Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

If I were a teacher for a semester . . .

. . . I'd spend a lot of time teaching them the language.

Everybody who criticizes America's public schools, I told a friend the other day, ought to be required to spend a semester teaching in one.

I admit I was being more smart-alecky than prescriptive. I was saying that people who are so sure that discipline is the answer to underachieving schools would see firsthand how difficult discipline can be to achieve. Likewise with those who think phonics is the answer, or prayer or uniforms or bigger budgets or teachers who can pass a national teachers exam. Let them spend a semester in a failing school and then see what they think about their pet scheme.

I certainly wasn't saying that the schools would benefit from having a bunch of second-guessing, pedagogically ignorant, disrespectful know-it-alls cluttering up the place. I was being ironic.

But the more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to think some version of the spend-a-semester idea might be a good thing (besides lowering the decibel level of the criticism).

In particular, I wonder what I would do with my semester. You see the prescriptions I've been offering _ improving teachers colleges, instituting parenting classes for parents of young children, that sort of thing _ constitute systemic changes. That means they would take a long and concerted effort to implement and that they would be beyond the reach of any individual critic.

So what would I do?

To start with, I think I'd ask to be assigned to younger children. By the time students reach high-school age in some of our worst-performing schools, the emphasis has shifted away from educating them to simply cajoling them into staying to get a diploma.

And what would I do with these youngsters in elementary school? I think I'd spend a lot of time teaching them the language. Not just the mechanics of English _ spelling, grammar, the parts of speech _ though I'd like those taught as well. No, my semester's contribution would be to get my youngsters speaking English as well as I could manage is such a short time.

You see, there's no doubt in my mind that if these children learned to speak standard English, they'd find reading a lot easier to master _ and that competent reading makes everything else a lot easier to master.

I know there would be critics who would complain (assuming I was assigned to a predominantly black class) that I was teaching these children to speak white. I'd have three answers for them. The first (and probably most effective) would be to evoke my spend-a-semester rule. The second would be to ask them just which non-white language they'd like me to emphasize. But third, I'd lay in a stack of recordings of black Americans speaking standard English and get the children to mimic these careful speakers the way they mimic their favorite rap artists _ complete with rhythm, pronunciation and inflection.

I'd have them choose their favorite orator and then, using the language lab if the school had one or a simple cassette recorder if it didn't, record and re-record their imitation of the speech. Oh, yes, and they'd have to transcribe the speech so they could read it back _ an exercise that, I am convinced, would help enormously with their reading progress.

Can't you just hear their proud parents? "Lordy me, that girl sure do sound just like Maya Angelou (or Gwen Ifill or Barbara Jordan or Johnetta Cole). "Man, I swear if you close your eyes you'd think you were listening to Kweisi Mfume (or Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King Jr.)."

I'd move them as quickly as I could from repeating the canned oratory of their chosen models to reading their own creations. The combination of writing the material (which means they'd have to think about it), reading it as effectively as they could and then listening to and critiquing their effort would move them rapidly toward becoming proficient with the language.

Language isn't everything, of course. Sooner or later they'd have to learn something of history and math and science _ the things we describe as "content" courses. But I don't propose to become their permanent teacher. I'm only there for a semester, remember. And that is about the most effective way I can think of to spend my semester.

How would you spend yours?

+ William Raspberry is a Washington Post columnist. +

Washington Post Writers Group