So many of my friends who are teachers are trying to find ways to teach their students well through unfamiliar online platforms, and are rather nervous about doing so. Different schools have different expectations about how you need to manage your time online with students. Some students may not even have internet access at home, or devices that work well with remote learning. And I do not want to be yet another voice pontificating on what you should or should not do–so please take or leave these thoughts as you will.
My background is in high school English literature, so a lot of these thoughts are coming from that experience.
There’s nothing like a crisis to get you to focus on what is essential and what is not. A couple of years ago I was asked to help co-teach an Algebra 1 class in March, since sixteen or so of the twenty-four students were failing. We really had to sit down and think about what really matters. What do they need to know in order to have a solid grasp of algebra before the end of the year? What do we need to let go of?
In the time of the coronavirus, this question is all the more poignant. What do kids need to know? What, in your subject, and in an age-appropriate manner, can speak into the abrupt changes in their lives? What wisdom, what love, can you offer?
And what do you have to let go this year? There will be a lot of that.
If you are a science teacher, what things could you be investigating with students that renew and deepen their appreciation of what doctors and medical workers do? In history, what are examples of human beings coming together in remarkable ways to help one another in movements of solidarity and courage?
I’m not saying that you need to bend over backwards in inauthentic ways to make content “relevant”… but, think about how your specific subject area can speak into your students’ lives in this time. I mean, that should always be a question teachers are asking, but the current coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for deeper revelation.
As Flannery O’Connor observed when asked why her characters have to undergo such violent and intense experiences, “It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially.”
2. No busy work
Maybe this doesn’t need to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway. The temptation all teachers have at certain times, especially when trying to manage a tricky class situation, is to “keep the kids busy.” There is some merit to this idea (“get to work!” thank you, Harry Wong) … but not much.
The goal is not to lower your standards, but to consider how your assignments are inviting students to spend their time. Are you assigning a project that requires a lot of online research and scrolling? If so, is that the best thing to do right now, when all of your students’ classes are currently conducted online and many people are spending far too much time on the internet scrolling through New York Times articles in order to have a sense of control over an unpredictable and scary situation? (I’m guilty of this, by the way.)
Assigning practice problems (esp. for Math and similar subjects) is often very necessary — we learn by practicing! — but consider how many problems are really needed here.
Really ask yourself: is this just busy work? Will my kids see it as busy work? If I think it’s meaningful and worth doing, how do I help them see that, to the extent that I can?
3. Assignments that lead students away from the computer and towards the people and world around them (with appropriate 6 feet distances!)
As an English teacher, I would be thinking if I were teaching right now, “How could I get my kids to interview their parents or grandparents on pivotal moments in history in their time? How could I encourage them to have meaningful, truth-seeking, and frank discussions that enlarge and deepen their understanding of the past to give them some context and wisdom for the present?”
Maybe, instead of having them type up these interviews, have them do an audio recording of them to minimize screen time.
If they need to do a writing assignment for you, does it HAVE to be typed? Could they write some (shorter) assignments by hand, take a picture of it, and upload it that way? (If their family has only one computer at home but several kids in school, this might be really helpful).
Are there assignments they can do by going outside for walks in their neighborhoods with their family, taking pictures of beautiful things they see?
I’m thinking about those Italians singing out their windows to encourage one another. What are ways my students could make art to add more beauty to the world right now? Could they write music? Poetry? Draw? How might they share their art with you and one another?
How can your class become a place where engagement with the truly and deeply human things is encouraged?
4. Checking in with smaller groups
As a for-credit assignment, make a sign up sheet for them to choose a time to do a short video chat with you once a week (30m or less) in small groups. Depending on how many students you have, a good idea would be to make these smaller chats with 10 students or less, if possible. (When I had 120 students, this would mean 12 different chats a week… that’s a lot. Do what you can.)
These video chats (via Google hangouts or Zoom or whatever) could be opportunities for them to share assignments with you, discuss readings of course… but more importantly it is time for them to see your face, to see that you care for them, that you are involved and engaged.
If your school is trying to have you record lectures and teach that way, talk frankly with your principal about alternatives. Real learning happens in the context of relationships, of real-time interaction. How might you facilitate that with your kids?
5. Be flexible and gentle
Be flexible and gentle– especially with yourself! Just as you would be patient with a student learning something for the very first time, be patient with yourself as you navigate online teaching.
Be honest with your kids — “Hey guys, this is new for me too. We are in this together to see what works and what doesn’t.”
More thoughts to come.
If you are a teacher, what have you been trying? What’s been working well? What hasn’t? Or, if you are a parent, what have you seen your children doing with assignments?
And for all of you who are teachers, trying your best, making mistakes, spending time trying to teach your kids in new and challenging ways, God bless you.
I’ve been unsure whether and what to write in the last few days. The temptation to offer uneducated opinions seems to be strong in much of the online community, and I don’t want to add my voice to the noise.
Yet there has been a lot of beautiful communication as well; people offering to help out, teachers offering assistance to parents homeschooling in the coming days, folks eager to make deliveries / shopping runs for older people or others more vulnerable to the illness. It’s good to remember how wonderful human beings can be.
I’m thinking about writing some posts in the next few weeks with ideas/resources for ELA teachers who are transitioning to teaching online, so watch for those and feel free to share with parents or other teachers who might find them useful.
In the meantime, a passage from C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn TreaderI have always loved, that seems timely. Of course, the situation in the story is by no means an accurate analogy for our situation now — but Lucy’s response feels right. A long excerpt below (Lewis’ works are now in the public domain).
The crew of the ship are headed into a mysterious darkness hovering over the sea:
So the three lanterns, at the stern, and the prow and the masthead, were all lit, and Drinian ordered two torches amidships. Pale and feeble they looked in the sunshine. Then all the men except some who were left below at the oars were ordered on deck and fully armed and posted in their battle stations with swords drawn. Lucy and two archers were posted on the fighting top with bows bent and arrows on the string. Rynelf was in the bows with his line ready to take soundings. Reepicheep, Edmund, Eustace and Caspian, glittering in mail, were with him. Drinian took the tiller.
“And now, in Aslan’s name, forward!” cried Caspian. “A slow, steady stroke. And let every man be silent and keep his ears open for orders.”
