To Beginners in English Teaching
Author: Allan Abbott
April 10, 1912
There are four fundamental elements of success in the teaching of English, as of any other subject:
– faith in yourself,
– faith in your pupils,
– faith in your subject, and
– faith in your profession.
Faith in yourself
First, have faith in yourself as an English teacher. There are far too many people teaching English as an afterthought because they drift into it, or because it is esteemed ladylike, or because “anyone can teach English.”
If you have no stronger motives than these and their like, go into some other occupation.
But if you really feel that this is the work you were made to do, go at it with confidence and courage. Don’t be afraid of mistakes. Everyone who does anything at all makes mistakes.
Avoid repeating them, but don’t let them break your spirit. Count your progress by the number of successes achieved rather than by the number of mistakes avoided. Good technique can be learned by study and practice; your initial enthusiasm is at present your best possession, and one not lightly to be lost.
Faith in your pupils
Secondly, have faith in your pupils. This you will find hard at first. Think of the attitude of the college Senior of literary ability toward Sophomore themes; of the Sophomore’s attitude toward the Freshman; of the Freshman’s toward the “prep school” student; of his toward his mates who have no thought or desire of going to college. Add together these several grades of scorn, and see your chief initial danger-an unwarranted air of superiority to your pupils.
Many of them will fail to show the qualities that have made you an English teacher; but they may have other qualities, just as valuable, in their way, to the world. If you have this faith in your pupils, you must learn to respect certain things that you will at first find rather trying.
Respect their youthful spirits, their fun, boiling over, as it may, to your personal inconvenience; their moodiness; their sensitiveness, so easily hurt by any witticism which they do not quite understand, and which, no matter how innocently meant, they will call “sarcasm.”
Go to their games-join in them, if you know how. Help them with their dramatics, their school paper; and never take the attitude of a censor who lets them do all the work and then blue-pencils it as much as possible-work with them as for a common project.
Respect their literary taste. Get their confidence, learn what their taste really is, and you will find it, in the main, sound-immature, as it should be; unconventional-they don’t even know what the literary conventions are-but it will ordinarily ring pretty true.
Don’t expect it to be your mature and specialized taste.
Why should a healthy, growing boy like “Cranford,” or a girl who is going to be a homemaker, ” Burke’s Conciliation”? Let them range through a wide and varied reading list, and they will pick out what is good for them, and surprise you by their comments.
Here are some notes that came to me all within one week, from a
little class who are still three years from entering college:
Mrs. Gaskell’s Ruth: “I think the book is well and interestingly written. The characters are very lifelike, and are not overdrawn. It is something a little out of the ordinary. The descriptions are short and vivid; the character action is quick and interesting.”
Schiller’s William Tell: “The story is very exciting and well carried out. I enjoyed reading the book immensely, and read some parts over three times, for the thoughts were so wonderfully expressed that it was well worth while.”
Arnold Bennett’s Buried Alive: “I liked this book and think it is well told, only I think he shouldn’t have sacrificed himself so long. I think it would have been better for him to have given himself up, as he was such a great man in the estimation of the people.”
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “Jane Eyre is a story which I think could have been written in seventy pages instead of over four hundred….. I did not like any of the characters.”
Respect their written style, with all its crudities.
Be suspicious of the carefully ironed style, in which there are no mistakes to correct: there’s not likely to be much else.
Finish, accuracy in detail, is the last thing; it is often a sign that the writer has stopped growing. There is a kind of efflorescence of style, an inclination toward fine writing, highly irritating to the college-trained critic, and very properly attacked in Sophomore English courses, which is a sign of promise in the high-school writer.
This is why the editors of school papers pass such low entrance examinations. One of our editors, a brilliant girl who wrote stories with almost the feeling of a Miss Jewett behind them, entered college with a D in English. In six weeks, she was having stories printed in the college magazine.
Another girl, of no particular originality, entered with flying colors, on the faultlessness of her writing; the following year she was reported back to the school as failing in English. She had reached her limit.
The whole secret of dealing with young people is to remember that they are not finished product, but raw material.
Your business is not to pass judgment, approving and rejecting; it is to discover latent possibilities, to invent new lines of development; to utilize even the waste product, as a modern manufacturing concern does. Try to see in every boy and girl an individual for whom the world has some fitting place; and to read his character, not at its present value, but for what it promises.
Faith in your subject
Thirdly, have faith in your subject. You doubtless already believe in the importance of English literature; but you must believe in it, not only as an academic tradition, but as a vital force in the world today: a force that affects not only the scholar in his library, but the clerk in the subway.
If you have this kind of faith, you will avoid, as pedantic, many common practices.
There is the pedantry of the college notebook. Don’t get out the lecture notes on your favorite college course and warm them up for your high-school classes. Don’t read them that essay that brought you an A, on William Godwin’s novels, or “The Place of James Thompson in the Romantic Movement.” Burn it!
That essay, and those lectures, were intended to train your mind to deal with fresh material, in your own way; to give you a method, a point of view, a critical judgment-not material to pass along to learners of widely different age and needs.
There is the pedantry, dear to book lovers, of the literary classic.
Courses in school and college naturally deal, in the main, with things of the past: things that have become standardized by the opinions of the passing generations. But literature did not stop, though the textbooks may, with Browning.
Benson, and Mackaye, and Bennett, and Mrs. Deland, and many another, are writing and others will follow them. If we believe in literature as a living force, we must take these authors into account. And not all literature is in books. We must add to our resources the theater, the newspaper, the magazine-even the cheap magazine.
