Workshop Wonderland

Who's teaching the teachers?


Leaf through the National Education Association's most recent batch of resolutions (available at www.nea.org/resolutions/99/), and you'll find declaration D-14, which states that "continuous professional development is required for teachers and administrators to achieve and maintain the highest standards." It's hard to argue with the sentiment—except that in schools the usual means of encouraging professional development is the teacher workshop. And anyone who thinks education can be substantially improved with workshops probably hasn't ever attended one.

Not all such sessions—"teachers' in-service training" is the preferred jargon—are a waste of time. It makes sense to pursue advanced study in the field you teach, and we teachers ought to stay abreast of such topics as new laws affecting schools. But most other workshops are misguided, or foolish, or actually dangerous, should the ideas they present fall into the hands of teachers or administrators naive or ignorant enough to take them seriously.

Not long ago, for instance, I went to a workshop titled "Multisensory Grammar." There we learned that students will learn grammar more easily if, before launching into such difficult concepts as "nouns" and "verbs," we first teach them to identify the different parts of speech as blue, red, yellow, green, and orange words. Some lucky teachers were called to the front of the class and asked to place translucent chips on an overhead projector while the rest of us wrote sentences that followed their code. As I recall, "The cat ate the mouse" was a red-blue-orange-red-blue sentence.

At another workshop, we broke up into small groups, each of which got to read Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee" its own way. Our group did it as a rap. Our neighbors did it as a melodrama. Another group sang it as a round, to the tune of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." None of us conveyed the sense of a widower grieving for his young, dead wife, but we managed to kill more than an hour, and, the consultant assured us, we had fun as we learned.

A very popular workshop topic is standardized tests. There's a consultant from the Dallas, Texas, area who travels around the Lone Star State giving a presentation called "Book and Brain for the TAAS." (TAAS is the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the Holy Grail of elementary and secondary education in my state. A high pass rate means your school is "successful.") This consultant claims to have studied past TAAS tests and discovered key words and phrases that distinguish a "book" question, which can be answered by matching an answer choice to a part of the text, from a "brain" question, which requires actual thought. Students, she says, should answer the book questions first and dedicate their remaining time to the brainers. I'm not certain whether this technique does anything to raise test scores, but it certainly does nothing to improve students academically.

Until very recently, "whole language" techniques dominated the workshop market for reading teachers. Invariably, such sessions would begin with a testimonial more at home in a revival tent than a schoolhouse. Like the teachers in attendance, the consultant would aver, she had been reluctant to stop giving spelling tests. She had been even more reluctant to abandon systematic instruction in phonics. But once she broke the chains of tradition and stepped into the whole-language sunshine, all was well.

Some words, I learned at one such workshop, look like the object that they describe. The word elephant, for example, looks like an elephant: It is a big word, and the e at the beginning looks kind of like an elephant's trunk. And the word monkey resembles a monkey, because the y is like a monkey's tail. I couldn't see it, but I can never see the images in Magic Eye 3-D pictures either. I also learned that day that whole language instruction was helping create the most competent and enthusiastic readers ever. Which may be true, if one defines reading as tracing words to see whether they look like something from the zoo.

Mercifully, whole language is falling out of fashion. The equally silly "constructivist math," however, still seems to be going strong. Constructivist math, otherwise known as new-New Math or fuzzy math, grew out of recommendations from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The group said students should not merely be taught algorithms but should be allowed to discover mathematical principles for themselves. The vilified "drill-and-kill" approach, in which students recited multiplication tables and the like, should be shunned; students must seek creative ways to solve problems. These included counting fingers or blocks, making charts, writing out the problem in other words, and drawing pictures.

Drawing pictures? Yes: Our students were to learn to depict people as stick men. Objects would be represented by simple shapes. We got to practice this ourselves. "Draw three houses," the consultant commanded, and we drew three triangles. "Draw 10 girls," he continued, and we drew 10 stick figures. "Draw nine trees," he added, and we drew nine squares. In the spirit of multiculturalism, he also asked us to draw four acetunas, the Spanish word for olives. He then pointed out with glee that even those who did not speak Spanish could comply by drawing four circles.

Many in-service sessions include a component meant to "sensitize" us to our students' frustrations, especially if the children are learning-disabled, poor, or from foreign countries. Sometimes the consultant rattles off a dozen or so instructions in less than a minute, then loudly chastises us for not immediately following them. Or perhaps she will order us to take dictation onto a page that we hold atop our heads, behind our backs, or beneath our chairs. At one workshop, we were told to assemble jigsaw puzzles, some of which lacked key pieces. At another, we were given team names and told to seek out our teammates. Some of us had no teammates, so our quest was futile. Such impossible tasks, the consultant assures us, are the equivalent of what we put our students through every day.

I once went to a workshop for teachers of students with limited English proficiency, in which participants were given worksheets written mostly with nonsense words. We were ordered to read them and then answer several ensuing questions; we were chastised when we failed to do so successfully. We were told that we now felt the pain our students allegedly endured on a daily basis. (I suppose it did emulate their first day of class.)

The message: Failure is painful, so we should give our students the benefit of the doubt whenever we can.

And then there are the sessions on psychology. These are usually run by counselors or education psychologists, many of whom are more familiar with books like I'm OK, You're OK than with the works of Freud, James, Jung, or Piaget. Last fall, several of us were subjected to a dressing-down from a fellow with a guitar and a doctorate in educational psychology. After singing us a cute little song about feeling good, he chastised us for placing too much emphasis on thinking and not enough on feeling. "Schools don't need more worksheets," he explained. "If students are in touch with their feelings, they can understand, for example, works like Les Miserables."

Apparently, students don't have to study French history or look up lots of big words to get the most out of that book. If they think about how they felt the last time they were grounded, they will understand how Valjean felt when he went to prison. If they think about babysitting their little sisters, they will understand his feelings toward Cosette.

In the old days, when left-brain/right-brain theories were in vogue, education psychologists seldom passed up a chance to mention them. Apparently, some of Our Top Education Researchers had concluded that learning disabilities were brought on by disjunctures between the brain hemispheres. At one very popular workshop, teachers were taught to have their learning-disabled students twirl ribbons in front of their eyes. As I recall, the twirling was a right-brain activity, while the act of watching the ribbon was a left-brain one. Doing both together was supposed to train the hemispheres to communicate, thus eliminating the students' disabilities, or at least enabling them to read and chew gum at the same time.

My all-time favorite workshop was held at the South Dakota Indian Educators convention in 1980. There I learned that American Indians, like Asians, were right-brained people, while those of European stock were left-brained. Right-brained people, we learned, most easily learn to read ideograms, while left-brainers were better at reading phonetic script. The consultant stopped short of suggesting that we teach our Lakota students Chinese, but he wanted us to understand that we were forcing our students to read an alphabet that was not natural to them, so we should at least feel a bit guilty.

As mathematician Wayne Bishop has written, workshops are the mechanisms that spread educational viruses. Granted, they're weak viruses, but they're acting on a weak system. One gullible teacher can infect a classroom; one principal can infect a school; one curriculum director can infect an entire school system. Surely there are better roads to "continuous professional development" than this one.

Jerry Jesness (furnes@yahoo.com) is a special education teacher in Texas' Lower Rio Grande Valley.