With a creak and a groan the Dawn Treader started to creep forward as the men began to row. Lucy, up in the fighting top, had a wonderful view of the exact moment at which they entered the darkness. The bows had already disappeared before the sunlight had left the stern. She saw it go. At one minute the gilded stern, the blue sea, and the sky, were all in broad daylight: next minute the sea and sky had vanished, the stern lantern – which had been hardly noticeable before – was the only thing to show where the ship ended. In front of the lantern she could see the black shape of Drinian crouching at the tiller. Down below her the two torches made visible two small patches of deck and gleamed on swords and helmets, and forward there was another island of light on the forecastle. Apart from that, the fighting top, lit by the masthead light which was only just above her, seemed to be a little lighted world of its own floating in lonely darkness. And the lights themselves, as always happens with lights when you have to have them at the wrong time of day, looked lurid and unnatural. She also noticed that she was very cold.
How long this voyage into the darkness lasted, nobody knew. Except for the creak of the rowlocks and the splash of the oars there was nothing to show that they were moving at all. Edmund, peering from the bows, could see nothing except the reflection of the lantern in the water before him. It looked a greasy sort of reflection, and the ripple made by their advancing prow appeared to be heavy, small, and lifeless. As time went on everyone except the rowers began to shiver with cold.
Suddenly, from somewhere – no one’s sense of direction was very clear by now – there came a cry, either of some inhuman voice or else a voice of one in such extremity of terror that he had almost lost his humanity.
Caspian was still trying to speak – his mouth was too dry – when the shrill voice of Reepicheep, which sounded louder than usual in that silence, was heard.
“Who calls?” it piped. “If you are a foe we do not fear you, and if you are a friend your enemies shall be taught the fear of us.”
“Mercy!” cried the voice. “Mercy! Even if you are only one more dream, have merry. Take me on board. Take me, even if you strike me dead. But in the name of all mercies do not fade away and leave me in this horrible land.”
“Where are you?” shouted Caspian. “Come aboard and welcome.”
There came another cry, whether of joy or terror, and then they knew that someone was swimming towards them.
“Stand by to heave him up, men,” said Caspian.
“Aye, aye, your Majesty,” said the sailors. Several crowded to the port bulwark with ropes and one, leaning far out over the side, held the torch. A wild, white face appeared in the blackness of the water, and then, after some scrambling and pulling, a dozen friendly hands had heaved the stranger on board.
Edmund thought he had never seen a wilder-looking man. Though he did not otherwise look very old, his hair was an untidy mop of white, his face was thin and drawn, and, for clothing, only a few wet rags hung about him. But what one mainly noticed were his eyes, which were so widely opened that he seemed to have no eyelids at all, and stared as if in an agony of pure fear. The moment his feet reached the deck he said:
“Fly! Fly! About with your ship and fly! Row, row, row for your lives away from this accursed shore.”
“Compose yourself,” said Reepicheep, “and tell us what the danger is. We are not used to flying.”
The stranger started horribly at the voice of the Mouse, which he had not noticed before.
“Nevertheless you will fly from here,” he gasped. “This is the Island where Dreams come true.”
“That’s the island I’ve been looking for this long time,” said one of the sailors. “I reckoned I’d find I was married to Nancy if we landed here.”
“And I’d find Tom alive again,” said another.
“Fools!” said the man, stamping his foot with rage. “That is the sort of talk that brought me here, and I’d better have been drowned or never born. Do you hear what I say? This is where dreams – dreams, do you understand, come to life, come real. Not daydreams: dreams.”
There was about half a minute’s silence and then, with a great clatter of armour, the whole crew were tumbling down the main hatch as quick as they could and flinging themselves on the oars to row as they had never rowed before; and Drinian was swinging round the tiller, and the boatswain was giving out the quickest stroke that had ever been heard at sea. For it had taken everyone just that half-minute to remember certain dreams they had had – dreams that make you afraid of going to sleep again – and to realize what it would mean to land on a country where dreams come true.
Only Reepicheep remained unmoved.
“Your Majesty, your Majesty,” he said, “are you going to tolerate this mutiny, this poltroonery? This is a panic, this is a rout.”
“Row, row,” bellowed Caspian. “Pull for all our lives. Is her head right, Drinian? You can say what you like, Reepicheep. There are some things no man can face.”
“It is, then, my good fortune not to be a man,” replied Reepicheep with a very stiff bow.
Lucy from up aloft had heard it all. In an instant that one of her own dreams which she had tried hardest to forget came back to her as vividly as if she had only just woken from it. So that was what was behind them, on the island, in the darkness! For a second she wanted to go down to the deck and be with Edmund and Caspian. But what was the use? If dreams began coming true, Edmund and Caspian themselves might turn into something horrible just as she reached them. She gripped the rail of the fighting top and tried to steady herself. They were rowing back to the light as hard as they could: it would be all right in a few seconds. But oh, if only it could be all right now!
Though the rowing made a good deal of noise it did not quite conceal the total silence which surrounded the ship.
Everyone knew it would be better not to listen, not to strain his ears for any sound from the darkness. But no one could help listening. And soon everyone was hearing things. Each one heard something different.
“Do you hear a noise like . . . like a huge pair of scissors opening and shutting .. . over there?” Eustace asked Rynelf.
“Hush!” said Rynelf. “I can hear them crawling up the sides of the ship.”
“It’s just going to settle on the mast,” said Caspian.
“Ugh!” said a sailor. “There are the gongs beginning. I knew they would.”
Caspian, trying not to look at anything (especially not to keep looking behind him), went aft to Drinian.
“Drinian,” he said in a very low voice. “How long did we take rowing in? – I mean rowing to where we picked up . the stranger.”
“Because we’ve been more than that already trying to get out.”
Drinian’s hand shook on the tiller and a line of cold sweat ran down his face. The same idea was occurring to everyone on board. “We shall never get out, never get’ out,” moaned the rowers. “He’s steering us wrong. We’re going round and round in circles. We shall never get out.” The stranger, who had been lying in a huddled heap on the deck, sat up and burst out into a horrible screaming laugh.
“Never get out!” he yelled. “That’s it. Of course. We shall never get out. What a fool I was to have thought they would let me go as easily as that. No, no, we shall never get out.”
