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Monitor Board of Contributors: Four ways to rethink teaching

I recently visited my good friend Deborah Meier, the author of The Power of Their Ideas and In Schools We Trust, and the first public school educator ever to be awarded the MacArthur Fellowship.

Now in her 80s, she is as sharp and as contrarian as ever, as these quotes from our conversation illustrate:

∎ “Why do we talk about wanting our children to come to school ready to learn? They are born ready to learn. All children are voracious learners. Are we really demanding that they come to school ready to be taught? Ready to comply? Ready to obey?”

∎ “Why do we insist so fervently upon holding all children to high standards? Who has determined for teachers and students what ‘high standards’ means? And to what purpose? If we hope that our children will be self-motived learners, creative workers, responsible spouses and nurturing parents, citizens who participate actively in our democracy – are these the ‘high standards’ that we are now so rigorously testing them for? Or by ‘high standards,’ do we really mean high test scores?”

∎ “Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly. Our ‘high achievement’ culture encourages us to attain mastery of lots of good things – writing, using numbers, drawing, playing music, etc. Yet too many young people abandon things they’re not so good at for fear of failure or just doing badly. But these things are worth doing, period! Even doing badly (which is how we eventually get better at them).”

∎ “We have abandoned storytelling in the interplay between grown-ups and children. Storytelling has been the most compelling form of human entertainment and instruction for hundreds of thousands of years of human history. Now, it seems, all we want is for adults to read to children, as though a book is the required interface between adult and a child. Storytelling is interactive, filled with emotion and drama, with lots of eye-to-eye contact. Can’t we include creative storytelling as a major part of literacy?”

Ideas like these keep our friendship alive. But what Deborah and I readily agree on (we disagree about lots of things), is that curiosity, empathy, spontaneity, and flexibility – along with experience – are the qualities most likely to lead to great teaching (and, paradoxically, least likely to be emphasized in their training).

Curiosity

It is a teacher’s genuine curiosity about her students, their experiences, their feelings and their ways of thinking that provide the strongest basis for a mutually respectful and truly collaborative classroom.

Try this: For the first week or two of the school year, whatever grade or subject you teach, spend at least half the time talking about things that your students know as much or more about than you do. Pose the question: “What did you learn this summer that is just as important – or maybe more important – than what you learned in school last year?” or “Who is the greatest teacher you have had outside of school? And what have you learned from this person?”

Or pick some questions from the subject area you are teaching.

Here are some examples:

Social Studies: “What rights for kids like you ought to be included in the Bill of Rights?”

Foreign Language: “Who are you going to teach Spanish/French/German to this year?” (Because we all know that one of the best ways to learn a language is to teach it.)

English: “If you were going to write a great story about something you know more about than anyone else in this class, what would you write about?”

Math: “If you had the power to get rid of any part of math – such as fractions, decimals, equations, negative numbers – what would you get rid of? And why?”

Science: “If you were offered a chance to be on the first space trip to Mars – lasting two years – would you go? What would you contribute to the space mission?”

Health: “If you could live to be as old as you wanted to – getting older all the time – what age would you choose to die?”

Spontaneity

“I never imagined being a kindergarten teacher for more than a year or two, so I never bothered to try to be a professional at it,” recalled Deborah, who taught kindergarten for many years in Chicago before, eventually, creating the landmark Central Park East K-12 public school in New York City in the 1990s.

“I just went into the classroom each day to see what I could discover about how kids learn best and develop their ideas and social skills. Of course, I had a vague plan that included some focus on letters and numbers. But that never interfered with the creative play and storytelling that was our chief activity.

“As a result, my young students rarely felt burdened by the weight of my expectations for them. Instead, they occupied themselves with exploring the materials and friendships that were there for them, which of course included my sometimes explaining to them why they should, or should not, do certain things (this is what is now often referred to as ‘classroom management’ – a term I abhor, since I have never yet met a person, young or old, who responded well to being ‘managed’ by someone else). They knew that the questions I asked them were real questions, not ones I already had the answer to. Kids are too smart to be fooled by ‘questions’ that are really didactic statements disguised as questions.”

Spontaneous human interaction allows teachers and students to learn how to moderate their own behaviors while pursuing learning that seems meaningful and enjoyable.

We all learn most from the mistakes we make (including how we can best rectify them), and it is in a spirit of spontaneity – which means looking with a fresh eye at each new situation to see what can best be learned from it – that we are likely to make the most productive mistakes.

Empathy

Most experts agree that all children do the best they can to succeed in life. Often they make mistakes. Sometimes they have not been well treated at home and react angrily or defensively to others. Many fear being embarrassed or humiliated in front of their peers.

If we can say to ourselves, “This kid, who’s causing me such a headache, is trying his best to solve the problems he faces in his life,” we may gain enough perspective to respond sympathetically and creatively, even though this kid is driving us nuts.

One psychologist I know, when faced with a kid who in a moment of frustration yells out something vulgar, reacts with, “Well, that was unexpected.”

It clears the air, defuses the tension and allows him to follow up, one-to-one with the child when things have cooled down.

A former student of mine who now teaches English in a bilingual middle school in Boston prepares her students for standardized testing by spending one day per week helping them figure out how to beat the test.

She says stuff like, “A typical short-answer test question offers you four choices. Two are fairly obviously incorrect. One is the right answer. And one is designed by the test-makers to make their kids look smart and you look dumb.”

The other four days of the week she devotes to Shakespeare, but because her empathy places herself and her students on the same side, her kids do really well on the tests – and learn to love Shakespeare.

Flexibility

It’s getting harder to remain flexible in the face of excessive demands placed on teachers by the expectations of school officials and test-makers, so it’s even more essential to try to remain flexible, to take time to pursue an interesting tangent, to invite the class to take a stretch break, to let your students choose a CD to play while they are reading or writing silently – or to change direction for an hour, a day, a week. Such flexibility can combine all the other ideas, of curiosity, spontaneity, and empathy to show your students how deeply you care about ideas and feelings that are important to them. The confidence you will all gain from learning how to break free of the reins, from time to time, will allow you and your students to become true partners in the learning experience.

(Robert L. Fried of Concord is a consultant for the Upper Valley Educators Institute in Lebanon. He is the author of “The Passionate Teacher” and “The Game of School.”)

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