Teaching without gimmicks
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.
Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/
Follow all the Post’s Education news & blogs on our Facebook fan page, the "PostSchools" feed on Twitter or our Education home page at http://washingtonpost.com/education.
| January 22, 2010; 11:19 AM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, Learning, Teachers | Tags: effective teaching
Save & Share: Previous: 'Chasing' college acceptance
Next: Admissions season begins. Again.
Posted by: aclemens | January 22, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: efavorite | January 22, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: jsmurf181 | January 22, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: someguy100 | January 22, 2010 9:09 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: DianaSenechal | January 23, 2010 3:10 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: ericpollock | January 23, 2010 6:49 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: silverstarent2003 | January 23, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: noscott | January 23, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: efavorite | January 23, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: jebhoops | January 24, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: easttxisfreaky | January 24, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: GSN1787 | January 24, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: jlp19 | January 25, 2010 12:52 AM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.