Symphony 55

Anne Marie reached over to shake his hand and said, “If you have been teaching literature in high school, then you should be right at home with what we will be doing in the elementary schools from now on. We are learning from you.”

Neil smiled and thought, “If I bag some of this, I can fertilize my garden with it.”

Anne Marie shifted her attention elsewhere, for which Neil was grateful. All of the others at the table were either her old friends or, like Carmen, were old acquaintances pretending to be friends. Since he had heard all he wanted to hear from Anne Marie already, Neil soon lost himself in his food, offering only an occasional “Oh” for politeness sake. Gradually, his attention was dragged back. The air of sycophantic attention to Anne Marie was ruining his appetite.

A heavy-set teacher named Dana was saying, “What was that poem, Anne Marie, and why was it so strange?” Anne Marie explained, and Dana went on, “That was brilliant! Now I know how my kids must feel sometimes!”

Neil winced inwardly.

The pale, skinny woman at Dana’s side said, “Can you give me some copies of that poem? I want to try that same exercise on the teachers at my school.”

Neil stopped chewing. This was just too much to take in silence.  He said, “I wasn’t impressed.”

Eight heads swiveled toward him, and Anne Marie said in a silky, poisonous voice, “Oh? Why not?”

“It was too fake. It might have impressed laymen, but not teachers who have had any experience.”

Dana gave him a look that made him wonder if he had suddenly sprouted horns and a forked tail. She said, “That is exactly what our children face. Maybe you don’t realize it because you have spent your time teaching high school, but it isn’t easy for younger kids.”

“I have noticed that,” he replied dryly. “I didn’t mean that the exercise of putting yourself in the students place was false, just unnecessary. Anyone with any imagination could do that without setting up such an artificial situation. My complaint is that your conclusions do not follow from your set-up. In fact, that exercise would make a better argument for leveling than for heterogeneous grouping.”

He felt Carmen kicking him under the table, but he didn’t care.

“Would you care to explain what you mean by that?” Anne Marie said. Her voice was level, but there was fire in her eyes. She did not like being disagreed with.

“Certainly,” Neil answered, unabashed, and pulled a folded copy of Address to the Deil out of his pocket. “Here, take a look at the first verse. There are ten words that the average English speaker of today might not know and six of them sound like modern English. The structure, allowing for the fact that it is poetry rather than prose, is the same as modern English. What a reader has to overcome here is simply vocabulary. For that all he had to do is read at a level where he does not become frustrated by guessing the meanings of too many words in one passage. That does not represent what a non-English speaker faces. That represents what an English speaking child faces as he learns new vocabulary. The answer to that particular problem is simply to give him new vocabulary at a rate he can absorb, by letting him read things that are a little hard, but not too hard. That is easily accomplished by leveling.”

That uncorked the bottle. Neil leaned back with a bland look of false interest as Anne Marie Chang proceeded to pounce on his words and destroy his arguments to her own satisfaction. But not his. more Monday


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