“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Fault and Default in Teaching Styles

When the chair of the English Department sat across from me in his office and admonished, “It’s not going to be anything romantic, like making some special connection with a bunch of likeminded students; you’re going to be trying to teach a bunch of people who don’t want to learn,” his warning resonated with my college experiences all too well. Of course, I never believed I would be stepping into “Dead Poets Society” and I didn’t really care. I’m a writer, not a teacher. I was just accepting the position to spruce up my CV and get my tuition covered. So, the chair of the department (who I won’t name here) and I had the same attitude toward the material: it’s hard, but it’s worthwhile—show me that you’re willing to put forth the effort or be on your way.

Still, I was a bit disturbed in the middle of my first semester teaching by how apathetic and lethargic my students were. So I went to the office of another professor, Damian Fleming, who had taught a Chaucer course I’d loved the previous semester. “The Canterbury Tales” in the original Middle English could have been drudgery, but Dr. Fleming had a playful approach that made it irresistible—at least to a geek like me. When I described to him my concern he recognized my predicament immediately. “Do they just sit there with this look on their face like, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’” That was exactly the look I was getting. Dr. Fleming had a few practical suggestions, like having everyone in class speak up, even if it’s just to read out loud, as often as possible. But what really impressed me, and continues to impress me, is that he has come to exemplify for me an attitude toward teaching diametrically opposed to my own default mindset—and he’s a much a better teacher.

The attitude Dr. Fleming subcommunicates is that this stuff—Old English, diphthongs, metathesis—may be arcane and boring, but we’re all fun people so we’re going to have fun with it. Before long, it dawns on you that the material can’t actually be boring if you’re enjoying learning about it. At the same time, you’re seeing evidence of how important all you’re learning about really is every time you read a paper or watch the news—Is English endangered by Spanish-speaking immigrants? Will texts and emails ruin the language?—and suddenly it’s anything but arcane. The difference between Dr. Fleming’s approach and that of the department chair is that the better teacher takes responsibility for student engagement while the lesser teacher places that responsibility solely on the students.

After three semesters of teaching, I’ve realized I’m not content to follow the aloof approach to managing a classroom. I realize I can’t rely on my fascinating anecdotes and quirky asides to convince students that what I’m having them do is worthwhile because my personal style—anyone’s personal style—is hit-or-miss. Some will like it. Some will be put off by it. This is true of the material too; some people will never really get into writing or reading at any point in their lives. But what I can do, and what Dr. Fleming does particularly well, is subcommunicate that the material is interesting and that the tasks are worthwhile. That’s why I’m excited to be reading “Teach Like a Champion” by Doug Lemov. (Don't let the corny title fool you.)

I’ll probably do a full review of Lemov’s book sometime soon (I’m not finished with it yet) but for now I’ll just relate some of the thoughts and realizations I've had as I’ve been reading it. When you get that why-are-you-doing-this-to-me look everyday, you unconsciously begin to make deals with the class, conceding, for instance, that the lessons are boring, but promising to get through them as quickly as possible. Or you concede that the work is tedious—and perhaps even pointless—but you promise not to make it any longer or any more complicated than it has to be to meet the standards set for you by the department. This latter is a big problem for me because I often find myself at odds, ideologically, with the professors and heads of The Department of English and Linguistics, a majority of whom are true believers in the vagaries of Rhetoric or the absurdities of Postmodernism. So it’s easy for me to end up in a position where I’m emphasizing that I’m just a student like everyone else in my class, and I think a lot of what the department promulgates is silly and pointless too. The corollary is, so let’s just work through it all together as quickly and painlessly as possible. Meanwhile the class’s opportunity to really experience the best of what writing can be in any profound way is lost.

“Teach Like a Champion” offers several techniques for getting the class engaged without cutting such deals. No Opt Out, for instance, has teachers come back to students who’ve passed on a question in class, so they learn they can’t simply get away with not paying attention or not doing their homework by pretending not to understand. Right is Right is an important technique for me because I tend to meet students halfway when they’re trying to work through a complicated question, feeding them most of the answer, which really robs them of the opportunity to do it completely on their own and breeds laziness by sending the message that if you just try a little I’ll do most of the work for you. The technique has the teacher insist on a right answer before proceeding, and resisting the urge to fill in the blanks of incomplete answers.

One of the thoughts those students who wear that accusing and terrorized expression are having is probably, I don’t feel like I know this stuff very well so I hope he doesn’t call on me or ask me to do anything. But what if every student in the class knew he or she was going to be called on, knew they’d have to participate and contribute their take on the reading or on the question at hand every day? No Opt Out is good for instilling this expectation and fostering preparedness. But the most important technique on this front in “Teaching Like a Champion” is Cold Call, which has you choosing students to call on randomly—not punitively, which backfires—sometimes regardless of whose hands are raised. This sends the message that the material is important enough that everyone should be able to answer questions on it. And the class itself is important enough that you won’t ever be allowed to sail through it daydreaming.

By applying these and other techniques I hope to be taking responsibility for classroom engagement and not falling back on my default approach of buddying up and making deals. Maybe my students will come away thinking I’m a martinet (I’d be happy if they used that word), but I hope they also come away having lost just a little certainty in their belief that writing is inherently boring and pointless, something you have to do a little of to graduate but beyond that the domain of other people who are more interested in it. Of course, I don’t expect wild success at first application of a bunch of techniques I learned from a book (though it does come with a dvd). I do, however, believe the change in mindset will have an effect on its own.


caynazzo said...

This reminds me of a class I took at JHU called Sentence Power. Imagine a semester full of grammar lessons being year after year the most popular course offered in the entire department.

It was also a very high-stress experience and for the reasons you mentioned: everyone was called on at least once to provide meaningful analysis (of another classmate's work) which was ultimately accepted or rejected by the instructor.

Like you said, there were right and wrong answers and forced participation.

Dennis said...

It sounds pretty intense the more I think about. I hope it doesn't take more energy than I have.