Friday, June 22, 2012

A Silly Game with No Winners

Here are just a few more reasons why teachers must band together in their efforts to wean students from their dependency on shortcuts such as SparkNotes:

It's bad for their character. When students turn to a "study guide" (I hate to flatter them with this euphemistic title) before they even begin to read a novel, they're saying, "I can't." (Just my typing those words made legendary Green Bay Packer coach Vince Lombardi role over in his green-and-gold grave!) Oh, yes they can. The least they can do is try. We'll help!

When students turn to one of these creepazoid cheat-sheets (that's better) after reading a chapter or two, they're saying, "I give up."

When they can get away with saying, "I can't" and/or "I give up" and still get credit for performing well in the class, we've all joined together -- Mr. Fred SparkNotes (the founder, I assume), the student and the teacher -- to validate the tired assertion that "High school is a joke," that what we do there is meaningless.

If we have ways to avoid the very thing we're about -- the heart, the guts -- well, of course it is! We're all playing a meaningless and very boring and time-consuming game in which the teacher assigns a great work of literature; the students flee from it to a repository of diluted, already chewed and therefore now tasteless and textureless scraps; the teacher writes a quiz to try to coerce students into reading, both for their own good and to prevent him from being the only person in class who's read it; then the students parlay chunks of SparkNotesian summary and "analysis" into credible quiz answers which, as it turns out, sound exactly like the answers provided by all the other SparkNotes readers in the class.

I hate to even write this: If the teachers' questions aren't answered in SparkNotes, then the student fails the quiz, and the student "loses" and the teacher "wins." If the questions are answered in SparkNotes, the opposite is true.

But nobody has won anything! In both cases, the student loses because she has either learned that she can be rewarded for no effort or she makes a lousy quiz grade for not learning anything. And the teacher loses because in both cases, after the quiz, he goes about "teaching" each magical note of a symphony of which his students have only heard covered by the equivalent of an 8th-grade garage band.

A very frustrating bit of theater with perhaps the saddest part being that kids have been allowed to quit, to give up. The aforementioned Coach Lombardi once caught one of his star players taking it easy in practice and nearly tore the poor guy's head off. "You were cheating," he yelled at him. "And if you cheat in practice, you'll cheat in the game! And if you cheat in the game, you'll be cheating the rest of your life and I WON'T HAVE IT!"

Good teachers tend to share Lombardi's philosophy that "We are in the relentless pursuit for perfection," followed by his concession that while we may never achieve perfection, "we will achieve greatness" in the process. Students turn to SparkNotes, however, in the relentless pursuit of a grade, preferably an A, which is not perfection, just a symbol for it. The A is a sign of achievement without the achievement.

Some other sins that can be traced back to creepazoid cheat-sheets:

* They corrupt discourse: The teacher and the students who have read the literature come to class prepared to speak of how the author made magic with words, created images and events we'd never think of in a century, stirred our hearts to joy and/or sadness, changed our view of novels and the world, and perhaps changed our own world for the better. But the vast majority of the class can respond only to what they've been told, so must either remain silent or will themselves into fraudulence and fakery. They can say nothing about how the work made them feel.

* As suggested above, they give students someone else's answers, and hardly anything could be more useless than that. Those answers will work for a quiz, but they take away the opportunity for thought, reflection, assimilation, empathy.

* Unlike the literature itself, they won't keep readers from feeling alone and they can't articulate their thoughts or feelings in language so rich they (the readers) want to memorize it.

A personal example comes to mind here: After I read Tim O'Brien's "On the Rainy River," about a young man who has received his draft notice during the Vietnam War, my response was, "That's exactly what it was like. It's completely true." But O'Brien's character lived in Minnesota and made his big decision in a boat on the Rainy River with the Canadian border in plain sight. I've never been near Minnesota, but all that happened in that story had happened to me. Reading a summary would've deprived me of that connection and of the fact that I still remember exactly when and where I read that story.

Enough! It is time to acknowledge that it is not altogether the students' fault that cheat-sheets have taken over the literature classroom and to list some possible ways to exorcise them (the cheat-sheets, not the students) from our presence.

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