Lucy leant her head on the edge of the fighting top and whispered, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” The darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel a little – a very, very little – better. […]
“Look!” cried Rynelf’s voice hoarsely from the bows. There was a tiny speck of light ahead, and while they watched a broad beam of light fell from it upon the ship. It did not alter the surrounding darkness, but the whole ship was lit up as if by searchlight. Caspian blinked, stared round, saw the faces of his companions all with wild, fixed expressions. Everyone was staring in the same direction: behind everyone lay his black, sharply-edged shadow.
Lucy looked along the beam and presently saw something in it. At first it looked like a cross, then it looked like an aeroplane, then it looked like a kite, and at last with a whirring of wings it was right overhead and was an albatross. It circled three times round the mast and then perched for an instant on the crest of the gilded dragon at the prow. It called out in a strong sweet voice what seemed to be words though no one understood them. After that it spread its wings, rose, and began to fly slowly ahead, bearing a little to starboard. Drinian steered after it not doubting that it offered good guidance. But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, “Courage, dear heart,” and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s […]
Thomas Aquinas, who in many ways is the pre-eminent teacher of the Church, asked whether it was really possible to teach another person anything at all.
I say this is a sign that he really was a classroom teacher.
In the first part of the Summa, Q 117, he asks whether “one man can teach another, as being the cause of his knowledge”. My favorite objection he lists is the fourth one:
Further, the teacher does nothing in regard to a disciple save to propose to him certain signs, so as to signify something by words or gestures. But it is not possible to teach anyone so as to cause knowledge in him, by putting signs before him. For these are signs either of things that he knows, or of things he does not know. If of things that he knows, he to whom these signs are proposed is already in the possession of knowledge, and does not acquire it from the master. If they are signs of things that he does not know, he can learn nothing therefrom: for instance, if one were to speak Greek to a man who only knows Latin, he would learn nothing thereby. Therefore in no way can a man cause knowledge in another by teaching him.
I think most teachers could think of many instances in their experience that line up pretty well with that description!
You’ve got your students who already know stuff, and in some real way already have a kind of incipient grasp of your lesson before you even begin. They do just fine, with or without you it seems, and they ask all sorts of insightful questions about a topic they already love–or at least, a topic they grasp enough to be willing to investigate further.
But then you have other students who seem to know hardly anything at all–at least, not the things you think are important that they know–and by the end of the lesson it’s unclear if they are any better off than before. With or without you, they struggle.
I have always been rather disturbed by a passage in the Gospels where Jesus describes something very much like this:
The disciples approached him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.’ (Matthew 13:10-13)
This principle–“to him who has, more will be given; to him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”–seems to be an accurate observation about life in general and education in particular, but it also seems extremely unfair and upsetting.
Does Jesus speak in parables because stories are the best way to reach those of us who have not been granted “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom”? Or is he speaking in parables, in a veiled way, in order to keep those mysteries hidden? I don’t know.
When I read Thomas’ question about whether or not one person can teach another person, I go back and try to remember how I learned things. How did I learn to write a thesis statement, or incorporate a quote? How did I learn to read? How did I actually learn to memorize Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “Old Ironsides”? How did I learn to play that first chord on the guitar (it was D)?
It’s tricky. It’s hard to remember. It’s especially hard to unpack how one learned about the things one really loves—because they seem so intuitive and “(con)natural”—to use an Aquinas term. This makes it harder, in some ways, to teach things that you really love to someone else.
In some cases, I remember teachers being involved in the process of my learning, but many of these instances seemed for me to involve largely an interior process, a personal negotiation with reality, a task I had to wrestle with myself.
I remembering seeing the red marks scrawled all over my sophomore year summer essay, and then trying to apply that feedback (“your thesis needs to be arguable! split infinitive! tenuous connection!”) when I was writing my next essay. I saw on the chart where I was supposed to place my fingers on the frets of the guitar, but I had to bend my own small hands in various contortions in order to release the appropriate sound from the strings—and I had to do that over and over and over until I didn’t have to think about where my fingers belonged anymore.
I find it interesting that educational theories in the last thirty-plus years have focused on students learningrather than teachers teaching—and although perhaps when taken to extremes that approach underestimates the value of teachers as “experts”, as many classical educational models claim—there is something rather Aquinas-esque about the student-centered approach.
With gifted students, teachers sometimes feel superfluous. With really struggling students, teachers can feel helpless.
So, can you teach someone else something?
Or, despite popular perceptions of education, is learning really an interior cognitive task that only the individual can perform for herself?
In his answer to the question, Thomas Aquinas starts off by acknowledging how complicated the process of learning is: “I answer that on this question there have been various opinions.” Note that he says this after having already listed some of those opinions in the objections. There are more.
One of the opinions he explores in his answer is that of the Platonists, who perhaps veer too far in the student-centered direction in theory of how learning happens. They
held that our souls are possessed of knowledge from the very beginning, through the participation of separate forms, as stated above (I:84:4); but that the soul is hindered, through its union with the body, from the free consideration of those things which it knows. According to this, the disciple does not acquire fresh knowledge from his master, but is roused by him to consider what he knows; so that to learn would be nothing else than to remember.
That is, according to the Platonists, the teacher isn’t actually giving the student any new knowledge at all; she is merely prodding him to “remember” something he already has inside of him!
I’m glad that Aquinas explicitly discusses this view, because as strange as it sounds, the process of teaching and learning often really does feel that way. Students who already know a lot are the ones who exclaim “Oh!!” in recognition during your class—almost as if they are remembering something. To “recognize” the truth seems awfully similar to this idea of “remembering” it.
You can hear echoes of this theory today in the literature that emphasizes student “construction” of their own knowledge— as if all the pieces of knowledge are already there, they just need the encouragement or proper environment in which to build those pieces of prior experience in whatever way makes the most sense to them. In this conception, the teacher is more of a facilitator than a source of knowledge.
But Aquinas doesn’t follow the Platonists. His view of how learning happens is more nuanced.
I’m still unpacking his complex answer– but part of what he seems to be saying is that learning happens on both an exterior and interior level:
In order to make this clear, we must observe that of effects proceeding from an exterior principle, some proceed from the exterior principle alone; as the form of a house is caused to be in matter by art alone: whereas other effects proceed sometimes from an exterior principle, sometimes from an interior principle: thus health is caused in a sick man, sometimes by an exterior principle, namely by the medical art, sometimes by an interior principle as when a man is healed by the force of nature.
