Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Substance of English Class

An interesting idea came to me on the drive to school this morning, and it occurred to me that the idea, in a sense, had no “substance” – nothing that could be weighed, measured, assessed, or graded.  It was truly a marvelous idea, one that stirred and even shook me a bit, one that seemed possibly life-changing in some small but significant ways, and yet – where exactly was it? What exactly was it? Of what “stuff” was it made, what material, what substance that I could lay out on a table to examine and evaluate?  I find it strange that this idea that so inspired me this morning was actually as insubstantial as the wind, and, oddly enough, I feel a similar sense of strangeness when I try to assess my students’ work in English. Of course, there are the objective quizzes and tests I occasionally give, which provide a reasonably safe kind of measurement, and the students’ essays, at least to a degree, can be evaluated by their relative orderliness and clarity, but what about the really essential aspects of English class, like ideas?  English deals with words, and words are born of ideas, and ideas are the forces that transform the world moment by moment – so how do I measure the subtle and transitory ideas born within the students each day? My job is to teach English, which means not just proper punctuation and the meanings of literary terms, but also the life and light available in the best books. The books I use hopefully help my students to see in new ways, to think things they’ve never thought, to maybe even make new lives for themselves, at least in small ways – and how, for heaven’s sake, is this to be quantified and assessed?  A new idea in a student’s mind is like a breeze from the back of beyond, or a sudden stretch of sunshine, and I know for sure there’s no way of appraising such experiences. I guess all we can do – the students and I – is simply welcome the experiences with a smile, the way we smile in a breeze and beneath fresh sunlight.     

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