[Ken Kifer's Writing Pages]

ARTICLE: A Left-Handed Education

My own unfortunate experiences with the standard educational system have taught me that a different purpose and approach is essential.

A Left-Handed Education


The promise of community and equality is at the center of our most prized national document, yet we're shaped by harsh forces to see difference and to base judgment on it . . . 
I realized that, finally, this is why the current perception of educational need is so limited: it substitutes terror for awe. But it is not terror that fosters learning, it is hope, everyday heroics, the power of the common play of the human mind. 
Mike Rose, Lives on The Boundary
I suppose there are as many definitions of being educated as there are educated people. To some, an educated person is one who doesn't make mistakes. To others, he is one who remembers all the details. To me, she is someone who is always asking herself questions and seeking answers and who considers the questions more important than the answers. The person who never makes mistakes and the person who remembers all the details may both be unprepared for our rapidly changing world. Perhaps they will learn from the person who asks questions, perhaps they will fight improvements they cannot understand, but only the third person will create improvements. The need for the third type of person exists at all levels of our society. Only such a repairman, for instance, can diagnose, take apart, and repair a machine he has never seen before. Therefore, it is to the advantage of society to educate students to be thoughtful and reflective. Yet very often the local school system stifles the imaginative and inquisitive student because of an overconcern for correctness. Mike Rose lived a life on the boundary because his early schooling stuck to the fundamentals and did not develop his abilities. When he began teaching, he found students with less preparation and greater difficulties than he had, and he was motivated to find strategies to help them. I have a similar story: my schooling in the 50's and 60's, mostly in Alabama, was a disaster, and I have tried to help students who received even less help than I did. As a guide to helping them, all I have had is an understanding of my own heavy-handed education.

As a student, I had three easily ameliorable problems: I was an introvert, I was hyperactive, and I was left-handed. An ideal school would have recognized these problems and have helped me develop ways to compensate for them. And in fact, my schools gave aptitude tests from time to time, and my teachers reported my behavior every six weeks for twelve years. However, with rare exception, instead of helping me discover myself, my schools from grade one through college simply punished me for my failings and ignored my abilities. Of course, I was not the only student so punished; there were many of us struggling on the boundary, but since I was not much aware of their problems at the time, let me illustrate how the schools dealt with mine.

Being an introvert is not what extroverts think it is. I am not shy; I am not selfish; I do not spend most of my time contemplating my navel; I thoroughly enjoy being with other people. A simple analogy will explain: an introvert is like a laptop computer; that is, he doesn't always have to be plugged into a power source at all times but can run off of his own batteries. Only an introvert would be happy exploring and mapping a deep cave alone, as I have done. (Most introverts pretend that they are "normal" and find excuses for spending time alone.) The down side of being an introvert is that I sometimes without intention irritate other people because I don't feel a constant unconscious pull to conform. More than once I have had a friend angry at me because she "had to ask." As an adult, I have learned to "fit in" and to expect rejection from time to time anyway, but as a child in the school environment, being "different" was a terrible burden. The "popular" students wouldn't play with me and the bullies found me an easy target. If the teachers found out that I had been attacked, they would be angry with me and interrogate me as to why I "couldn't get along with the other children."

Grade school should have been a good opportunity for me to learn to relate with others. As a child I was both insecure and affectionate, wanting love and afraid that I didn't deserve it. The classroom was a place where, under adult supervision, I should have had an opportunity to learn to understand myself, to learn to control my impulses and fears, to learn to recognize the needs of others, and to gain a sense of my role in society. Yet while my grade school teachers paid great attention to my dress, decorum, punctuality, and obedience, they usually ignored my need for social growth and interaction. Indeed, most of my interaction with other students was clandestine, in notes or whispers to avoid the teacher's paddle. Even before school or between classes or while outside at recess or PE, the other outcasts and I huddled together and kept our voices down to avoid drawing attention to ourselves, as if we were in a prison. Grade school not only discouraged interaction but also actively attacked my social confidence through the use of public humiliation as part of the discipline process. Until high school, paddlings in front of the class were a regular threat for such crimes as talking to another student, defending my point of view (talking back), or not paying attention. That I was generally quiet and well-behaved made little difference; indeed, sometimes whole classes were lined up in the halls to await physical abuse. However, verbal psychological abuse and humiliation hurt worse. School was a place where our worse fears about ourselves would be publicly expressed as fact. In a junior college last year, I overheard a teacher (who mistakenly thought her students were late for class) publicly dredge up as punishment the nightmarish experiences and beliefs of inadequacies that she had wrung out of her students in private confessionals, and I burned remembering how I had felt as a child under similar circumstances. The worst treatment which I received may sound trivial to an extrovert, but it invaded my soul: my teachers treated me as a somewhat unacceptable label or number and not as an individual. Of all of the students in the class, I was the most likely to want to talk to the teacher during class break. But I discovered, time after time, that the teacher did not want to talk to me except to correct me.