I think he is saying that learning–the process of becoming educated–is like the process of being healed. Both an “exterior principle” (like the work of a doctor) and an “interior principle” (the work of the body) are involved.
At the same time, Thomas emphasizes the interior principle as being primary; that is, the fact that any exterior principle (like the instruction of a teacher) can only help or strengthen the interior principle (the intellectual work of the student), which is where the real learning is happening:
Secondly, we must remark that the exterior principle, art, acts, not as principal agent, but as helping the principal agent, which is the interior principle, by strengthening it, and by furnishing it with instruments and assistance, of which the interior principle makes use in producing the effect. Thus the physician strengthens nature, and employs food and medicine, of which nature makes use for the intended end.
Therefore it is possible to teach someone else something, but not in the sense of dropping knowledge into him like you might put apples into a bucket. What makes the endeavor so mysterious is that a teacher must encourage, inspire, and explain something to the student, so that the student herself can engage with the content interiorly in order to grasp it. Learning is not something that can be forced; the student’s own agency is deeply involved.
But the teacher is not thereby rendered superfluous:
Now the master leads the disciple from things known to knowledge of the unknown, in a twofold manner.
Firstly, by proposing to him certain helps or means of instruction, which his intellect can use for the acquisition of science: for instance, he may put before him certain less universal propositions, of which nevertheless the disciple is able to judge from previous knowledge: or he may propose to him some sensible examples, either by way of likeness or of opposition, or something of the sort, from which the intellect of the learner is led to the knowledge of truth previously unknown.
Okay, so, a teacher can give examples that tap into the student’s “previous knowledge” and experience, or she can invite the student into new experiences (“sensible examples”) in order to invite the learner “to the knowledge of truth previously unknown.” I can read stories to my students. I can give them examples of good writing. I can break down those examples into small, focused pieces. I can give them something new.
The teacher, according to Aquinas, also acts like a doctor:
Secondly, by strengthening the intellect of the learner; not, indeed, by some active power as of a higher nature, as explained above (I:106:1; I:111:1) of the angelic enlightenment, because all human intellects are of one grade in the natural order; but inasmuch as he proposes to the disciple the order of principles to conclusions, by reason of his not having sufficient collating power to be able to draw the conclusions from the principles. Hence the Philosopher says (Poster. i, 2) that “a demonstration is a syllogism that causes knowledge.” In this way a demonstrator causes his hearer to know.
It sounds like Aquinas is saying one can go step-by-step through a logical demonstration or process with a student, leading him by the hand to the proper conclusion if he doesn’t yet have “sufficient collating power” to get there himself. Similarly, a doctor could give a prescription or propose a specific activity (extra rest, drinking lots of liquids) that helps the body do what it cannot do by itself, or is having difficulty doing by itself, to rid itself of a particular disease.
His reply to objection 3 is helpful here:
The master does not cause the intellectual light in the disciple, nor does he cause the intelligible species directly: but he moves the disciple by teaching, so that the latter, by the power of his intellect, forms intelligible concepts, the signs of which are proposed to him from without.
I invite anyone with greater knowledge of Aquinas to weigh in to my reading of him there—I might not be fully getting it. (In other words, I am willing to learn! to be taught! to be assisted in my “insufficient collating power”!)
It is true that Thomas Aquinas did not have access to modern science and psychology. But he was a teacher, and, I suspect, drew a lot from his own observations about teaching others in unpacking this question.
I think we in the Church need to do some serious work looking at the thought of Aquinas and others, and looking also at the findings of contemporary science, psychology, and educational research in light of Christian anthropology in order to develop a robust philosophy of education.
What does it mean to be educated? Is there only one way to be educated well? What are the ends of education, and how do we reach them? What does good teaching look like? What does learning look like? How do people learn, anyway–and therefore, how should we go about teaching? What are the responsibilities of the student, and of the teacher, to one another, to themselves, to the subject? Where does virtue come in–and holiness?–neither of which are dependent upon intellectual prowess, as the history of the saints suggests? To what extent is Catholic education about evangelization and to what extent is it about inquiry and knowledge?
Without articulating clear answers to these (and other) questions, we find ourselves limping along in Catholic schools, adopting unquestioningly or rejecting too hastily the secular models of education around us.
Blessed Cardinal Newman, who is about to be canonized, had a few things to say about these things.
Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.
It is well to be a gentlemen, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;—these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University; I am advocating, I shall illustrate and insist upon them; but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless,—pleasant, alas, and attractive as he shows when decked out in them. Taken by themselves, they do but seem to be what they are not; they look like virtue at a distance, but they are detected by close observers, and on the long run; and hence it is that they are popularly accused of pretence and hypocrisy, not, I repeat, from their own fault, but because their professors and their admirers persist in taking them for what they are not, and are officious in arrogating for them a praise to which they have no claim.
That is, acquiring knowledge and even cultivating one’s intellect are important and noble aims. We need a better understanding of how those things happen in order to formulate a more precise approach to Catholic education. But they are not the only thing. Formation in virtue and instruction in living the faith are even more important. Yet, as Aquinas noted earlier, there are exterior and interior principles at work, some beyond our reach or control.
Richard Wilbur has a beautiful poem about writing, but when I read it I often think about the process of learning in general. His attitude toward his daughter is so very much like the attitude of teachers toward their students. Watch the starling in this poem—and watch the speaker watching the starling. It sounds, to me, like a teacher watching a student wrestling with a new and challenging subject.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the past few years in Catholic circles regarding problems with perpetual discernment–a phenomenon among many young people influenced by both a genuine desire to follow the will of God and an oft-cited anxiety around commitment that seems to afflict millennials more than previous generations.
As a result, many of us find ourselves continually discerning but never deciding. Or we try new things but do not fully invest in them–we go on a retreat here or there, we explore Catholic dating sites (well, I don’t), we try out a young adult’s group or bible study, we test out the waters, wondering when they’ll calm down a bit and stop seeming so stormy and treacherous…
But there’s another problem going on here regarding discernment, and the best way I know how to get at it is to explore it from a (former?) teacher’s perspective. But even that parenthesis indicates my problem:
I was a teacher for eight years. Am I still, even though I no longer teach high school, even though I no longer have a classroom and grade papers and lesson plan? You see, there’s this part of me that wants to justify still holding some kind of claim to that title. Perhaps, because: if I’m not still a teacher, then who am I?
