Annabel Lee

When my oldest daughter was about five, she discovered a set of small red books by Edgar Allan Poe in our church library. I suspect her initial interest in them was related to their small size. But she had me read some of the stories and poems to her and she was especially taken with the poem, Annabel Lee. She memorized it. When her kindergarten teacher asked the class who their favorite authors might be, she announced it was Poe. I suspect few of her classmates picked him—or even knew who he was.

My oldest has now graduated from high school and is enjoying an internship in the corporate offices of Guess? Soon she’ll be off to France to spend a couple of weeks there, before going off to college.

A couple of weeks before she graduated from high school, I was helping her analyze several sonnets by Shakespeare and other Elizabethan poets for her English class. She commented that she thought the phrase “analyzing poetry” was an oxymoron. I couldn’t help but agree. Poetry is not meant to be analyzed, it is meant to be enjoyed. Poetry, by its nature, is designed to impact human emotions. We don’t write instruction manuals, history books, or scientific treatises in poetry for the very reason that poetry isn’t designed for that. So analyzing it really is a bit artificial and pedantic. I told my daughter that exercises of the sort she was having to do only serve to teach children to hate poetry. My daughter agreed; if she hadn’t already learned to like it before school, she’d have been turned off it for life based on the sorts of assignments she had to do in school.

Which got me to thinking.

How many children leave school hating to read, hating history, hating science—or hating, well, just about any subject you care to name? Is hating everything academic really the point of sending our children to school? And unfortunately the problem extends beyond the academic subjects.

Physical Education classes are widely despised by the children. In the part of southern California in which I live, PE has been reduced to the children running around a track week after week attempting to trot a mile within eleven minutes. Apparently it has something to do with the Presidents Physical Fitness program or some such thing. Unsurprisingly, the children find the activity boring and unpleasant.

Now I strongly suspect the goal of PE is not to make children hate exercise and physical activity, any more than their other classes are designed to make them hate reading and math. But that is the consequence of how the classes are run.

As a society, we claim that we want our children to be fit. We rightfully see childhood obesity—and adult obesity—as serious problems. But then we find the most unpleasant physical activity, make it boring, and then wonder why, when they leave school, children don’t want to do anything but sit on the couch playing video games.

The problem is not with the teachers. The problem is the well-meaning but clueless politicians and bureaucrats. Test scores are low, so let’s give the children more tests, more frequently. Kids like tests, right? Surely this will make them enjoy learning so much more and their tests scores will go up.

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

My wife teaches elementary school. Thanks to the ever expanding requirements and tests, music and art have been removed from the curriculum. Field trips to zoos and museums are no more. There’s simply no time for that. The state mandates how many minutes a day my wife must teach each of the academic subjects. There is no prep-time, let alone time for anything beyond math, science, social studies and the mandated literature. Then, more than two weeks out of the year are devoted to state testing which is designed to see if the students are learning anything. All the lessons over the school year have been designed to “teach to the test.” Forget about education. Just get the children to do well on the test. Test scores are the goal now, rather than education. And the schools and teachers will be graded on how the students perform on these tests—that take two weeks out of the time that could have been devoted to teaching. Oh, and one more thing: the tests do not affect the student’s grades. In fact, the tests don’t affect them in any way.

So we know the children will do their best. And so we know we’ll get an accurate picture of how well they are learning as they slog through these hours of testing over those two weeks. Since students love tests, especially the meaningless kind.

The author Sarah A. Hoyt wrote on her blog about burnout. She wrote that human beings are able to withstand working their hearts out on tasks where the outcome is not under their control. They can survive if they are given two things: one, recognition (such as a pat on the back, some prestige, or a sense that they’re doing something special or needed) and two, a good paycheck.

But if you remove one of the two compensations, either the pay or the recognition—then burnout becomes a possibility. If both things are missing, burnout is guaranteed. Teachers have little control. They receive nothing but criticism. Their pay is being cut. Meanwhile, the students are endlessly forced to perform difficult tasks for no discernable purpose, with little incentive or obvious payoff.

Education doesn’t have to be this way. But it has become this way thanks to the same folks who brought us the DMV. The president, the congress, the governor and the state legislators do not know how to teach third graders or high schoolers. But there are some wonderful teachers who do know how—if only those entirely clueless politicians would stop trying to tell them what to do with every second of their day. But for some reason, it is safe for them to constantly rag on teachers and schools.

So the beatings will continue until morale improves.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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