Who can doubt that the World’s Work, McClure’s, the American, the Saturday Evening Post, have a more moving effect on the great mass of the American people today than the North American Review or the Atlantic? We must reckon with these things, as well as with our sets of classic authors.
There is the pedantry, happily going out of fashion, of the annotated text. I used to teach Milton’s minor poems from a book which gave forty-five pages to the poems and 136 to comment on them; and as if that were not enough, I filled the margins with more notes, in black and red ink. You will remember, in Dr. Crothers’ essay on “The Enjoyment of Poetry,” in The Gentle Reader, the passage where he supposes these lines from Paradise Lost to be taken for study:
Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High over arched embower, or scattered sedge
Afloat, when with fierce winds Orion armed
Hath vexed the Red Sea coast, whose waves o’erthrow
Busiris and his Memphian chivalry.
What an opportunity this presents to the schoolmaster!
“Come now,”he cries with pedagogic glee; “answer me a few questions. Where is Vallombrosa? What is the character of its autumnal foliage Bound Etruria. What is sedge? Explain the myth of Orion. Point out the constellation on the map of the heavens. Where is the Red Sea Who was Busiris ? By what other name was he known ? Who were the Memphian chivalry?”
Here is material for exhaustive research in geography ancient and modem, history, botany, astronomy, meteorology, chronology, and archaeology.
The industrious student may get almost as much information out of Paradise Lost as from one of those handy compilations of useful knowledge which are sold on the railway cars for twenty-five cents.
As for the poetry of Milton,that is another matter.
The special pedantry of the moment is in devices for teaching composition. Composition-Rhetorics are being turned out by the publishing houses by scores. They are usually based on some device which the author has found effective, and which he now generalizes, by a process familiar to logicians, into a universal rule by which past writings are to be judged and future ones composed.
The latest I have seen is a book that starts with the dictum that a paragraph is, in its essentials, a geometric proposition; you have a theorem, the topic sentence (always supposing there is one): Given, the subject of the topic sentence; To prove, the predicate of the topic sentence; Proof, sentences 2, 3, 4, etc., to final Summary, Q.E.D. Then follows a little diagram that looks something like a fern-dish, which the reader is enjoined to fix in his memory as a picture of what the paragraph should be, when completed.
Just try to imagine Stevenson, or Lamb, for example, sitting down to
write a paragraph that should be like a proposition in geometry!
All these kinds of pedantry you can escape only by thinking of your subject, not as dead, formal, cut-and-dried, but as living, growing, changing, reacting on people today.
Ask yourself, How is this bit of instruction I offer going to work out in the life, present or future, of the pupil? How will it fit the facts of the living world in which he grows up ? Does it tend to develop in him habits of reading and writing that will become a welcome, a necessary part of his life, or is it an artificial task performed for its own sake alone ?
Faith in your profession-teaching
Finally, have faith in your profession-the profession of teaching. This does not mean to look down upon the stenographer, the factory girl, the trained nurse, because their work is not academic. That is mere snobbishness.
But respect your work enough to make it truly a profession-to learn, and to advance all you can, the technical knowledge of education.
Of course there are “born teachers“, just as there are “born nurses“; only there are not enough of them born to go around.
In the care of the sick, the “born” nurse has given place to the trained nurse, who does the right thing, not by instinct, but because she knows the rules of her hospital.
The untrained teacher cannot now gain admission to the systems of our larger cities; and if the purpose of the state Board of Education of Massachusetts is effected, it will soon be impossible for anyone to teach in a Massachusetts high school without pedagogical training.
Some of our most honored colleges object to this movement.
They say we have no science of education; that the student would
be far better employed in taking more courses in his subject.
They tell us, moreover, that the really able students see this for themselves, and only the weakest of them take courses in education.
There is, unhappily, some truth in these charges: many courses in
education are very thin stuff, and many of those who elect them are incapable of taking anything more solid.
But that is because we are just at the beginning; and we have already got at some things that are worth while.
We are sure of certain things in schoolroom psychology, thanks to men like James and Thorndike and Dewey.
We are getting exact standards of certain kinds of progress, like the Courtis tests in arithmetic, and the Ayres Handwriting Scale. We are learning something about how a recitation should be conducted.
I have before me a stenographic report of a lesson in which the teacher asked 219 questions in 37 minutes.
Assuming five classes a day, that means upward of a thousand questions a day-twenty odd thousand a month!
And this is by no means exceptional; few teachers ask below 100 questions a lesson.
Is it any wonder they break down nervously?
Do we, or do we not, need further study of method in the recitation?
The beginning teacher can get in touch with the professional side of the work in several ways.
First, read the standard books, like James’s “Talks to Teachers“, Dewey’s “How We Think“, and those in your special field, like Chubb’s “The Teaching of English“, and
Baker, Carpenter, and Scott’s “English in the Schools“.
Then follow current periodicals: especially the new English Journal, and the leaflets of your state English Teachers’ Association.
Visit classes of teachers of reputation, methodically, always asking, “What is this recitation trying to accomplish? Is it succeeding or failing? What are the elements of its success or failure?-and recording your answer.
Keep similar notes on your own recitations. Put your best thought into the assignment of advance lessons, and know beforehand what.you are going to assign, and for what reason.
Be ready to co-operate with other teachers in any well-planned
experiment, particularly one the results of which can be measured
with some precision.
And from the slowly accumulating body of your reading, your observation, and your experience, if you analyze what comes your way from these sources, you will gain in time in professional expertness and in professional wisdom.
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