Not everyone defines herself by her job description, and some jobs seem more intimately tied to one’s sense of self than others. But if we think of doctors, police officers, soldiers, writers, poets, carpenters–and teachers–we might realize that a lot of folks see their jobs as outer expressions of their inner personalities.
And so the paralysis of perpetual discernment is not only afflicting those trying to decide whom to marry or those trying to decide whether to join consecrated life; it also seems to afflict many more people now in their professional choices. Many of us were told when we were young you can be whatever you want to be even more often than we were fed Disney love stories. The latter seems to involve fate or Providence–but the former, the loneliness of choice.
I’ve recently been auditing a seminar on Work and Vocation for undergraduates, led by my boss and colleague. He notes that many young people today are overwhelmed by a sense that they must find meaningful work–not just dignified work. That is, they feel they must search for a career that is not only lucrative but also engaging, that calls upon their creative capacities, talents, and interests–that somehow affords them an authentic expression of themselves. He contrasted this experience with that expressed by Lars Svedson’s description of his father in the mid-twentieth century:
My impression was always that he, for the most part, enjoyed working at the shipyard. Yet he was also eager to leave at exactly 3:30pm every single workday, and as a child I usually met him at the gates of the shipyard before we walked home together. There was a very strict distinction between work and leisure, and my father had limited contact with his work colleagues outside the workplace. If a particularly close colleague had fallen ill, he might pay him a visit in the afternoon, but otherwise work and leisure were strictly isolated social spheres. Questions as to whether his job was “meaningful” or whether it was an expression of his “true self” do not seem to have occurred to him. (Svedson, Work 1)
That’s the kind of work/life distinction I always idealized as a teacher, but it was never one that made sense to me if I remained being a teacher.
You see this conflation of job and identity a lot in the teaching profession, and I think it is intensified in Catholic circles. Not only am I a teacher, I am also a disciple of Christ, commissioned to invite other disciples. I’m not just supposed to teach a subject, I’m supposed to form persons.
My experience of being a teacher is wrapped up in my experience of discipleship, of following Christ, of serving the Church. If I stop being a teacher, what happens to all that?
I left teaching in large part because it felt like being in an unhealthy relationship with a bad boyfriend who was super demanding and not very good with boundaries. That could indeed be part of why I and (I believe) many other teachers who leave the profession struggle with questions of identity afterwards. But setting co-dependency and other issues aside, I think there is something beautiful about the connection between work and identity; the sense that your work was an authentic expression of your unique interests and gifts. There was something truly unique in teaching that called to you, and calls to you still, even if you are discerning out of it for whatever reason. Most people enter teaching out of a profound desire to do some good, to do something meaningful, to share a particular love of a discipline or even a way of life with others. That desire doesn’t just go away when you leave, nor should it.
I remember during my first and second years of teaching a lot of my friends were getting married and having kids. And I remember thinking to myself, as I sat behind my desk watching a group of my first seniors take their final exam, with a sudden surprise, “I haven’t been given that right now, but I have been given this; I have been given these kids.”
It’s hard to leave an experience like that.
But should I approach my work in that way—in the way many people in the modern Church talk about Vocation with a capital V?
Well, I suppose Flannery O’Connor did. In her Prayer Journal, she wrote,
I must write down that I am to be an artist. Not in the sense of aesthetic frippery but in the sense of aesthetic craftsmanship; otherwise I will feel my loneliness continually—like this today.
Writing for her, and for most people who are truly great writers, isn’t a job. It’s a vocation in the sense of calling. Writers through the ages from Homer to Milton have cited the gods or muses that called forth from them the opening lines of their epic works–they talk about the experience as if they almost did not have a choice but to write down what they “heard.”
And though I can’t say I felt quite that way as a teacher, I think the experience is more akin to that than to landing an executive director position at a big corporation.
But if work is tied up in vocation, it’s also tied up in the questions of discernment with which we began. And in addition to struggling with discernment, whether one is discerning one’s way into the water or out of it, I think a lot of us struggle with questions of work and identity, or work as identity. And not in a workaholic kind of way (though maybe that, too) but in a quasi-spiritual kind of way.
It would be easy to say, “Well, obviously you are more than what you do!” It’s just as easy to say, “Obviously what you do shapes who you are!”
Whom you marry, or what religious order you join, or what job you accept determines, to a large extent, how you’ll spend most of your time. So how are you going to spend it? And how is that shaping who you become?
I can’t shake off this question: To what extent ought we to identify ourselves with our work?
Flannery, again—as a graduate student, wrestling with her vocation:
Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work. I have the feeling of discouragement that is. I realize I don’t know what I realize. Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted. That is so far from what I deserve, of course, that I am naturally struck with the nerve of it. […] All boils down to grace, I suppose. Again asking God to help us be sorry for having hurt Him. I am afraid of pain and I suppose that is what we have to have to get grace. Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing. (Excerpts in the New Yorker)
I mean, you read that–“give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord”–and you think of her life, and you realize with fear and trembling that God said yes.
Her very next entry reads,
Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.
So–again, I ask whomever may be reading this, to what extent ought we identify ourselves with our work, especially if that work is something like writing or teaching?
I have no straightforward answers, actually.
But I find it interesting that even though Jesus called Peter and the others to leave their day jobs and fishing nets behind, to embark on a completely new way of life of preaching and healing and miracle-working for which they were completely unprepared, he still said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).
Their work was still to identify them somehow, to be characteristic of the radical new life to which he called them.
As they prepare for their first year, brand-new teachers often focus on educational theory, idealism, and policy. More experienced teachers, on the other hand, tend to take their methodologies and philosophical assumptions for granted. They spend the last weeks of summer break on the practical elements: setting up classrooms, making copies, and ensuring their previous years’ lesson plans are within easy reach.
But it seems to me that just the opposite approach is needed. Brand-new teachers need to focus far more on the practical day-to-day logistics, whereas veteran teachers need to spend more time reflecting on their experience and re-evaluating their philosophies of education.
I’m not standing on desks, hanging up posters, devising seating charts, making copies, and agonizing over my lesson plans for the first days of school.
Nor am I re-examining my classroom management techniques, watching a bunch of teaching videos, and looking at my notes from last year.
