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High school English ... - He's just this guy, you know.

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September 13th, 2006

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05:49 pm - High school English ...
(this is another one of those posts that I've been meaning to make for ages, but it's never quite crystallised)

As I remember it, it seemed that there was a big leap made sometime in English (as taught at my particular high school, 20-ish years ago).
In the first year or two, for homework and tests we did a little bit of writing, a tiny amount of grammar, but mostly (as I recall it) questions based around "reading comprehension" - i.e. reading a short passage and answering questions on it.

After that, though, we suddenly leapt to "Compare and contrast the themes in any two of the following four novels that we've read this year". Again, this is all as I recall it, and maybe I just wasn't paying attention, but I don't remember being instructed on how we were supposed to do this, or even how to approach it. I didn't have the tools, so I couldn't even begin to tackle the problem. Strangely, I then wasn't very good at dealing with this sort of thing in the exams, and so, having scraped a pass in Year 11 English, avoided Year 12 English and anything English-like at Uni.

My question is - was this just me ? Or was this something particular to my age group, or my school (not an academic high-flying type), or some educational dogma running around at the time ?

As I said, I've been thinking about this post for a while, but was triggered to actually post it by matociquala writing at length about the different points of view that writers can use, as "discussed with greater or lesser effect in most high school English classes". You see, I don't recall ever discussing points of view, and certainly not in any depth. We barely discussed grammar, for that matter - maybe we were supposed to pick up a language for that ?

Of course, there's another layer to this - I firmly believe that I can retrospectively diagnose the high school me as having Asperger's Syndrome - thus leading me to be more literal-minded than most, so that when discussion goes off into metaphors and themes and yes, even sub-texts, to me it all falls into the "you're just making shitstuff up" category.

(and why don't I believe I have Asperger's now ? Well, I still fall right on the borderline every time I do any of the AS tests that run around the net - I am, as they call it, "high-functioning", and can pass for mostly normal. Would being diagnosed at 15 or 12 or earlier have made a difference ? Well, maybe not, but it might have helped me make sense of some aspects of life, and if there was some decent support available (specific training in social skills, maybe some work on coordination, I'm sure they have some other clever things these days), maybe those years would have been a bit easier).
Current Mood: curiouscurious

(9 touches | En garde !)


[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2006 08:43 pm (UTC)

They waved their hands...

... vaguely in the direction of those sorts of things when I was in school. Mostly the impression was that Real Books had Something Else Hidden In Them, and "criticism" was mostly about finding that Something Else. But exactly how you were supposed to find the themes, etc., was at best very vaguely described. Mostly you tried to figure out what the teacher thought and regurgitate it.
[User Picture]
Date:September 13th, 2006 11:11 pm (UTC)
We studied novels from year 7 right through, so I guess they started teaching us early. The novels started with things like Charlottes Web[1] and Julie of the Wolves and then gradually worked up to Macbeth, Fly Away Peter, The Accidental Tourist and the like. I think we must have been taught how to look for themes and write essays around theme-like questions. I do remember writing a lot of practice essays in year 12 and memorising various passages in order make points, so I'd definitely learned it by then.

(I definitely do remember being taught how to write a 5 point argumentative essay though. Came in handy in Belgium when we were given an essay to write in an exam about the then blockade in response to the invasion of Kuwait - I got 83% (2nd highest in the class, much to the amazement/disgust of some other people) for my essay, despite my wonky grammar and limited vocab. Go 5 point plan! heh.)

I do remember some grammar in year 7 at least (mostly what I remember is being incredibly frustrated that we were going through what verbs, adjectives and nouns were again) but really most of the grammar I learned I did via French and Dutch. (It truly is amazing how much you learn about how your own language is constructed when you start learning another one.)

English was the one compulsory subject in the Victorian HSC, so there was no way you could avoid it here. You also had to pass it in order to pass HSC - one guy from my year level got Bs and As in physics, maths A, maths B and chemistry but failed English so failed HSC. He was working as a builder, last I heard. I also walked out of the English exam convinced that I'd failed HSC, and that was still with four exams to go.

[1]incredibly frustrating if you'd read it at 6, as my sister had. I missed that one.

thus leading me to be more literal-minded than most, so that when discussion goes off into metaphors and themes and yes, even sub-texts, to me it all falls into the "you're just making shitstuff up" category.

heh, one of my friends who was probably in a similar basket to you remembers getting quite frustrated in year 12 when they were studying a Ted Egan poem and the teacher kept asking the class what they thought the poet meant by various passages. He suggested ringing Egan up and asking him what he wanted to say. It wasn't received well.
[User Picture]
Date:September 14th, 2006 12:55 am (UTC)

Into the minefield.

I remember being frustrated that the goal of "English" lessons was never clearly defined, and didn't seem consistent. Were we meant to be learning about the language? or about literature? or poetry and drama (which are quite different things from literature, although that was not at all clear at the time)? or critical theory (e.g, some tools to deal with the questions you struggled with)? or The Meaning of Life (some of my teachers did preach somewhat)?

Teachers and other "adults" would sometimes moralise about it: "Studying English is important, you need to able to communicate"--but this sounded insincere to me; from about year 10 onwards, communication skills (or even correct grammar and spelling) seemed to be very low on the agenda.

