Saturday, January 19, 2008

Leading a horse to water

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. I've been thinking a lot lately about that saying. Most of the time I think about the leading part. To me, that means showing or explaining. This is something I do a lot of in my job as an English teacher. I'm always showing or explaining something to my students: how to recognize a direct object, how to diagram a gerund phrase, etc. I try to get them to learn in different ways. We go over the textbook, and they do the exercises there. We do some exercises on the board. Sometimes I do it to show them, and sometimes I'll have them do it on the board. I use transparencies and study guides. I use sentences with their names in them (it helps them actually pay attention). I have them make up sentences and share them with the class. And always, I repeat and repeat and repeat myself. I repeated review sections with one class for a solid week before they took their latest exam. I drilled them and rewarded efforts. Last Friday I finally saw a little lightbulb go on over some of their heads. They were actually getting it! They were finally identifying parts of speech on their own without my having to prompt them at each step.
I know some of you non-grammar people out there are groaning. But the truth is, in the one section we were covering, they needed to remember three simple criteria for identifying the words we were after. One set of three rules for direct objects and one set of three for predicate nominatives. I wrote the three rules on the board for them to refer to while they were doing the workbooks. But instead of following the rules and reasoning through them, the students would simply make a stab in the dark. Until Friday. Friday they reasoned. They applied rules. They actually thought for themselves. Some of them even paid attention! I was so excited!
Until Monday.
Monday I was back to the same vacant stares and complete lack of attention that they'd had before. No one could answer the simplest question on the rules that they knew so well on Friday. No one could identify the function of different words in the sentences we went over. Somehow in that short weekend, they had managed to forget everything I had taught. It wasn't even a question of jogging their memory. It was as if they had erased it all. We had two more days of review, but over half the class failed the test.
So now I'm not thinking of the leading part of that saying anymore. Now I'm thinking about the horse. Why would he not drink? I guess because he's not thirsty. The students in my class are not thirsty for a better grasp of the English language. Would a horse ever need water and still refuse to drink? I don't know. But I know these students need to grasp what I'm teaching them if they intend to advance to the next grade. Somehow, though, even that doesn't motivate a few of them.
What really bothers me is the fact that this is a roomful of bright kids. But they've never forced themselves to focus on something and work through it. They're not used to having to think for themselves. These kids are junior high and high school age. They don't have many years left before they'll be going out into the world as adults. They'll be taking part in business, working in churches and helping to shape the future of their children, their home and church and our country. It scares me to think what all those things could be like when turned loose in the hands of people who refuse to think for themselves. Who refuse to make an effort to grasp something just beyond their reach.
If they don't drink the water today, I'm afraid we'll all be drinking the koolaid tomorrow.

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