Every day for the past three weeks, I have gone to work without anxiety. I’ve arrived at 9:00am. I have left at 5:00pm. I have had a daily hour-long lunch break with no supervision duties. I have received no disgruntled emails, asked nobody to stay after class, and not taken one single piece of paper home from the office.
When I’m home, I don’t need to contact parents or grade papers or lesson-plan. I can, you know, cook dinner.
You see, I’m no longer teaching high school English.
My new position at a research institute will still involve working with students– I’ll be leading a seminar on lyric poetry in the fall for college undergraduates, and two more as yet unknown ones in the spring, and in the future I may lead seminars for high school students in the summers–but my day to day looks completely different now. And my new job description doesn’t include the word “teach.”
I remember, a little over four years ago, reading a blog post by another teacher I admire who was leaving her Title I school. She articulated her reasons for leaving this way:
I’ve never taught in a Title I school, and don’t pretend that my experiences over the past eight years have been nearly as challenging as hers. I have been really blessed with at the institutions I have worked in.
But, not to be dramatic, her words resonate with me. It wasn’t all that difficult a decision for me to leave the Catholic high school classroom behind for now. Even in eight years, I just couldn’t figure out how to be a good teacher and have a full life outside of school. It always felt like I had to make a choice– I could be a mediocre teacher and a happy person, or a great teacher and an emotionally-exhausted person. And I’m not alone:
Some teachers, thank goodness, have figured out how to strike that balance or even to flourish– but the secret has always evaded me. (I do have the suspicion that there is something fundamentally broken in our education system in the US, and even in many Catholic schools, where respect for the dignity of work and of the person should be much more apparent than it often is, but that’s a post for another time.)
But, I also wrote, “Not everyone is called to be a teacher. And not everyone who is called to be a teacher needs to be one forever.”
I never thought that those words would ever apply to me.
I’m so grateful for the people I’ve worked with, and most especially all the students I have had, from whom I have learned so much. And I admit it: there’s a part of me that feels a little guilty for taking a step back, for taking a new job that pays more and demands less.
But I think there’s sometimes a glorification of over-extending oneself in the teaching profession. Catholic school teachers, in particular, are frequently thanked and applauded for their “sacrifices” and the ways they contribute to the mission of the Church. And this, of course, is beautiful–and all of us are indeed called to give ourselves away in love in lots of ways. The cross comes in various shapes and sizes and all of us are called to carry ours and to help others bear their own. Being a teacher is a great privilege and a noble vocation. But the “thank you for your sacrifice” talk can start to be problematic when we, perhaps unintentionally, spiritualize away real issues of justice.
After sending his disciples out on a rather intense journey of proclaiming the kingdom, casting out demons, and healing the sick, Jesus says to them, “Come away by yourselves and rest awhile” (Mk 6:31). I find this invitation comforting. God invites us into his work, but he also invites us into his rest.
In the same passage, Mark even notes “People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.” This detail always makes me smile because it reminds me of most teachers’ lunch “breaks.”
So the disciples get into a boat with Jesus and go to a deserted place… but, like high school students on the day of a test, the people find them and actually arrive there before they do! And watch how Jesus responds:
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)
Did you notice? Jesus teaches the people. I kind of imagine the disciples sitting off to the side, napping or walking or chatting with one another, taking a break. The next line supports this–evidently Jesus teaches the people for a long time and the disciples eventually come over to tell him to wrap things up:
By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already very late. Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” He said to them in reply, “Give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Are we to buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?” He asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out they said, “Five loaves and two fish.” So he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass. The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties. Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to [his] disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied. And they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish. Those who ate [of the loaves] were five thousand men.
You see, in this story, the tension between rest and work, between having “enough” for ourselves and giving our resources away to others. It’s the tension teachers feel all the time.
Jesus asks the disciples for the loaves and fish– the very little that they have– but he transforms that offering into enough for everyone, including the disciples themselves. Yet this is the kind of miracle only he is capable of. It’s not the kind of thing we can manage on our own, nor demand that we produce by our own efforts.
The passage ends, once again, with Jesus giving his disciples a break and then seeking rest himself:
Then he made his disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side toward Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And when he had taken leave of them, he went off to the mountain to pray. (cf Mark 6:34-46)
There comes a time, even for Jesus, when the work ends and the rest begins.
It’s not like this passage provides a clear answer to the dilemma of a teacher, even a Catholic school teacher, a disciple who is called to evangelize. But it does emphasize a few things: 1) Jesus values giving us rest, 2) Jesus asks us to give him the very little we have–to trust him, 3) Jesus takes care of other people and us, but with our participation.
I’ve been teaching ever since I graduated from college, so I’m not sure what this year will look like for me. And though I feel like I have a lot more time and energy to write, I’m not sure what this blog will look like, either. But I appreciate your reading. And I hope all of us, no matter what our work is, might take Jesus’ invitation to rest just as seriously as we take his invitation to offer him our loaves and fishes.
Text of a brief talk I gave at a luncheon at Notre Dame a few weeks ago:
Q:How has your ACE experience and the mission of ACE impacted the trajectory of your life?
A few weeks ago, at the beginning of June, I sat in a pew of Sacred Heart Basilica and watched a former student of mine from my very first year in ACE get married. It was a surreal, beautiful experience. Out of the blue, it seems, I had received an invitation in the mail, and then a request to do a reading at her wedding. I thought how strange it was that M. was now older than I had been when I was her English teacher eight years ago in Donaldsonville, LA. One of her bridesmaids was also a former student of mine, and other former students sat nearby in the pews. Watching them and praying with them during the Mass, I felt immense gratitude for the gift ACE gave me all those years ago in bringing these people into my life, and for sparking in me a great passion for the unique craft that teaching really is. Yet as I witnessed M. enter into her vocation and this radically new relationship with her now husband, a relationship that mirrors that between the Church and Christ, I realized how much ACE has radically changed the way I see relationships.
So often, growing up, I thought of relationships primarily in terms of how they made me feel. Maybe that sounds a little naive, but I kind of thought that was what I was supposed to do. After all, a friend is a good friend if we feel safe with her and have fun with her, right? And isn’t a partner a good partner if we feel uniquely seen and understood by him? And certainly parents are good parents if they help us feel secure and at the same time push us to be our best! But ACE disrupted this self-referential view of relationships for me in a really necessary and beautiful way.