The social isolation and even humiliation did not end in grade school, but continued to a lesser degree all the way through graduate school. In high school, college, and graduate school, I still seldom had an opportunity to speak to other students in class. I can remember only one teacher (in high school!) who normally accepted student-student exchanges. Although a number of teachers encouraged us to ask them questions, more did not, and some tried to ignore our presence. When one of my college professors tried to teach a graduate level audiovisual course by letting the students demonstrate the use of the machines, he was reprimanded in a note stating, "The college believes in a teacher-centered class." We were isolated in our work as well. Even in my college creative writing class, I did not see the other students' papers; the professor read his selections aloud with his criticisms instead. (No student in any school ever showed me a paper after class; we were always ashamed after we got them back.) In addition to isolating us, many teachers enjoyed tormenting us also. One professor enjoyed mispronouncing unusual names (for instance, pronouncing Fred's name "Feed rish Vill hem" as if he were German) or giving students humiliating nicknames or deliberately misinterpreting our answers to questions in class. Another of my professors discussed in class, at length and on several occasions, the alcoholic problems of the husband of one of the students in the room. Many teachers enjoyed asking trick questions and then mocking the students who answered incorrectly. One time in graduate school, I stepped into the trap but answered the question correctly; however, the professor was too busy gloating in front of the class to recognize that my regional pronunciation of the word was different from his, and so I had to accept the scorn I hadn't earned. (One rule we learned to accept was that the teacher was always right, even when wrong.)

My second problem in school was that I was mildly hyperactive; my son is now taking medication, but I never have. I don't see hyperactivity as being entirely a weakness: as a child, I had enormous energy and enthusiasm; as a young adult, I began taking long distance bicycle trips. That energy could have been channeled and utilized in school; I was always eager to learn. For instance, I was interested in writing as early as the fifth grade but did not get an opportunity until the eleventh grade. In addition, I read at 650 words a minute and could have been rapidly educating myself. Yet in the deadly tedium of the classroom, while the teacher droned away while reading out of a text I had covered in minutes, I had to invent games or create imaginary empires just to keep sitting there. During my high school years when the dread of public humiliation was lessened, I would read ten books a week--in class. My chemistry teacher would say, "Look up, Kifer, this is important." But it never was; I learned only from his books. Fortunately my college classes were more interesting; but they could have been much better. The teachers tended to tell me what I already knew, and the professors would read old notes. If the notes and lectures had been mimeographed or photocopied and given to us ahead of time, we could have had discussions of the material instead.

My final problem in school was that I was left-handed. Left-handedness involves some minor physical adaptations and some major mental adaptations. Besides needing a left-handed desk, which I never got, I also needed a left-handed education. Research has shown that frequently lefthanders have unequal abilities in the two brain hemispheres. The aptitude tests made while I was in school reveal such a disparity, and comments made by my teachers establish that they were well aware of this problem, although not the cause (my seventh grade teacher, for instance, told my parents that I knew science better than she did; I just couldn't do the work). Although the problems of lefthanders may vary, my basic difficulty was that my verbal and intellectual abilities were well above average while my motor and clerical abilities were below. In order for me to perform as well as the other students, I needed more time to put my words on paper (my hand would ache; often I could not finish), but more important, I needed to understand my mistakes and to develop compensating tactics. This was not the school's plan. The method used by my teachers up to high school was that of endless repetition of mindless work. Every year, I took English, history, and math, and every year, I made clerical mistakes or failed to remember trivia or used my own solutions and, as a result, was sent home with dismal report cards. My mother would rage, "What are we ever going to do with you?" and I would go to my bed to cry hot tears. For all the time and trouble spent, no one taught me phonetics, punctuation, or proofreading, and no one allowed me time to go over my work. Until the eleventh grade, the smart half of my mind was irrelevant in the classroom. Then, when understanding became more important than repetition, my grades shot up. But my education changed more in degree than in kind. The teachers still expected a repetition of data; the information was just more abstract. And they still punished me for my clerical abilities without explaining the rules. For instance, I failed the college competency examination in English for three comma mistakes even though the chairman said I had written the best paper (no one had taught punctuation rules there either). I also made "B's" in English courses because I was not allowed to use a dictionary on tests.

