Pardon Our Dust

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:

The Pardon

 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.

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12 thoughts on “Pardon Our Dust”

  1. Love this beautifully written thing. Made me weep right here on the road in the car somewhere in Oklahoma
    For me the question that needs our attention is what or who school is for. Seems school is a matter of quality of experience and not readily quantifiable.

    I have taught for more than 30 years and the way I learned to teach was by doing it…. And reading. Reading learning theorists. Piaget, Vygotski, Bronfenbrenner, Erickson et al.
    And then there’s John Holt, AS Neill, Kozoll, William
    Ayers, Alfie Kohn. And others.

    I ran screaming from the buildings of LAUSD because I could not in good conscience inflict bureaucratic BS on young people any longer. The system expects us to put aside what we know about good classroom building and replace it with clerical check sheets and rubrics.

    Hey. I have profound respect for dedicated public school teachers on the frontlines. However, I do not believe that we can fix the machine by tinkering around the edges or installing new parts. We need to tear it down build it from scratch. Teachers need to.

    1. This is not meant to be snarky. I’d say 95% of those involved in market based education reform would have no clue what you just wrote about (Piaget, Vygotski, etc…). I confess I don’t know them either, but my grad school did talk more about ed theory compared to market reform teachers.

      Some reformers, like Rhee, would call this fluffy useless stuff. Hence, the great fight in education now. The market reformers believe it’s about improving data/outcomes/college acceptance rates, and the best way to do this is through quantifying data, and the easiest way is via multiple choice standardized exams. Education theory, to them, and to NCTQ, is a big waste of time that doesn’t get “results.”

      Let’s take Ellie’s example above, but instead of her being in a graduate level class, let’s say that this story happened in a high school English class. I think most people would say this would be incredible teaching and the students grew a little as human beings. But would this lead to a higher CST exam score, or a higher common core exam score next year? If no, then the market reformer worldview would say it’s not worth it, or that it didn’t increase student achievement. They would view this teacher as someone who isn’t in the 21st century, who wants to protect the status quo, who doesn’t want to change. The teacher, on the other hand, would believe s/he is being a true educator, who is using their skills developed over perhaps decades as a professional educator, to do what’s best for the development of students into rational thoughtful human beings.

      1. Yes. Well these reformers lack knowledge of developmental theory, or perhaps they willfully ignore it. What I often hear from these folks is that “these are just theories”. This kind of response reveals a deficit in their studies of science. Theory is research based and tested over time….using scientific methods. Piaget’s theories have been tested, as well as recent brain research has affirmed his theory of cognitive development ..
        Further…these reformers ignore the standardized test results in Finland. Now those are some results.
        I have heard the argument that the culture in Finland is different than the US. Well yes the culture values social equity .And the culture values teachers. The lean and mean reform movement is not about that at all.
        The cultures are different but the test is the same. And they blow the US out of the water.

      2. First of all, cthebean, thank you so much for your very kind words about my post. I certainly agree with everything you say about developmental theory! Comparisons with Finland do make me a little uneasy, though. I do think the cultural concern is valid. Finland is culturally homogeneous and has something like a 5% poverty rate. This is not to say that their educational system is not wonderful, nor that we can’t learn from it. But we face a class system and a history of racial injustice here that Finland does not face. I’d love to throw out tests and give teachers the pay we deserve. But I think that in the U.S., in addition, addressing education is going to mean addressing poverty.

      3. Absolutely agree that poverty is a huge challenge.
        However the social structure in Finland is not homogenous as an influx of immigrants has mixed it up significantly.
        There is much we can learn from the initial idea of leading with the goal of equity and their response to diversity. More here
        http://www.nea.org/home/40991.htm

      4. I’ve definitely heard statements like that! There’s an irony, too, in English classes–the idea that 20th century thinking should be irrelevant kind of goes against the concept of studying literature (something that people have done for many centuries, not just the past one), which by definition involves an immersion in literary history. People keep trying to come up with “innovations” in the study of literature, at least for as long as I’ve been around, and they never seem to stick.

  2. Empathy is an abstract concept that cannot be measured…but what we learn from Piaget is that ability to conceptualize and play with ideas ….abstractions…is the most developed form of human thinking. He also thought that not all humans reach that stage.
    Hmmmm…so if our students know a bit about how that poem feels…..hmmm

  3. I am now concerned with Common Core. The way in which the federal government has boldly entered what will be taught, how it will be taught, etc is disturbing notwithstanding the problems to which this federal initiative is addressed. But top down directives, points of view, etc are problematic for me. Am I being too paranoid?

    1. No, I agree that it’s a valid concern. My impression so far is that the central idea of the Common Core–analytical thinking, who could disagree with that, really?–is a good one, but the massive amounts of testing that are going to ensue sound like a potential disaster. The examples I’ve seen either are not much of an advance on multiple choice testing or are going to skew heavily in favor of students who already have resources like internet access, computers and a significant amount of prior knowledge required to make sense of the tasks themselves, something students in low-income settings often do not have.

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