I still believe that English shouldn't be compulsory in year 11 or 12. If you're not literate by the time you finish year 10, two more years of torture aren't going to do you much good. You could argue that literature is an important part of our culture and everyone should study it--but you could argue the same for music, visual art, mathematics, science, comparitive religion, how computers work (as oppposed to "computing" as taught in many schools), history, political theory and much more--you can't cram everything into the last two years of school, people have to be allowed to make choices.

As for not being instructed on how to do things--yes, you were supposed to pick up a lot by "osmosis". This used to be the same for many subjects, but it's becoming less fashionable as people chase the unholy grail of "objective assessment standards". I was never explicitly taught the difference between good and bad style in presenting a mathematical argument, or the difference between a "beautiful" or "ugly" sound in music. If you're sincerely interested in a subject, and if you have access to enough examples of good work, then you'll figure out certain things for yourself. It's the difference between education for life and training to pass exams. Of course, those two "if"s are perilously uncertain, and nowadays too many people think that high school is only for passing exams.

Finally, the way high school english is taught has changed a lot since you and I did it. I'm not completely up to date, but I think "media literacy" is important now, and various interpretations of "postmodernism" are sometimes offered. These things may or may not be useful depending on how they're done. A new syllabus in Western Australia has caused a bit of controversy; five minutes' work with google will give you plenty to read about.
[User Picture]
Date:September 14th, 2006 04:18 am (UTC)
I think it's very likely a combination of the school / teachers along with your learning style. I have come to this conclusion out of knowing what I do well, what I do really well, and what by all rights I should be able to do well but can't. Sadly, academic achievement is just as much a reflection of the teacher, and by that i mean students should get the best teaching ALL the time, but it's simply way outside the realms of possibility for that to happen.

I did very well at English, I have a natural aptitude for it, but also had very comprehensive learning. I do recall going into some of the specifics which you seem to recall having missed. On the other hand, I did very well at Maths to a point, particularly in problem solving, but that all fell away after I ended up in a certain class where the teacher only related to the struggling students and I lost interest and switched off. I gave up maths altogether not long after. In fact, after actually having completed Year 11 Maths in Year 10, that's as far as I went. Stupid huh? In hindsight, if I knew how to be more outspoken then I would have asked for what I needed more often and probably done better. That's one thing I'd like to teach my children.
[User Picture]
Date:September 14th, 2006 04:24 am (UTC)
I can't remember anything of high school English other than reading Fly Away Peter twelve times, writing eight practice essays on it, and reading the parts of all three witches when we did Macbeth.
[User Picture]
Date:September 14th, 2006 07:07 am (UTC)
I always took a perverse approach and often ended up writing (and arguing) from the position of devil's advocate. So much so that it got to be an ingrained habit and my normal mode of analysis of a hypothesis carries the same hallmark as a school of sharks in a feeding frenzy. [1]

One of the reasons I'd be terrible at an Arts subject is that I couldn't be hypocritical enough to write what the lecturers/tutors want, not good enough to absolutely wow the audience with elegance and style, and my own viewpoints are, apparently, to most people, rather ... strange.

[1]"What? You never noticed? How kind of you to say so..." It was never personal. I just like to destroy ideas to see how they are put together. [2]

[2] Also typewriters. But unlike this, I usually manage to get the ideas back together again afterwards...

[User Picture]
Date:September 14th, 2006 07:18 am (UTC)
Oh, and I also found English useless for studying language and how to use it. All my formal training in linguistics came from studying other languages and then applying the results to English.

As for analysis and critical thought, most of this came from previous exposure to science, theology (there is nothing like arguing with trained theologicians to give own an exposure to the art of critical anaysis [and rhetoric for that matter], and drama (I had the advantage of having studied under an excellent drama teacher whose syllabus consisted almost entirely of teaching us to observe what is happening around us, and then having us apply that knowledge).

Then again, in five years of high school English I couldn't escape The Scottish Play and ended up being able to recite it quite well without the text, so most of my English tended to be repetitive and I had to reach for more and more provocative answers.

[User Picture]
Date:September 15th, 2006 11:28 am (UTC)
I remember my English teacher in year 9 (1994) being horrified when she asked us to write an essay, and we all informed her that we had no idea what one was, nor how to write one properly. My year 11 teacher and I butted heads over a point of grammar - and I was correct, when a person makes a speech, and the writer puts it over several paragraphs, one is supposed to start each succeeding paragraph with quotation marks, but only end the last with them. This is something I picked up through reading, not through instruction. Through instruction, I know that a verb is an action word, a noun is a naming word, and an adjective is a describing word.

I refused to do year 12 English because we were required to do an English Journal. English Journals are where one takes a small number of books, four or five, and describe your reactions to said books and take notes and stuff as you read them. Since I could read those four or five books in less time than it would take me to do the journal entries for even one of them... Let's just say I objected to stopping reading every five minutes (or less) to do a chapter summary, and my year 11 teacher was disturbed enough by my choice of theme for my Year 11 English Journal (Personifications of Death - how else would I get to read Terry Pratchett for class?) that she didn't argue that it would be a good subject for me to do.

As for the point-of-view stuff that matociquala discusses, I remember being told that you needed to keep telling the story from the same point of view from start to finish. I think the difference between first person and third person was pointed out, with past, present and future tense, but I'm pretty sure that was about it. Thereafter, it turned up as mass red-pen notes on everyones' assignments without further elucidation.
Date:March 19th, 2007 02:48 pm (UTC)
Greetings, add me please in friends. =)

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