The greatest failure of my schools, including graduate school, was the lack of an intellectual approach to learning. My classmates and I were constantly harassed about mistakes and were constantly required to remember facts, but we were never taught to question or to think for ourselves. When the teachers asked us questions, they expected to hear what they had said or what the book said. The only opposing viewpoints we encountered were fossils from the past, used as paper tigers. Even when asked for our opinions, only a fool would disagree with the professor; I know because I was such a fool. In only a few classes were we asked on tests to compare or to analyze. Composition classes were my only real opportunity to express myself, but the topics were usually dull and did not allow much flexibility: "Should College Football Be Eliminated" was one of them. And when my tests and essays were returned, they usually would have only mechanical mistakes marked and contain no explanation for my grade (usually a "B"). Asking for more information to improve my results only produced vague answers, such as, "You didn't say what I wanted you to say." For a short time, my college hired a literature teacher who, unlike the others, talked about ideas in an open-ended fashion, but who otherwise patronized us like the rest. I once walked to his home on a Saturday, hoping to have an opportunity to freely discuss literature. He was sympathetic and shared his lunch, but said, "No one ever talks about these things; you just work on your own."

To be blunt, I feel that my official education was almost entirely a waste of time. I did not learn how to interact, how to control my moods, how to spell and punctuate, or how to engage in critical thinking in class. I did not even learn my facts there. The thin trickle of information from class was deluged by my independent reading. What I really learned in class was to sit quietly and not complain. If I had been like the other students, I would have learned not to question also. The net effect of my schooling was to give me a poor self-image, to make me nonassertive in dealing with others, and to give anyone who looked at my transcripts the belief that I was not a very capable fellow. The internal effect on me was devastating: I had turned in what I considered to be first-rate work year after year and received only "B's" without explanation: I fought a continuous battle between believing that I was of little value or that the system was of little value.

Like Byron, I could
. . .look on the desert peopled past
As a place of agony and strife
Where for some secret sin, to sorrow I was cast.

The "secret sin" is no exaggeration; no teacher, professor, or counselor ever explained either to me or to my parents why my grades were not better than what they were. Until the eleventh grade, my only "B" was in reading in the second grade, "C's" were the rule, "D's" common, and "F's" not rare, yet my ACT scores in the eleventh grade were 23 English, 24 Math, 29 Social Studies, and 29 Science. My undergraduate school was "one that took in students well below the national average and graduated them even further below" (quoting an education professor) even though only a quarter of them managed to finish. I earned less than a "B" overall and not much more than a "B" in English, yet when I took the GRE examination while there, I earned a 580 (79th percentile) verbal score, a 580 (84th percentile) quantitative score, and a 660 (85th percentile) advanced score in English. I might have been an underachiever in grade school, where my self-esteem was rock bottom, but the same can not be said about college where I started with a positive attitude and worked hard at all my courses. In particular, I was deeply interested in literature, frequently won praise for my writing ability (although not from my professors), read widely, had an excellent memory of what I had read or what was said in the class, could quote from almost any poem and knew the shorter ones by heart, could take anything that I studied and analyze it to a great depth using either a narrow or a broad interpretation.

One explanation for my not doing better is that my teachers were conspiring against me. It is and was a paranoia inducing idea, and therefore, I fought against it. But it is the correct and only explanation; except, it was not personal; it was standard operating procedure with all save half a dozen of the teachers that I had; it was the way the school treated all of us. As Emerson said, "Society is involved in a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." (A few years ago, my old high school counselor told me why my grades had not been better: "You were always too stubborn." Thank God that I was!) Because of this conspiracy and not laziness on the part of the teachers, we were never given adequate opportunities to prove our capabilities. Never more than three exams in a college class. No extra time to finish. No explanation for a poor grade. No allowance for inadvertent errors except those made by the teacher. No opportunity to rewrite. No opportunity to learn from mistakes. No provision for growth.

