Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why do we have to learn this?

How often have you heard your own students say these words? I've heard it from middle schoolers through graduate level. When I was a kid, I was told, “Because.” As a teacher, I know that if I hear this question, I missed something in my lesson – I haven't helped the students connect their learning to their own experiences or project how it could be useful in the future. Making learning relevant seems to be official term, but I just have the small voice of a 6th grader in my head, guiding my lesson planning, “Why do we have to learn this?”

So, this vignette is for the math teachers who might stumble on an English teacher's blog, and I swear, this actually happened.

I stopped at Little Caesar’s to pick up dinner for tonight (hopefully the health teachers aren't reading). The cashier was asking if anyone could tell her how to make a real number out of 21%, or what 21% would mean.

Since I had to wait for my pizza any way, I decided to enter the conversation. I asked, “What are you trying to figure out?”
“How much is 21%?” asked the cashier.
“Well,” I said, “If you have 21% of 100, that would be 21.”
“Okay,” said the cashier.
“Let's take some round numbers. So, think about paying tip at a restaurant. If the bill is 20 dollars, 10% would be 1 dollar, 20% would be 2 dollars.”
“Oh,” exclaimed the cashier, “That makes sense.”
“But, you can only know the percent out of something, so what is the something number?”
The cashier looked downcast, “We didn't make our upsell by 21%, but we don't actually know what that means.”
“So, how many pizzas were you suppose to sell?” I asked.
“10% of 77 would be 7.7, so 20% would be double that, so about 15.”
“We were short 15 pizzas. So, why didn't they say that! I like you lady, you're a smart customer. I usually use my cellphone to figure stuff like that out,” said the delighted cashier as she turned to her co-workers in the back and explained what being 21% short on their upsell meant.

As I got in my car, with pizza in hand, I wondered why math wasn't relevant to this person when she went through school. But, being the teacher I am, I wondered to myself how often I failed to make my lessons relevant to my students. Just recently I had to fly through 100 years of history in less than four weeks and constantly struggled over coverage (according to the official syllabus) and depth (teaching for understanding, my philosophy). It was like going to Baskin Robbins and getting to taste every one of the 31 flavors, but using one of those itty-bitty plastic spoons – you get a flavor, but not a real taste. If I felt that as the teacher, how did my students feel?

But, making teaching and learning relevant involves multiple aspects – student motivation, choice of content, learning activities, knowledge of students, projected future possible lives of students, teacher enthusiasm, and supportive academic relationships. Weaving these aspects together is the art of teaching.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Re-Imagining Teaching and Learning

Lately I've had many discussions with my pre-service teachers about what it means to be a teacher and what teaching looks like. So many students grow up in schools with very traditional views of what it means to be a teacher. The traditional view is that the teacher “is in charge” of the classroom. This means the teacher talks, the student listens – the teacher assigns, the students do (or do not and get punished) – the teacher determines the course of study, the students follow. I found this interesting “rules of the classroom” from Matusov that illustrates the unstated expectations of the traditional classroom. He says:

Conventional student agency is usually assumed to involve the student's willingness to participate in the following major actions:
  1. Do unconditionally what the teacher asks you to do (behaviorally, educationally, intellectually, relationally, morally, and so on).
  2. Try to understand what the teacher wants from you.
  3. Put your efforts, industry, eagerness, intelligence, and diligence toward what the teacher assigns as well and as much as possible, based on the teacher's judgment of what “well” means.
  4. Censor your own agendas, desires, genres, and actions that are not sanctioned by the teacher.
  5. Restrain and do not support other students who disrupt and deviate from the teacher's assignments.
  6. Postpone your self-actualization and goal-defining processes until the ""grown-up" future, when education is over (or at least when the school day is over and you are outside of the school time and space, outside of the school Assignment Chronotope) (student as "a halfbeing"; see Sidorkin, 2002).
  7. Actively desire to do 1-6 (Fendler, 1998).

Matusov, E. (2011). Authorial teaching and learning. In E. J. White & M. Peters (Eds.), Bakhtinian pedagogy: Opportunities and challenges for research, policy and practice in education across the globe. New York: Peter Lang Publishers.

Put in these terms, the classroom doesn't sound like a very nice place to be, but this scenario is being played out in classrooms around the nation. I have a front row seat to many of them. In this type of classroom the goal seems to be “teaching” - going through the motions of what teaching should look like, without asking the basic question of, “What are the students learning?” If they are learning the above rules, then they are learning to play school and play the game. If they don't learn to do the above, then they are determined to be at-risk, struggling, or in need of special services. How many students are not reaching their full potential, because their potential is being determined by the restrictive clauses of obedience and fulfillment of duty?

I had a pre-service teacher talk about the frustration of trying to help individual students or small groups of students in the face of being “in charge” of a particular classroom activity. “How am I supposed to get everyone involved if I'm busy being in charge of the class?” I agree, many teachers feel pulled in multiple directions when faced with 25 or more students, all with different needs. But, my first questions was, “Why do you need to be in charge?” I think the pre-service teacher thought I was teasing. I was questioning the foundational principle of being a teacher, which means being in charge. The pre-service teacher blinked a few times, with head shaking and said, “What do you mean?” Again, I asked, “Why do you need to be in charge? What other alternatives are there to that image? Why couldn't a student lead the activity? Why couldn't you use small groups? How could the students be more actively involved with the knowledge and activity, freeing you up to check-in with students?”

This leads to a second issue – that of perception – the teacher's perception of what the community expects the classroom to look like. Having been through 16+ years of schooling, mostly in a traditional manner, many teachers believe that is what parents want and administrator expect. In my own experience, I've had parents say, “Well, I had to memorize it, so my student should too!” Or, “His sister had a vocabulary list, why doesn't he?” Its the old adage of “If it was good enough for me, it should be good enough for today's student. I had to read Huck Finn, so she should too!” This means, that as teachers, we need to recognize and elicit what our parents/students believe the classroom should look like (based on outdated models) and help them re-imagine what is needed for the 21st century. And, in actuality, we need to help current teachers re-imagine this too.

This leads to a third issue – that of trust – trusting that students already posses knowledge and skills that can be built upon, rather than empty receptacles awaiting for the elixir of information to pour forth from the teacher. When teachers trust that students have something to contribute, and give them tools to articulate their knowledge and experiences, the shared learning that happens can be tremendous. Yes, I'm going all Vygotsky on you now, but I emphatically believe that learning is a social activity that requires the participation of each individual to expand the capacity of the group.