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Posted at 11:19 AM ET, 01/22/2010

Teaching without gimmicks

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is Diana Senechal, who taught for four years in the New York City public schools and is writing a book about the loss of solitude in schools and culture.

By Diana Senechal
In discussions of “effective” teaching, we often hear about the “objectives” that teachers should spell out and repeat, the “learning styles” they should target, the “engagement” they should guarantee at every moment, and the constant encouragement and praise they should provide—all in the interest of raising test scores. The D.C. public schools IMPACT (the teacher assessment system for D.C. public schools) awards points to teachers who implement such practices; Teach For America addresses some of them in its forthcoming book.

Except for the misguided notion of targeting learning styles, none of these techniques is wrong in itself. But together they raise a barrier. Instead of bringing the subject closer to the students, this heap of tools proclaims: “No entrance! The subject is too hard without spelled-out skills, too boring without adornment, and too frustrating without pep talks and cheers!”

Worse still, such techniques take precedence over the lesson’s content. A literature teacher is evaluated not for her presentation of specific poems, but for stating the objectives, keeping all students “on task,” reminding them about the relation between hard work and success, using visuals and manipulatives, and, ultimately, raising the scores. It matters little, in such a system, whether the poem is excellent or trivial, what kind of insight the teacher brings, or what the students might take into their lives.

Learning is often stark and bare. You are alone, face to face with the subject at hand: a poem, a math problem, a historical question. You cannot get the answers instantly. You may not even know at first what you are looking for. You must grope around a little. There may be hints in the material itself—but there are no flashing lights, no cheery voices, no tips, tricks, or praises of your efforts. And then something comes clear. A line strikes you. An idea comes to mind.

Suppose the students are studying Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush." Should the teacher announce that the objective is to observe how imagery in poetry affects its meaning? Should she show a picture of a thrush and play its sounds? Should she have students complete a “prediction chart” about what they think the poem will contain? Should she lead them in a chant, “Poetry’s for me and you; I understand it and you can, too?”

Why not delve into the poem instead? After providing an introduction to Hardy and reading the poem out loud, the teacher can work through it with the class, saying, for instance, “Let’s look at line 5 and 6—what do you make of this?"

‘The tangled bine-stems scored the sky / Like strings of broken lyres.’

As students give suggestions, she can point out the etymology of “bine,” (which is related to “bind” and “bend”) and “scored” (which derives from the Proto-Indo-European *sker-, “to cut”). Then the class can discuss the meaning of the broken lyres—what is the poet saying about the world around him? If the lyres are broken, what else is broken?

After teasing out the meanings of the words, the teacher can have the class read the poem a second time. Now more will fall in place. Now she can draw the students’ attention to the third stanza: How has music erupted in this bleak place, and why? What is suggested in the “blast-beruffled plume”?

And what does it mean that the thrush “Had chosen thus to fling his soul / Upon the growing gloom”? What is mysterious about the thrush’s singing, and how does the narrator take it? What does one make of the ending? Then they can read the poem a third time. They will see that they understood more each time and that there is still more to ponder.

But the teacher has broken all the rules! There are no objectives, except to understand Hardy’s poem better; no charts or graphic organizers; no “turn-and-talk” activities; no visual displays; no success slogans. The lesson puts nothing between the poem and the student. The teacher might receive a low rating for such a lesson. Yet the student walks out with much more than mastery of a standards-based objective, or two, or three. The “blast-beruffled plume” may stay with him for the rest of his life.

If we teach subjects for their beauty, without apology or distraction, students will take more than fleeting interest, and the lesson can go much deeper. Sadly, such teaching will not necessarily result in the highest test scores, since the tests do not emphasize literature. But students will keep what they have learned.

Some may object that it does not have to be one or the other: that a teacher can delve into a poem and also use pictures, activities, and other tools to make the lesson more accessible. This is true, but students should not depend on it. They should learn to handle what they do not yet understand.