Since I attended six different schools in two states and my grades were similar in all of them, I cannot fault any particular school. My son has had the same difficulties in school, so I can't even fault a time period (in a progressive private high school, he wrote a 14-page, brilliant autobiographical account, with some flaws, to get circled spelling mistakes, the comment "interesting, well-written but short," and the grade of "B"). Nor was the problem my teachers. They were almost all bright, well-informed, caring people who wanted to do a good job. The problem was the educational philosophy that they represented, a philosophy that saw teaching as being the elimination of error rather than the opening of possibility, the fulfillment of tasks rather than the fulfillment of dreams, the assimilation of old knowledge rather than the creation of new. The plan from kindergarten through college was to instill terror in the student, a "quiet desperation," rather than to enable him to "march to his own drummer." But I began to perceive through my readings a different kind of education. Since the old plan put so much emphasis on being "right" and on the performance skills best mastered by the right side of the brain which a lefthander has difficulties with, I will whimsically call the opposite approach a "left-handed education." In this second approach, the emphasis is no longer on memorizing bits of information that have to be absorbed verbatim; the emphasis is instead on gaining insight and holistic understanding. A right-handed education demands, like Procrustes (who matched his guests to his bed by either stretching or sawing off their legs), that all students have the same abilities, performance, and opinions, but a left-handed education accepts their differences and helps them achieve as individuals. A right-handed education zealously hunts for error, even registration error, and stigmatizes the student accordingly while a left-handed education looks for growth, sees error as an essential part of the learning process, and allows the student to make up poor work or to drop a class without penalty. The purpose of a right-handed education is to categorize students and to teach them facts within a very narrow field; the purpose of a left-handed education is to enable students, to teach them not facts but procedures, to help them develop a global understanding of the world, and to encourage them to look into themselves as well.

I did not learn about a left-handed education only from books; I also learned from my students. When I began teaching English in 1968, I wanted to prove that I could be a first-rate teacher in spite of my second-rate grades. As a result, I imitated my hardest literature teacher and outdid my toughest writing teacher although, of course, I emphasized the kind of learning that had been easiest for me and used the literature that I enjoyed the most. I gave tests in which I expected the students to know the material word for word. I loved hearing me talk and giving challenging assignments. My students did not feel the same way. They would shuffle into class, sit morosely, and fail their exams. One day a student spoke out in class, and instead of stifling criticism, I encouraged further remarks and carried the comments into my other classes as well. We had some good discussions. I told the students that my intention had not been to punish them but to prepare them. I discovered, in spite of my beliefs to the contrary, that they did not object to doing hard work. What they were objecting to was doing work that was boring and meaningless to them--the same problem I had had in college. Their comments cut me to the bone and changed me as a teacher forever. Somehow, in spite of my experiences, I had visualized the good teacher as having enormous insight into the material, as being thoroughly prepared to lecture, and as getting back from the students exactly what he had given them. Now I saw that my real job was much more difficult: I needed to understand my students' needs more than I needed to understand the material, I needed to be prepared to learn more than I needed to be prepared to teach, and I didn't need for the students to regurgitate what I had taught them; I needed to help them gain insights of their own. I began a process of trial and error teaching, with the cooperation and consensus of the students, that has lasted until now. While I keep looking for ways to be more effective, it is part and parcel of a left-handed education that no method is right: each group of students and each student require a different approach; as a result, the quest will last the rest of my life.

One of my expectations when I began teaching was that my classroom would be full of ideas. I felt if I got the students thinking for themselves that they would acquire more control over their own lives and a greater understanding of the material they were learning as well. However, I quickly discovered that thoughtful discussion is hard to obtain. Oh yes, everyone had an opinion on abortion. But no one had actually taken time to examine the issue or was sympathetic to the opposing point of view. Many considered trying to understand the other side as being more than a little wrong--especially when dealing with abortion. At first, I tended to think of my students as being a little stupid. I gradually realized that unlike me they hadn't been reading ten books a week during class, and that what they knew was what they were taught. And their schools had probably been similar to my own. I eventually developed a very indirect approach to critical thinking. I arranged my courses to proceed from the most concrete writing to the most abstract. Instead of expecting students to automatically engage in critical thinking, I "taught" it as a writing skill, just as I "taught" spelling, grammar, punctuation, expression, organization, observation, test taking, letter writing, paraphrasing, summarizing, and comparing. I found that it was very important for me to highlight each of these skills, to explain goals, procedures, and techniques briefly, but that the students needed to work out their own solutions. I tried to make their work gradually more difficult: they first had to describe, then narrate, then illustrate, then categorize, then compare, and finally argue. But I instituted more basic changes as well. First, I made friends with my students and treated them with respect. (One said, "You're different from any teacher I've ever had.") Second, I encouraged comments and questions at any time. Third, I let the students talk to each other and help each other in class. Fourth, I used the students' work as examples, good and bad, so they would know they weren't alone, and I let them do the criticizing. Fifth, I did not work against the students but worked with them to help them get as high a grade as possible and produce as high a quality of work as possible. I told them, "I want all of you to make 'A's,' but I can only give you what you earn." Sixth, I marked all of the errors on their papers, but emphasized cognitive rather than mechanical skills as their goals and graded their papers accordingly. Seventh, I worked with the students as individuals, both on their papers and in private sessions, because each had different difficulties and abilities, and I let them know that I valued their individuality. And eighth, from the first day of class to the last, I stressed the growth and potential of the human mind.

