Some AP English Teachers Are Actually Wonderful

by Tina Blue
Sept. 18, 2003

          Lately I have received several e-mails from AP English teachers who were offended by my article "AP English Blather."  I want to quote one of them, Pam Hazlett, who teaches AP English in Colorado:

          ~ Hmm . . . although I teach an AP Lit and Comp class, I have never, ever expected my students to write the kind of drivel you say comes from AP teachers. Be careful about sweeping generalities; some of us actually know how to help kids become better writers, readers and critical thinkers--in spite of the fact that we are mere high school educators. ~

          Before I respond to her remarks, I want to point out how carefully written this message is, even though it is merely a short note in my site's guestbook. That's important, because it means that she is herself a good writer.  That is not always the case, you understand.  Many people who teach English at all levels (including, I am sorry to say, the college level) are not very good writers. In fact, too many of them are not even competent writers!

          I see essay assignments, notes, e-mails, and other short and long examples of their writing that are riddled with grammar and usage errors and stylistic blunders. And if they are themselves bad writers, it is likely that they will not be very good writing instructors.  Such teachers are often the cause of the writing incompetence that I see in my college students.

          But that is not the main point I wish to make here.

          The fact is that there are excellent teachers in our public schools.  There are excellent English teachers, and even many excellent AP English teachers. There are even specific schools, and sometimes entire school districts, that have a sort of school "culture" that encourages genuine excellence in the language arts.

          There are also some individual teachers who do an incredibly good job teaching English even in schools and districts where English is usually badly taught.

          Our school district here in Lawrence is like that.  On the whole, I have been decidedly unimpressed by the quality of English instruction in our city's high schools.  However, there is one high school teacher who does a terrific job of teaching both literature and writing.  My daughter took two courses from him (including one entitled "The Mythic Tradition"), and they were among the best courses she had during her entire high school career.

          One of the English teachers for a course called "Writing for the College Bound" is also quite good.

          But I have been teaching college English since 1972.  I remember almost crying when I read the first set of essays from my first two English 101 classes.  I had not realized that anyone could write that badly, and I couldn't believe there was any way to overcome such incompetence.  It would be, I thought, just like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.

          And since 1972, the quality of writing produced by my English students during the first part of the semester has gotten worse every year.

          I don't feel like crying anymore when I read their essays.  I know a lot more about teaching writing now than I did as a 22-year-old GTA.  I know for sure now that these kids are smart enough to learn to write well, as long as I can motivate them to try.  I have a lot of faith in them, and a lot of faith in myself.  I can't make them "good" writers in just 15 weeks, but I can help them learn to write much better than they started out writing, and I can set them on a path that will lead to continued improvement if they keep working on their writing.

          But I still cannot ignore the fact that almost all of the students coming into my classes are such very bad writers.  Oh, sure, some are better than others.  But I never see more than two or three per semester who are genuinely competent, much less sophisticated, writers.  Some semesters I don't even see that many.

          What has begun to bother me, what led to the "AP English Blather" essay, is that so many of the bad writers I encounter have taken, and gotten A's in, AP English courses.  And among those really bad student writers who have gotten A's in AP English courses, there is a remarkable consistency in the sort of drivel they write. 

          Notice that my AP English teacher correspondent actually referred to the samples I provided as "drivel."  She obviously agrees with me that it is bad writing, and that anyone who is being given an A for writing like that is being given an inappropriate grade. But since so many of my AP English students write like this, and since they all tell me they have been given A's for writing like this, I have to assume that their teachers at least think that this is a good way to write, and actively encourage such writing.

          So although I acknowledge that many English teachers, and, yes, many AP English teachers, are excellent writers and excellent teachers, I still have to say that many are not.  And the ones that are not do tend to be bad teachers and writers in the same way. 

          That would be the way I describe in my essay "AP English Blather.

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