ACE taught me that the relationships we form with our students are like both works of art and like science experiments. They require the care, precision, and planning of a painter or sculptor, but also the humility, openness, and willingness to adapt of a chemist–these relationships even may require safety goggles as various decisions we make result in unexpected explosions!
ACE taught me that sometimes relationships don’t feel very good at all. Good teaching and learning is often accompanied by frustration, uncertainty, and discomfort–for both the teacher and the student.
ACE taught me to see teaching itself as a craft that doesn’t necessarily come naturally. “Common sense” approaches to classroom management, helping students read and write, or interacting with parents are not necessarily the best ones. Being a teacher is a more like being a doctor–you need to keep up with the best research in your field and to stay open to new discoveries and solutions, even if they challenge your habits.
ACE has helped me to realize that all relationships are rather like that. Not only have I learned to become a student of my students, but also a student of my friends, of my parents, of my community members. All relationships are crafts that require practice and flexibility and continual development and adjustment.
The Gospel reading for M.’s wedding was the story of the wedding at Cana. And even there, the two most perfect people– the divine Son of God and Mary, his immaculate mother–who, you might think, have all the right talents and gifts to interact with one another in a harmonious, conflict-free manner–seemed to strangely experience the need to adjust and adapt. Mary expects her son to help the bride and groom–“They have no wine!” Jesus expects His mother to understand that His actions are on a divine schedule– “My hour has not yet come.” There seems to be this moment of conflict, of even incomprehension. And yet Mary then says to the servants, and to all of us, with complete open-ness and trust in Jesus, “Do whatever He tells you.” And then, in something that seems like obedience and deference, the Son of God performs his first miracle: He changes the water into wine–because perhaps His hour has come after all.
It’s this kind of humble open-ness that both Jesus and Mary show one another in this story that ACE taught me to see as so essential to the art of teaching and, by extension, to the art of all relationship. By allowing ourselves to be humble students of one another, we open ourselves to be students–disciples–of Jesus.
This year I am going to be leading seminars and developing curriculum for an institute that serves Princeton University undergraduates and develops summer programs for high school students. So my classroom is going to look rather different in the days ahead; yet I know that the relationships I will form there will be shaped by the dynamic, humble hermeneutic that ACE imparted to me–the pattern of openness and discipleship. And for that, I am truly grateful.
So, I of course quote Flannery O’Connor as I attempt the beginning of the first body paragraph video:
“I write to discover what I know.” And believe me, that’s what I was doing. I was not sure where this essay was going to go or what I was going to say, and I hoped fervently that Flannery would once again turn out to be right as I fumbled my way narrating the first part of that paragraph.
Many of my students have been responding well to this step by step process. It may be a bit too slow for some of them– but even the ones who already know (intuitively or otherwise) how to write a poem analysis will benefit, I think, from making some of these good habits clear and explicit.
I tried making the video below as I had done the one above and the others before, thinking out loud as I wrote it. But, as I moved from merely describing or summarizing the poem to analyzing it, I found this dual level of thinking to be extremely difficult and distracting. I couldn’t focus on the poem AND focus on HOW I was focusing on the poem at the same time–at least, not adequately.
So, for the video below, I deleted my first attempt and simply finished writing the first body paragraph and then pressed the “record” button, explaining to my students my thinking process. I went sentence by sentence through the paragraph, immediately after I had finished writing it, to try to capture that elusive thought process that can seem so opaque to so many kids. I also employed a highlighting exercise to help them see the difference between summarizing a poem and analyzing or interpreting it. They need to do both.
The reason I am approaching teaching poetry analysis this way is largely because, when I try to think back and remember how I learned to write, I realize a lot of it had to do with imitating good writers. When I read lots and lots of C. S. Lewis in middle school, it seeped into my eighth grade English journal entries. When I read lots of Chesterton in high school, I found myself playing around with sentences and trying to make them sound more paradoxical (not always with elegant results). I’ve even noticed that some of my earlier blog posts here employ abrupt sentences with ending ironies that sound a little like Flannery O’Connor.
Aristotle, in his Poetics, says that art is imitation, or mimesis. Tragedy, for instance, is the imitation of a particular type of human action. Watching a tragedy can bring about catharsis, or the cleaning of our own pity and fear–and thus is an educative and even a healing experience for us.
Teaching itself is an art and I think needs to involve a lot of mimesis. We can’t just expect our kids to go and do something–we need to show them what that something looks like. After all, imitation is how we all learned to do so many things without fully even realizing it–to walk, to speak, to argue…
These acts of imitation are not always conscious or intentional, but if we can make them so for our students, we may be finding a way to work with their human nature instead of against it. There is a reason for the cliche “the apple does not fall far from the tree.” Whether we like it or not, we learn how to be human from the other humans around us–and, I would argue, we learn how to write from the writings we read.
One of my students said something fascinating on Friday. He compared poetry to calculus. He said, “You know, Ms. Shea, I feel like poetry is the calculus of English. Not everybody is forced to take calculus in high school if they don’t want to, but for some reason everybody is forced to read poetry.”
The guy has a point.
I disagree with him on a fundamental level–I believe poetry is much more like art, like painting, than it is like calculus. One of the things that tends to bother some people about poetry is that there is no one right answer to it–it resists computation and calculation and most things left-brain related.
But you can see where he is coming from. He said, “Poetry is for the elite.” And to be honest, some poetry definitely comes off that way. And sometimes the way we teach it makes it seem that way.
Why, I wonder?
I alluded in my last post to not analyzing poems with students. This seems to be rather the opposite of what most English teachers do (and what I myself have done), and especially the opposite of what AP Literature teachers are supposed to do–but I think it is very important. And I also think it is important to explain to them explicitly that we are not going to analyze poetry today. I am not going to ask you today what you think X poem means. Eventually, I want them to be able to do analyze in a certain sense, but not right off the bat, not in the way they expect.
But this non-analytical approach is not unique to poetry.
Think about it. People spend their lives analyzing baseball–tracking players and teams, predicting outcomes, developing detailed spreadsheets to keep track of every single pitch. And they love it! But a Dad does not introduce his kid to baseball by sitting him down and explaining how stats work and what an ERA means and how to determine what your options are when you’re a left handed pitcher with a right-handed powerhouse at bat with the bases loaded.