The $64,000 question is--did the extra effort work? The answer is both yes and no. I am not a perfect teacher, and I have not had a storybook success; I rarely felt that the lame were walking and the blind could see. But I always accomplished as much as a conventional teacher would have and usually more. The biggest payoff for me was to walk into friendly, cheerful classroom knowing that I was helping other people get through college rather than creating for them the same kind of hell that I went through. In addition, I was not just giving them grades based on their abilities, but I was seeing real improvement in nearly every student's work. I discovered each time I taught a course that the students' work showed greater improvement, indicating that, unlike the book, I was adapting to the needs of my students. The most dramatic example of this was in my work with international students. When I first attempted to teach them poetry, not a single student produced an adequate paper on the essay exam; some just copied the poems. Yet after I taught the course several times, every student had an adequate paper, many were good, and several were excellent.

I am very proud that I was able to help some students who had never done well before. There was Mousa, who wanted to express his outrage over the treatment of his people in Palestine, but whose term paper draft was childish, disorganized, and unsupported. He was hurt by my comments saying, "Don't you believe the Palestinian people have rights too?" I told him that it didn't matter what I believed, that he had to "prove" every point he made. He kept bringing the paper to me, and I kept making suggestions, and he earned an "A+" for his results. There was Marleen, a 40-year-old cotton mill worker who cussed me out after I returned her first paper in 101 with a "U" and told me that I was just like all of her other teachers who hadn't given her a chance. I calmly told her that profanity did not make a good impression and asked her to explain her problems. When she finished, I told her that I would meet with her after class or at any other time to help her, but that I would only give her the grade she earned. Her attitude changed and, with little help, she made a "B" in my class and an "A" in 102, taught by someone else. Interestingly, she gave me the credit for the "A." Craig was a student who sprawled over several desks, who harassed girls in class, who constantly introduced red herrings into discussions, and who could not complete a sentence or continue a thought in his writing. He denied he had any problems at all and expected "A's" on all his work. Craig only passed the basic writing course because I endless let him resubmit all his papers, but he began changing his behavior and made a solid "C" in 101, including some "B" papers and one "A." Carol was a pretty girl with a poor self-image, who scored third lowest on an "IQ" test given by another teacher. Her compositions were very poor, and I wondered if I could help her. Yet by the end of one semester of basic writing, she used effective organization, demonstrated clear thinking, and had almost eliminated mechanical mistakes in her papers. My final conclusion was that her only problem was a poor education.

My experience in helping students with writing has led me to believe that almost anyone can learn to write effectively. Of course, some of us have larger vocabularies, greater knowledge, greater experience, or better ideas than others, but most writing is not dependent on these. For most kinds of writing, there are only three problems that have to be dealt with. The first is the stylistic problem of how to best express what to say to the audience. The second is the nitty-gritty problem of hard mental work. The third, and greatest problem, is the psychological problem created by having been harshly judged, even humiliated in the past. Giving the students a lot of writing opportunities in a critical and supportive environment usually produces lots of progress, but not all "A" and "B" students. Sometimes even a hard-working student can't make it. I always remind myself that poor writing skills, a low ACT score, or a low IQ test result do not mean an unintelligent person; Albert Einstein couldn't pass math, I've heard. This student, who is struggling in English, may be doing well elsewhere: Chiemi, who came to see me only because she had to get a recommendation from her English teacher to transfer, had a 3.84 average overall! But even if the student is failing all classes and has no special abilities, she is still a human being who deserves sympathy and respect.

Some educators would call my efforts "spoon-feeding" or say they require too much work from the teacher. But I never did any of the students' work for them; I only marked papers, explained problems and methods, and encouraged. I would have thought that the students would complain because I gave them more work than any other teacher and still expected high quality, but most of them saw the work as an opportunity to express themselves and to learn, and I only received complaints sometimes about my topics. I admit that I gave myself additional work, but it was pleasant and interesting work, not drudgery, and often very rewarding.

My experience both as a student and as a teacher has taught me the same message that Mike Rose's experience taught him: "It is not terror that fosters learning, it is hope, everyday heroics, the power of the common play of the human mind." In other words, don't pound home the basics and leave the students too afraid to look you in the eye, but love them and encourage them (fill them with courage) and give them a left-handed education.

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