How I Teach: Part B

So let’ s begin again. 

          Sooner or later all educators come to know that a well-planned lesson has a better chance of success. [In many countries in Asia teachers routinely have hours of scheduled prep time within their workday. The first time I saw this, I was astounded.] In America, however, we may not have enough time to do this well when new to our profession, or for that matter when we first construct and offer a course. But over years of praxis and ongoing revision, including just after class commentary on our own plan, an edifice emerges which provides structural support yet varies from lesson to lesson and within a lesson in how it unfolds and the modalities it offers for conveyance. Of course we can on any given day ignore the structure we’ve erected in favor of spontaneity, but its presence provides focus nonetheless. 

          When I was working in high school, I was often asked to submit lesson plans. Administration had their own tasks and little time to understand each teacher’ s approach. So specifications of form were substituted which proved largely to make the entire exercise a waste of time for those doing such a complicated and dynamic task. One year, begrudgingly, I kept two sets of books: one to satisfy the boss and one to help with the teaching. It was absurd. 

          But the first step in our preparation, I’ ll call it a propaedeutic, and one that really counts, is the need to get in touch with the learners. 

          Coming from American High Schools, students have been subjected to pressures of conformity on multiple levels. Parental concern for safety has been taken over by schools who are increasingly uneasy about exploration beyond the school grounds, or beyond traditional practices for that matter, and have emphasized instead the importance of tracking protocols, standardized test scores and the five paragraph essay. At the same time peer pressures, including media supported sub-group identification, continue to insist on conforming social codes and judgments limiting acceptable behaviors to avoid ridicule. Some of our best students bear the scars of that practice. 

          By college entrance the twin towers of need can be clearly defined as explorations in two areas: learning about the wider world and the discovering and fine tuning of the self as a particular and peculiar being. 

          John Sherin, a colleague of mine at the alternative public high School we helped create contributed a sparkling idea. He called it ‘ unstructured time.’ What he meant by it was that class time for each course should be limited to two or three times a week and the rest (quite unlike normal high school supervision) would be free for the students to do as they would. In short the college system that until recently provided ample time for investigation, experimentation and reflection. And much of the time these American Colleges were well thought of internationally, unlike our younger grades where the ability to read, write and think were limited to unacceptably small percentages of our population. 

          Today, however, we are increasingly cluttering student choice with ever narrowed opportunities. To take what courses they may want to explore, they have to trek through an avalanche of departmentally focused expectations and state requirements. 

          Few college students are prepared to make occupational choices. Frankly it is premature at this stage, and the society is certainly unprepared to offer them worthy positions. Most certification and credentialing programs will have to wait till graduate school anyway and in a fast changing world even the software doesn’ t stay for more than a year. So what’s the rush? Perhaps we should hold off asking students to declare a major until at least Junior Year. 

          Furthermore, the unbelievable amount of work assigned to students has reached such a crescendo – based I suspect on modern business practices designed to get as much work from each worker as possible so corporations won’ t have to pay as many employees. A colleague in the English Dept. commented recently that she doesn’ t assign papers near the end of the semester any more because her students don’ t have time to write them. And of course with the students submitting so many electronic pages, guess who has to grade them…it’ s reminiscent of Cat’ s Cradle – everyone is busy, busy. Forgive me, but it reminds me of the rats.  

          Every environment varies and there is little purpose in ignoring the possibilities inherent in where we are in the world. Each has its own wonders and its own sore points, dangers and challenges. Here at New Paltz we have an opportunity to explore in a relatively safe environment. An unusual number of intelligent people live in the area, the Mid – Hudson valley is known for its beauty in all seasons and the activities available are splendidly diverse. Clearly exploration is essential and makes maximal use of our circumstances. But the matter goes far deeper than this. Each discipline (perhaps as Plato himself conceived it) is really a path to make sense of the world. History, geology, architecture, etc., each seek to describe what is. But to make sure it does, to parallel the high level abstractions and specialized language of each discipline with what it purports to describe, one simply must be in the field. This is what John Dewey referred to as experiential learning. So while we may agree to meet on Tuesdays and Fridays in the academy for convenience, the focus of our work must relate to the world as it is now. Language is not what used to be spoken. And this understanding helps shape the nature of our approaches to ‘curriculum’. 

          On another level the exploration of the self and the path that leads to private epiphanies often described in the writing of modern bildungsroman makes contemporary sense only when grounded in the experience of the students’ lives – what I call the ‘modernist technique of validation’ . Even as I read this today, for example, I recognize that only if you concur with aspects of my discourse, do we have a basis for conversation. So students must seek something in their experiences that resonates with, is consensual to, what our finest writers describe. We must transcend the academic experience in order to ground what we have to say in personal realities. 

          At our core, humans are decision makers first and foremost, (it is a pivotal concept in our most primal literature,) and the choices we make are so varied and so nuanced that different theoretical approaches and their ramifications are needed than the paradigm of lecture input and prescribed outcomes afford. We simply must begin with respect for the individuals and their need to find their own way. 

          I like the image attributed to Michelangelo. Here is the rock and we need only carve out what isn’ t the emerging figure to find what is authentic. But the sculptor here must be the learner. Who am I and what is my path will emerge dimensionally if time and opportunity for exploration, reflection, turnings and returnings will be expedited and nurtured. What is not you, let go of. Learn to choose wisely. 

          If there is a single item that will affect a student’ s future, it is this ability to choose…widely and subtly disparaged by authorities of all kinds. In some ways these are the tests that matter. The rest are useful for accreditation but are usually used for control. The need for external control simply must be shifted, slowly at first, but then increasingly as our students enter their adulthood. The notion that increasing the number of tests a student takes, the number of pages a student writes, the number of grades (and thus judgments) a student receives, is largely disproportionate and antithetical to the need of the developing individual. I am intrigued by the idea that perhaps students should not write a paper until they have something to say.  

          And thus I conceive our real task as: How to promote learning in all its diversity using a progressive and respectful approach which grounds itself in the experience of world and growing personal awareness.

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