Students do need help and encouragement. This lesson offers both. With nothing at hand but the poem, “so little cause for carolings,” the student will enter the poem. In this strange and barren setting, meanings and sounds will come forth, of which the student was previously unaware.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 22, 2010; 11:19 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Learning, Teachers  | Tags:  effective teaching  
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I should qualify my comments for those who can better discount their value by saying I'm not from the DC region.

I'm confused by the critique for several reasons. The most obvious is that your suggested approach is nothing more than the application of another technique - it's presented as the absence of such, but you implicitly laid out your own objectives, your own processes, and your own rewards for the students. At the very least it's hypocritical. If you'd like toa rgue for the substitution of your structures for others, then let's not shoot from the weeds.

I fundamentally agree with what I think is your point. When technique trumps purpose, when we lose sight of the prize, then we risk the teaching moment. But there's nothing in your critique that suggests to me that other techniques are any more or less likely to inspire, evoke, or motivate than yours. It's the application and understanding of those techniques that makes all the difference...

...which leads to my last point. Schools are learning organizations - not just the students in the schools, but everyone that's a part of the whole. Rather than critique the techniques themselves, find fault in a system that preaches about tailoring teaching to learning styles - which I gather from your comments that you find fault with anyway - and attempts to teach its teachers without allowing for those same expressions of style. Giving a painter a paintbrush and telling her to paint is one thing; exposing her to various techniques and letting her apply them in her own way is another. But teaching her to paint in one way and demanding that she follow your example can and might indeed kill enthusiasm in the very way you suggest.

It's not in the techniques - it's in the assessment of them...

Posted by: aclemens | January 22, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

The writer is obviously a poet herself and would be stymied by the quotidian character of the assessment system that does not allow for or expect any creativity that doesn’t fit within its meager structure. The system isn’t meant for her, nor she for the system.

Posted by: efavorite | January 22, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

I disagree with your analysis that the structure of stating the objective and making students practice reading strategies distracts from the lesson. These are not barriers to student’s analyzing literature but part of teaching students how to analyze a text.

Yes, literature and poetry should be discussed and analyzed in classrooms. There is no doubt that great literature teachers are passionate about literature and scholars in their own right. However, great literature teachers are also aware of what students need to succeed. Students need to be taught how to analyze text so that they can transfer this knowledge to other texts. This involves having students read, predict, visualize, monitor and clarify their understanding. The lesson Diana proposes makes students watch a teacher work. If teachers teach like this, students will not learn how to gain the basic skills that will make them better readers and lovers of literature.

Yes, bad teachers let the structure distract them but good teachers have both –they have a passion and knowledge of the subject and a realization that students must be taught strategies and work through the text with measurable goals in mind.

Posted by: jsmurf181 | January 22, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

The obsession over objectives and measurable achievements (in EVERY class) discourages exploration, self discovery and deeper knowledge that can't be measured.

Posted by: someguy100 | January 22, 2010 9:09 PM | Report abuse

A student should be able to tolerate not knowing exactly will come out of a lesson. Of course they should know the lesson's topic. But the topic may be a work of literature.

Yes, the proposed lesson also contains techniques. The difference is that it goes right into the poem. There is no apology, no dressing up, no subordination of the poem to a skill or strategy. Yes, skills and strategies will come up, but the focus is on the poem.

I do not mean that all teachers should teach this way, or that a given teacher would teach this way every day. But this sort of lesson should exist and thrive. It does not make the students passive. To the contrary: they participate in the close reading.

Posted by: DianaSenechal | January 23, 2010 3:10 AM | Report abuse

After only four years she is writing a book? I guess she thinks it is her ticket out of teaching!! Rhee left after two years, maybe she can follow...

Posted by: ericpollock | January 23, 2010 6:49 AM | Report abuse

In the interest of improving the teaching profession, a set of "behaviors' deemed "good teaching" have been identified. Checklists have been created that evaluators may use when observing a teacher. These checklists and the "skills" they enumerate are artificial. In and of themselves, all of the activities on the checklists are engaged in by good teachers, within the context of the lesson, at appropriate occasions. Not every single lesson lends itself to using visuals, for example.

