Sunday, September 29, 2013

Patrick Welsh's Valedictory

Patrick Welsh, having taught English for 43 years at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, retired in June, and summed up some of the difficulties he encountered in an article in The Washington Post. These difficulties were those brought on by educational fads.

Owing to the chances (and by now remoteness) of my schooling, I missed a lot of fads. I was of an age to see the New Math for a year or two, but I don't think that I paid close enough attention for it to cause me any harm. Welsh's unfortunate students suffered through Effective Schools, SPONGE, SBE, the seven Cs, and probably three or four more fads he lacked room to mention. (Of course these did not all occur together; most students were in school only long enough for one or two fads.)

The article also reminds me that the position of school superintendent can be as chancy and itinerant as any in America above the status of day laborer, athletics coach excepted. Coaches the boosters tire of seem to get better buyouts, but I have heard of district superintendents doing pretty well.

I trust that Welsh will enjoy his retirement. I have always enjoyed his articles in the Post.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Luciano Vincenzoni, RIP

This week, the New York Times carried an obituary of Luciano Vincenzoni, a screenwriter best known for the spaghetti westerns "For a Few Dollars More" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." He was not wholly pleased with this renown, wishing that he were better known for more serious work. I was not surprised to read in the obituary that the critic Renata Adler thought poorly of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." My brother's judgment seems about right:
... it really is campy, over-done, and morally relativistic.  Of course, next time it's on, I'm sure I'll be glued to the set.
In honor of Vincenzoni, I include this link to an unusual performance of the theme music for that movie.

Friday, September 27, 2013

English as a Submerged Language

This week, I borrowed a book on teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). Though there is good advice in it, the writing, particularly early on, makes for slow and irritating reading. The good sense is buried in jargon, and found myself thinking of having to dig for tools. For one example of many,
[Communicative Language Teaching] sees fluency and the ability to communicate in a variety of settings ... at the core of teaching and learning.
There are many sentences like that, in which words appear to be piled together in the notion that they mean something, but without later examination of whether they do mean it. The cumulative effect is numbing.

Much of the introductory matter seems to call for a treatment such as Graves and Hodges gave to a number of paragraphs by famous writers in the "Rough Drafts and Fair Copies" section of The Reader over Your Shoulder.  Such treatment, applied to the whole book, would probably shorten it by 10%.

One can write well about the learning of languages. The essay "Tongues and Areas" in Jacques Barzun's Teacher in America says a good deal of what this author says in her introduction, but in fewer, more pointed, and far clearer words. There must be someone who can write a book on the teaching of English as a second language, in clear English. Where is that person and where is that book?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Robert Farrar. Capon, RIP

Sunday's New York Times carries an obituary of Robert F. Capon, Episcopal priest, theologian, and food writer. He lived to be 87.

His best-known book was The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. Twenty years ago, a friend gave us a copy, which I looked through. I don't think we've ever cooked from its recipes, but I admired the common sense and clear prose. The counsel I most admired appears toward the end of chapter 12, "The Mysterious East":
Woks and iron skillets should be rinsed and wiped, never washed. If someone comes along and tells you that cleanliness is next to godliness, the proper answer is, "Yes--next." Right now I'm working on godliness."
I've never found occasion to us the retort, not least because it would require a reasonable appearance of working on godliness to keep the audience from laughing.

The book has the marks of its time, 1962. New York wines no longer run only to Concord grapes; more Americans spend more time cooking and thinking about cooking. But at $18, I think it still worth a look.

Airport Bookstores

In the late 1980s, I traveled probably seven or ten days most months, and spent a good deal of time in airports. I decided then that they were something like the debtors prisons of Dickens's day, uncomfortable places that one arrived at not wholly through one's fault, and where one could obtain the elements of comfort but at high prices. The elements of comfort I did obtain mostly ran to beer--if I were on a homeward leg--and reading matter.

National Airport (not yet Reagan National Airport) had a fair bookstore. I know that I bought Aksyonov's The Burn there, I'm pretty sure that I bought Amis's The Old Devils there, and I suspect that I bought Fatal Shore there. Milwaukee's airport had a used bookstore, which seems hardly probable now; coincidentally or not, it also had about the best beer selection I noticed in my travels then.

The stores have fallen off. When I arrived early to meet a flight at Reagan National last year, I saw very little in the bookstore that I'd care to buy. There were the reliable Penguins in the classics shelf, but for newer matter there was a biography of Bonhoeffer to balance an otherwise weak selection--the sort of history that seems industrialized, 150+ shades of something, etc.

In Schiphol last month I couldn't fault the linear measure of the bookstores, but the three I saw all had the same stock, at least in English. Despite the prospect of the long flight back to Washington, I couldn't settle on anything. There was Stoner, but in a format less handy than NYRB's. There was Anthony Beevor on World War II, but I know how that one ends, and I do have a fair number of books on the subject. I left without a book. Perhaps if I could read Dutch I would have thought the selection better and left with a book, in which case it is provincial of me to complain of those stores.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Schools, Bake Sales, Volunteering

Amanda Ripley, writing in Slate, proposes that we "Ban School Bake Sales". That anyway is the title: the text of the article suggests low or no correlation between parents volunteering and children learning more.

When I was very young, I would have voted for banning bake sales. We were in the heart of the baby boom, the school had 50 children to the classroom, and there was always somebody with a nervous stomach. Invariably, on bake sale day, some child would vomit on his desk. The janitor would come, clean up, and spread sawdust on the floor. Ammonia and sawdust made up the characteristic smell of bake sale day. I did not look forward to it.

When grown, I did now and then volunteer for activities at schools, and now and then was volunteered by my wife. We did not do this because we thought it enhanced the offspring's learning, but rather because a) somebody asked us, and b) I had the time. Almost none of this had anything obvious to do with education. I

  • Called other parents to ask for donations.
  • Took tickets at the fall festival moon bounce.
  • Made popcorn at the spring "Family Fun Day".
  • Directed traffic in the parking lot during the open house.
  • Tied Christmas trees on to cars a few December evenings.
  • Made sure that students who had promised to serve as guides at the open house remembered their promises.
There certainly were parents who volunteered less, and there were those who volunteered more. Some of the latter seemed odd, for they did not confine their involvement to the bake sale category. There was the fifth-grader's mother who badgered a teacher about her daughter's grade on a quiz. There was the dad who had reservations about the way Latin was taught, and and raised them on 7th-grade back to school night.

To the student between about 12 and about 17, any parental activity can seem odd. He will have a very sharp eye for the behavior of those in authority, and more or less skill at detecting absurdities. Often he will prefer not to be reminded that he has parents, and will much prefer that his friends not be reminded that he does. Socially if not academically, the helicopter parent will be a liability.