No — he takes his child outside and plays catch with him. He teaches him how to throw a ball. And they have fun.
Or take another example that doesn’t involve any math.
If you’re someone who loves Bob Dylan songs and you want your boyfriend to understand the stark beauty of that scratchy voice, you don’t break down the lyrical allusions or explain the folk heritage influences. You put on your favorite Bob Dylan song and turn the volume up. Or you learn the song and play it and sing it with your own lovely voice– because surely he will be able to appreciate that.
If you want a friend to love Vietnamese food and she has never tried it before, you don’t describe all the ingredients or compare and contrast the flavor palette with Panda Express. You make her (or take her to a restaurant that serves) bot chien and pour her a glass of wine.
We must find ways to help our students experience and savor the beauty of something before we challenge them to “learn” it.
The word “analysis” (Grk: ᾰ̓νᾰ́λῠσῐς) means to unravel, to take apart, piece by piece, so that you can (presumably) come to a better understanding of it. But most things, when you take them apart too much, just stop working altogether. Like a human being, for instance.
A really good doctor should have a sense of the human being as a whole before she starts investigating the individual parts and organs. A man does not fall in love with a woman’s eyes, but with a particular woman. He notices her eyes, to be sure–but only insofar as they suggest the mysterious integrity of her person.
I am finally realizing that this is true of everything I teach, but most especially of poetry. How can you properly learn anything unless you have some kind of genuine love for it? Some simple awe and curiosity?
But I am still figuring out how. How do I impart that?
For my first full-on poetry lesson with my AP students (I know, I know, I really should have started earlier this year)– I gave them a packet of pretty accessible and short poems. Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wilbur (of course), a war poem, a Shakespeare sonnet (116 for the kids who loved watching “Sense and Sensibility”), a poem about rain, “Poetry” by Marianne Moore (“I, too, dislike it”), “The Questions Poems Ask,” … Anyway. Their homework was to read all these poems at least once and pick one they liked OR that they “didn’t hate” (since that more accurately described some of the super smart boys’ feelings). They were not allowed to annotate or analyze them.
“Remember–no analyzing! No annotating!” I said to them, smiling as they walked out my door. “Okay, Ms. Shea.”
When they came back to class two days later, I had them spend some “non-analytic” time with their poems. They copied the poems down by hand, line by line. (There were some grumbles at this about “busy work”— but then one girl realized that she hadn’t even noticed that the poem rhymed until she copied it down, and another student said “oh— every line ends with the word ‘rain'” and another student was like “whoah there are a lot of semicolons in this…” so I think they understood for the most part that it can be a good thing to just slow down with a poem and follow the poet’s thinking.) Then they chose their favorite image from their poem and had to draw it as literally as possible. I was particularly encouraging and stingy about this.
“I like how you drew your clouds in front of the sun instead of behind it. But how are you going to convey that the sun comes up ‘not in spite of rain / or clouds but because of them” in your picture?”
“I like your little guy waving on the shore, but how are you going to show that the other person is waterskiing ‘across the surface of the poem’, not across the surface of water?” (This student wrote the word “poem” and drew an arrow to point at the water.)
“That line has a ‘you’ in it. How are you going to show the ‘you’ in your picture?”
They huffed and puffed, but even as seniors in an AP Lit class most of them seemed to like the challenge of drawing and noticing.
I’m planning on having them recording themselves reading their poems out loud on their phones. Yes– they will be using technology–but last year, when I assigned this task as homework to my sophomores, those kids ended up recording themselves multiple times because they kept skipping words or pausing in awkward places. In fact, some of them re-recorded themselves so often that they memorized huge parts of their poems without realizing it.
Ah, yes. Exactly.
So, even as I try to model for my kids how to approach a poem humbly and carefully, without trying to tear it apart or lose the joy in reading it, I hope I can continue to just read poems aloud to them and find other ways for them to experience these works in their uniqueness and beauty.
As I tried to point out to them on Friday, even noticing “positive” and “negative” tones is something they do all the time with their friends in conversation. We are always picking up on the facial cues of others—and even if we do not know exactly how someone else is feeling on the inside, we can make some good guesses that help us encounter that person more deeply.
Poems are like that.
If calculus is also like that somehow, I stand corrected.
I think one of the most challenging parts of teaching is the teaching not of what, but how.
How to read. How to write a thesis statement. How to identify an unclear pronoun reference.
It’s easy enough, in many ways, to define rules or to explain whens and whats and even–sometimes–whys. But hows are tough, because as teachers we ourselves don’t often remember how we learned the things we know.
For example, right now I am (re)introducing my AP Lit kids to poetry, and many of them have all sorts of negative associations. It’s boring, it’s confusing, etc. But I suspect the real problem is that most of them don’t know how to read a poem. They do not know how to enjoy it. (I, for example, feel the same way about football.) As Marianne Moore observes, “we do not admire / what we cannot understand” (“Poetry“).
Normally, I teach a simple process of how to read a poem in class by modeling it for the kids. I “think aloud” through a poem with them, usually with an overhead projector. This actually takes quite a lot of time usually, however, and does not leave much time left over for the kids to try it themselves in the classroom.
So this time, I am going to try something a bit different. After this past week of not analyzing poems– (maybe I’ll do a post on that later)– I am going to do a bit of a “flipped classroom” approach where my students will watch short videos of me “thinking aloud” through that same process I always teach. That way, the direct instruction part can be something they observe and think through at their own pace at home, and I’ll have more time in class to give them in-person assistance.
They’ll watch the video once without taking notes, then watch it again, pausing it wherever they like in order to take notes and jot down ideas on the steps I am suggesting. I’ll give them tips on what to try before I assign the homework, and I will try to get them to focus on the how, the process I am teaching, that can work with any poem.
Then, when they come to class next time, they will try doing this process for themselves with a poem of their choosing, but with me available and present to coach them through it.
Here’s unedited, stream-of-consciousness videos #1 and #2 I think I will be assigning this week:
Video 1 has students first read the poem out loud, and then track where the poem seems “positive” or “negative”.
Video 2, below, has students then determine what kinds of “positive” or “negative” tones the speaker is employing. I’ve called this developing a “tone map” in the past.
What I’m trying to do here is to teach the “how” — to unpack, for students, how I go about reading a poem. I also am trying to model for them that it is okay to be uncertain, to explore, to make guesses.