Hyperfocusing on the techniques allegedly used by good teachers, and forcibly exporting them to all teachers, all of the time, is insane. Each lesson must be evaluated as a whole, and part of what makes a good lesson is the use of lesson-appropriate techniques and activities. There is no one-size-fits-all.

Years back we had a 5 or a 7 step lesson plan that was pushed hard in CA. Principals wanted to see all of these steps in each lesson. Of course, step one was always clearly stating the objective to the student. The reality was that complex objectives do not lend themselves to a daily 5-step lesson plan, but administrators wanted to see this.

Good teachers have a repertoire of methods and techniques, and they select and apply them to lessons in accordance with those that will best accomplish their goals. Quantifying good teaching is of very limited value. Sometimes the results of really good teaching take years to emerge. Excellent teaching contributes to a mindset, it is far, far more than any single activity or the students' accuracy in reciting factual information from memory.

Posted by: silverstarent2003 | January 23, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Oh happy is a person who knows how to be a teacher and to reach the mainstream student... she is not playing "grown up teacher," or teacher "to good for her students," or a teacher who tries to reach only the select few, or the teacher who wants to kiss up to "out of the class room experts"..... she is a teacher, in the classroom, and there for her best student and her slowest student....teaching students to "learn to love learning."

Posted by: noscott | January 23, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

It's wonder anyone ever learned anything before all these new methods came in, isn't it?

Posted by: efavorite | January 23, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

"At the very least it's hypocritical. If you'd like toa rgue for the substitution of your structures for others, then let's not shoot from the weeds."

I'm pretty sure the author was not trying to argue that this lesson on poetry is the only way that poetry should be taught. She very effectively laid out that this is but one effective way to reach children and it is not recognized by the IMPACT teacher assessment tool. How each teacher teaches is as personal as how each child learns. We are all unique in that way. I've seen IMPACT. The lesson above contains great objectives if the evaluator is willing to agree that objectives can be inherent in and throughout a lesson, not explicit at the beginning. However it is my experience that some evaluators do accept this and others do not.

Though my younger children attend DCPS, my oldest attends an independent school in DC. The artistry presented in the lesson above is what we have found from her school. A school where teaching evolves in a forward progression as we learn more about children's learning, effective teaching and brain development. The public schools (which I fully support) require gimmicks and hoops for teachers at the whim of the latest superintendent, school board, political party and so on. Everyone has taken a swipe at being in charge of public schools except for one group - educators. That is who leads the private independent schools - the school head, the dean of academics, dean of students, and so on. They are almost all educators who have spent their years on the ground - with children.

Posted by: jebhoops | January 24, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

The fact is - that evaluating teachers is so subjective that most principals don't know what they are looking at - when they are looking at it. I am a "trained teacher evaluator-certified-bonafide" and I can tell you that every single teacher-evaluator has a different opinion of what each domain looks like. Not only that - we couldn't even get a consensus on what an "engaged learner" looked like.

So teachers can't do what they know works - ask open-ended questions that require reflection, critical thinkiing...time. No - we have to be the donkeys-putting-on-a-show - for the donkeys doing the "evaluating."

Posted by: easttxisfreaky | January 24, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Senechal is right in her assessment of best practices in contemporary education. Lessons are composed of strategies for conveying content to the point that the content itself is compromised, hidden in the back of the room next to the coat rack and pencil sharpener.

I saw early in my teaching career that if I wanted to teach that I would have to get out of a regular classroom and find other opportunities for student interaction. I have done so and am much more satisfied with the work that I do. I was anguished with the arts and crafts projects that I was required to assign to the kids under the guise of education.

Students will not be prepared for college by using crayons to explore literary themes through pictures and working in groups of five or six regularly when they should be working alone.

A former student said not long ago that after two semesters in college that he had not been required to do any group work or use magazine cut outs. I was affirmed yet again that my antique perspectives on teaching were on the mark and that other kids were no doubt thanking me for being such a hardnose in class. I told students at the beginning of every term that they would become very irritated with me during the semester. I always kept my promise.

Posted by: GSN1787 | January 24, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

The author makes very good points!

Posted by: jlp19 | January 25, 2010 12:52 AM | Report abuse

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