I have always hated my handwriting. After years of practice, writing papers, essays, blog posts, journal entries, and letters, I have reached a point where I would describe my hand as legibly neat. Not elegant or beautiful, but workmanlike. I am self-conscious about its clumsiness, and that it appears (in my sole estimation) as that of an uncouth teenager.[1] In contrast,typed fonts are pristine.

Some of my least favorite assignments in high school were ones that involved required marginalia in English classes. I distinctly recall two classes that wanted the students to underline and/or annotate poems and stories–a task from which I recoiled on several levels. First, there was my handwriting. I thought that any marginalia of merit should be neat, at least to the point where it does not detract aesthetically from the sterile print on the page. In this, I was in awe of my artistic classmates and those with elegant script. On this level, the comments were irrelevant; just the thought of my ghastly print filled me with dread.

Then there was the commentary. What was I supposed to write? Noting allusions? Themes? Summary? Commentary? Emotes (the king then mostly found on AOL Instant Messenger)? And cui bono? Were these marginalia for my own future remembrance? (Unlikely; I don’t even remember which texts I annotated.) For a future reader? (Unlikely; at least one was a poem in a text book bought for the class.) For the teacher? (Probably, since it was for a grade. [2]) That I did not like most of the books I read for class in high school did not help this paralysis either, but I never grew out of my distaste for marginalia. I still don’t like my handwriting or really know what to say in margin notes. I will underline passages on photocopied articles, but mostly because those are short enough that I can flip through them quickly–with longer books I take copious notes by hand on another sheet of paper. It is a labor intensive alternative to marginalia, but I believe it has actually helped me and that I not merely being obstinate in this practice.

But I am not universally opposed to marginalia–just to my own. One of my favorite things about buying used books is finding some touching inscriptions and marginalia. One recent example is that while reading Bend Sinister by Nabokov, there was an early scene where the Professor Adam Krug idly corrects the punctuation of a document he is reading. The image evidence amused the earlier reader and s/he added a smiley face in the margin. This earlier reader, though not one for words, was an incessant commenter, employing lines, starts, and question marks at regular intervals, with a periodic exclamation point for punctation. None of the comments were as charming as the emoticon, though, and the more frequently they occurred, the more distracting they became. [3]

In fact, this is something I notice about a lot of marginalia from a single hand: an occasional comment is like chatting about a book with someone; a constant barrage is like doing a close reading of the same text–unless there is an ulterior motive (class, publication) it can distract from enjoyment. In the library today, I put back two books that I want to read because I found entire chapters covered in extended commentary. [4] Marginalia can be a great boon, and to see several voices engaged, blindly, in discussion can be fascinating, but too much marginalia seemingly without purpose is rapidly becoming one of my pet peeves because it gets in the way of my reading of the book.

And one more thing: don’t write in library books, it is incredibly selfish. Seriously.

[1] And, of course, as I write this out by hand, I botch spelling “uncouth,” and awkwardly superimpose the correct letters, adding to my frustration.

[2] I can better appreciate the issues with grading now, but I still don’t love assigned marginalia and would rather push for more writing, instead.

[3] To be fair, the passage that received the exclamation point was shocking.

[4] I blame the subject, in part. I can see how philosophical novels could draw a wordy and opinionated audience.

When to Read

Rarely have I had an English class that I enjoyed. I liked the teachers, I liked many of the classmates and some of the activities and assignments, but I did not enjoy the class. This is perhaps because there was one assigned book (Shakespeare aside) that I truly enjoyed reading (and another two that I got to choose from a lengthy list). In part this could be the contrarian in me, but I see two larger systemic reasons.

The first is that I don’t like structurally analyzing literature. I’m sure that it has value and it is good to understand what a climax is, but I also steadfastly maintain that literature broken down into constituent parts loses something. Literature is story telling and is about drawing the audience in, so while breaking the story down some ways can help understand it better, other divisions end up leaving it empty. I want to experience my literature. In just one example, one of the reasons that I love 1984 as much as I do is that I have a visceral reaction to the story each and every time I read it. Few other books do that for me.

The second is a larger issue with teaching classic literature in high schools at all. While I do believe that there are great books, whether canonical or not, that everyone ought to read, I am becoming more and more convinced that high school is the wrong time to read them. However hard my teachers tried there were certain messages and certain elements in the books we read that I was only capable of understanding or absorbing in a shallow way. For some books that is still the case, and for others I will never really be ready (though accepting this as a basic truth actually helps make me able to read those books anyway). My point is that now, in my third year of graduate school (which is to say my fourth year out of college), I am realizing that I have more of an affinity for absorbing classic literature than I did ten years ago. Perhaps, then, English programs in high school would be better served finding creative ways to get children to read books of any stripe and let classic literature stand upon its own merit in the years to come rather than forcing people to read those books at a young age and thereby leave a bitter taste in their mouths.

Standardized Tests and Exit Exams

Early in the ’03-’04 school year I was a senior in high school, class president and somewhere along the line I heard that I was supposed to attend student council meetings among my ‘duties’. I recall going to just one meeting: I sat on a table at the rear of the room as we were joined by members of the school board. The topic that day was standardized tests as Hazen Union had performed unacceptably and was close to losing funding under No Child Left Behind. We talked about the testing and ways to improve the scores, though I mostly railed against standardized tests at all, citing their ludicrous nature and how abysmally set up they were, especially in teaching to the test rather than teaching how to learn. In retrospect, I was really not helpful that afternoon.

