Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Just Another Case of History Repeating: Thoughts on Thomas Newkirk’s “Looking Back to Look Forward”

Hello again, my possibly imaginary readers! Long time, no…blog. Well, Spring Break is now officially over (and whose idea was it to call it a “break,” anyway?), and I am officially back in the game! What game, you may ask? Now remember, being imaginary, you can and will ask pretty much anything I want you to. But I digress. Now, where’s that pesky response? Ah, here it is! Frankly, I’m not really sure what game I’m playing. I never am. But if it is anything like Candy Land or Monopoly, I’ll probably manage to bumble through and figure out the rules as I go.

Moving on…

A little while ago in English 612, we were tossing around the idea of using tales, stories, and narratives as a way of framing, analyzing, and understanding past and present concepts and conditions. It was suggested that the narrative, or story, might be the most appropriate framework for examining the state of writing instruction and learning throughout history, and that along with hands-on, multi-genre, interdisciplinary research, the resulting narratives could be used to help us engage in and explore the pedagogical differences between various eras in education. Coincidently (or perhaps not so coincidently), just a few weeks after that conversation, we were given a short handout by Thomas Newkirk entitled “Looking Back to Look Forward.”

In “Looking Back,” Newkirk discusses his own “historical excursion” into “the ideas of educators…at the beginning of the twentieth century who were trying to chart a new direction for teaching writing” (1). After painstaking hours of basement research and original document exploration, Newkirk came to the realization that all our talk of modern, groundbreaking pedagogy versus stodgy and restrictive traditional writing instruction is, frankly, a lot of BS. Educators at the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s were striving for the same thing that the majority of us are striving for now, at the beginning of the 2000s: “to cut through the sheer curricular clutter that causes us to lose sight of the real goal of writing instruction – to truly engage students in purposeful acts of composing” (2). Exactly.

For most actively-involved English instructors living and working a century ago, writing was a central focus of the classroom. The goal of composition pedagogy was to make writing a natural, healthy, and internalized process, rather than something ruled and dictated by prescriptive rules and paint-by-numbers formatting. It was understood by those “in the know” that students needed to be actively interested and engaged in the topics they were writing about, a concept echoed in every grad course I have participated in.

The main challenge to this sort of enlightened pedagogy was the concept of “normal schooling,” that is, the typical (then and now) classroom stereotype in which the teacher lectures at the students, the students recite the material back at the appropriate time, and very little real learning takes place. This top-down, banking method of schooling works well with the American educational system’s intense focus of standardized testing and dictated performance, a focus Newkirk refers to as a “pernicious confusion of standards with standardization” (5) What the normal schooling/banking method doesn’t do, however, is actually benefit the students in any way. Sound familiar to anyone?

So, there we are! In just a few paragraphs, we have a narrative tale of writing instruction as it existed in another time, and with this framework set up, we can easily see that things really haven’t changed all that much. Everything old is new again.

The only question that remains: what next?

No comments: