Tuesday, August 16, 2011

For the Teachers

Tomorrow our son gets up, slings his new backpack onto his shoulders, and returns to school.

His teachers, of course, have already gone to work and begun making their classrooms welcoming, prepared lesson plans, and sat through the inevitable meetings. At the university where my wife and I teach we will follow suit next week.

This seems like a good time to reflect upon just what it means to teach.

There a lot of popular ideas on this subject these days. One of them is "outcomes assessment"-based learning. The way I see it, the ideawhen separated from its academic jargoncomes down to something like this.

The classroom is a sort of factory and the teacher is earnestly pressing a mold over each student. By the time the teacher is done, one should be able to come in and measure the newly molded students and make sure they fit within the parameters and tolerances that have been mandated by experts in advance.

If the data (which must be collected frequently and presented in numerical form) shows the teacher achieving desired "outcomes," then students are taken off the assembly line and passed to the next level.

Long ago a fictional character who (along with Huck Finn)  is surely in the running for the title of "World's Worst Student" imagined an ideal classroom in which the students themselves were in charge of the educational factory.

I speak, of course, of the famous Pippi Longstocking and her fantasy about the best schools in the world.

We're not supposed to take Pippi's amusing fantasy seriously. After all, this is a recipe for education as anarchy, the inmates running the asylum. But there's something that gives me pause. It's what Pippi says about the role of the teacher.

There's no molding followed by measuring going on here. The teacher does one thing and does it well.

She (or he) unwraps the candy, throwing away the distracting tin foil and paper that's getting in the way, and tries to help the students eat as much sweet stuff as possible.

Hmm. What if we were to think of that metaphorically? What if a classroom's candy amounted to a ridiculously large, delicious storehouse of the world's knowledge, including all the history, archaeology, math, science, culture, art, language, literature, and other discoveries humans have made over time?

What if the teacher realized that knowledge presented in the correct way is nothing like force-feeding bran or sawdust or cardboard to students in order to inflate them to a predetermined size and weight, but rather a matter of distributing the tastiest thing in the world and letting it work its magic?

I know. Most students don't think of school as sweet at all. It's hard, it's necessary, it's compulsory. It's something to ultimately escape. And these students never fall in love with the full-range of learning. Which is not the same as saying they never learn.

It seems like the most human trait one might single out is how both he dullest and brightest of us keep on learning something. Eventually every person finds something that is so much funa video game, a sport, tuning an engine, fashion, talking about Twilightthat they forget that they are learning.

The teacher's job is to get students to broaden their menu.

Maybe it's time for them to try something other than the usual cheap milk chocolates and caramels readily available on the popular culture market.

Belgium dark chocolate? Silky semi-sweet?

And, if I'm a good enough teacher, I may even get my students involved in challenging jawbreakers or licorice sticks of knowledge.

Calculus perhaps? Organic chemistry? Moby Dick?

But first I have to convince them that it's all candy.

This is why I teach with a persona that may resemble at times a man on a sugar high. I'm unwrapping the candy and saying, "You've got to hear this!" and "What do you think about that?" and "Isn't this amazing?" and "Let's all take the next half hour and try it out for ourselves!"

I can't help it. All forms of knowledge are candy to me and I'm eager to get it out there where people can taste it.

At the same time I have to admit that the majority of my teachers, especially from junior high on through college, came across as rather dry and unenthused. On their worst days they unwrapped the candy as if it were a fillet of week-old fish enshrined in newspapers. No wonder we doodled in the margins of our notebooks, yawned, looked out the window.

Years and years of this go on and what does a new teacher face? The prospect of trying to wake the dead.

Here's a teacher who knows how to unwrap the candy.

Enter Dead Poet's Society. It's an easy movie to understand in the context of the problems I've just described. Then Mr. Manic himself, Robin Williams, walks in as the  teacher. Yes! It almost takes an excess bordering on craziness to really get turned-off students' attention, especially if they're signed up for a subject they have already decided is intrinsically dull.

The solution? Unwrap the candy as if there is a famine in the land and you've just shattered a giant pinata. I don't care what subject the teacher is assigned to teach, if he or she acts like a mad person and stands on the desk or whatever may be out of the ordinary, it can't help making students interested in the things the teacher is personally passionate about.

I know. Some critics call this edu-tainment. They say teachers are being drawn down to the level of a TV show or other entertainment. I disagree. Humans from the beginning of time have paid attention best, remembered best, and ultimately learned when there's drama involved. Take a look at Sophocles and Euripides.

A teacher without some degree of enticing delivery may have all the information in the world and every fact lined up correctly, which is perfect for the "quality control" people who stand ready to measure; however, if there's not a memorable experience of learning provided, we teachers may very well fail along with some of our students. - V.W.


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