to see because I hadn’t had words to conjure it into visibility.
I kept the poem. I taught it in my writing classes. Last year, my father died of cancer, but the other night, I dreamed he was still alive and walking around, animated and talking my ear off about the debt ceiling. Waking up, it was as if my dad was still there for a moment. All I could think of was the poem.
I dreamt the past was never past redeeming…
And I felt comforted. I don’t know why. Maybe because my father had loved to read, too. Maybe because that line gave my sadness something to hold onto. I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I don’t know how you measure the value of studying a poem. A recent study showed that the reading of literature causes an increased level of empathy in students; Louise Erdrich, whose novels were used as part of the study, commented dryly that she was glad to hear that they’d had a positive effect, but that she would have written them even if they hadn’t.
How does a poem mean? How many stars should we assign the learning of a poem? I’d like to say: all the stars in the sky. But, to echo Erdrich, I’d still want to study poetry even if I had no stars at all to give.