The verdict was that students had no conception of why they were taking the tests, just that they were. Since early in elementary school the teachers had emphasized that the tests did not matter, which is not the same thing as not receiving a grade.1 Long story short, a group from the council was to have a discussion with each class about trying hard on the test, and I was volunteered to lead it.2 Thankfully it never actually happened, and now the high school is on some list of best high schools in the country, so ‘crisis’ averted. Now I am sure there are great teachers there, but considering the number of great teachers who have since retired or left for other reasons, I find it hard to fathom that the school went from the chopping block to highly esteemed in so few years.3

It seems odd to reminisce about this episode six years down the line and half a continent away, but today I read an article on the New York Times website about the continued proliferation of high school exit exams in the face of criticism–and more to come. Find the article here.

While I do not believe that decisions are made arbitrarily or maliciously on a large scale, they may still be misguided. Really three issues emerge: first the value of standardized tests, second the value of standardized exit exams, third the purpose of schools.

1) Standardized tests are made to ensure that every student is learning a certain amount, which is an enviable goal, but ultimately restricts teachers from teaching. Instead there is a situation where the powers that be decide what needs to be learned. In the humanities this is even more exaggerated since it often falls to rote memorization or simple narrative to make sure that the kids know what they need to know to perform on demand. Naturally funding is tied to these tests.

Of course the most gain to be had in those fields where testing names, dates, etc, is taking place is inherently in their flexibility. The chance for teachers to deviate from merely a time-line and engage students, or go beyond the novels deemed useful, but not too controversial, to engage the students, expose them to something new and teach them to think–rather the opposite from brainwashing, or nap-time.

This is just the current gripe, and while they are also a waste of time, the list could keep going on and on.

2) As bad as standardized tests are, exit exams are worse, and this is the focus of the article. A common effect of these exams is that dropout rates increase as students are held back by the district. Now at some level it may be good, and any system of grades that includes an ‘F’ equivalent and yet forces the students to be there until a certain age will hold some back, but exit exams increase that percentage as a second filter beyond the classes grades appears. The first problem here is that it inherently assumes that the teachers are unable to deal with students who do not keep up. The assumption adds to that of other standardized tests, only is an across the board assessment of those teachers, every year, soon to be kindergarten through high school.4

The more pressing issue in all of this is that exit exams are being simplified to make sure that most students can pass the tests. This defeats the purpose of the tests.

If, as claimed, these tests will ensure that high schoolers are ready for college, and that the powers that be decided that kids need to know a certain amount of information before graduating, then that is what they need to know. Reducing the standards because the education system did not rise to the expectations makes the test a waste of time and money, while keeping the standards and holding more students back admits failure of the education. In either situation the tests make no sense at all.

Either there needs to be continued evaluation of coursework, participation, and the rest of the traditional barometers of grading in each individual subject, or a single test at the end. Doubling them up makes the traditional grades moot, unless the students must first jump through those hoops to even take the exit examination.

3) In their work Who Killed Homer?, classicist John Heath and historian Victor Davis Hanson suggested that modern education pounds people into one broad mold, which continually restricts as people fall away until a select few academic masochists with no perceivable teaching skills emerge with PhD’s, everyone else choosing a point of this road to stop. Their suggestion, much in line with vocational schools and some college programs is that schools must teach skills, not just books. Traditional education usually consisted of skill training for most of the population, while only a select group even did academic work up through high school.

A re-division of society along those lines is too extreme and entirely infeasible, but merits thought. The goal of public high school education is college preparation, a rounded course of education that will enable students to succeed in college. Yet not all of those students will go to college, so the school must also teach this rounded skill set to those students, averaging out what curriculum is expected.

Everyone should know basic history, be able to read, write and do arithmetic, but academics is not for everyone. Once beyond the capacity to perform those functions, the more important task is to engage the students,5 push creativity and interest, which is only inhibited by making these students jump through ever increasing hoops.

As a quick aside, standardized tests basically ensure that schools cannot reasonably teach history to its fullest. A good teacher can still get students excited by the topic, but the beauty of it is how versatile history is towards promoting thinking. Anyone who knows how to research can learn that the Declaration of Independence was July 4, 1776, or that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BCE, but without reading too much into the situations, both mark times and situations when people stood up and threw down tyranny and government overreach.

If only it were that easy for school reform.

1 Though I have heard some stories from my mother about my early schooling that make this oversight look quite good in comparison.
2 Yes, someone else volunteered me.
3 Those distinctions were based somewhat on different criteria, but not wholly.
4 Please, can someone tell me what exactly we are testing kindergartners on to let them move to first grade? I remember playing with blocks and going to time-out for throwing clay…I am not seeing much of an exit exam in all of that.
5 Incidents in middle and high school where I know I was not engaged (all during class): taping a friend to a door, napping outside in the sun, witnessing someone stapling his pants to his leg, reading kosher dietary regulations…to the class, singing little bunny foo-foo as a class to the freshmen in the next classroom, and ditching group projects to calculate how many dimples there were on a basketball (somewhere around 23,000, if I recall correctly).