Teaching On The Edge

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • May
  • 17
  • 2007

Some of my colleagues spin webs of questions that catch students up in conversation. Teachers who push their students into further consideration of issues without the students even knowing it are gods to me. Siddhartha is the perfect book for that and I wish I was better. I know teachers on my campus who get the students looking at things much more profoundly than I do.

Students enjoy Siddhartha just about every year. But things drag when there’s too much emphasis placed on deconstructing meaning and analyzing things. The story resonates with a lot of students and the challenge is to avoid killing that joy. It’s a balancing act: the pleasure of reading the text vs. demonstrating understanding. That’s when teaching is an art, right on that edge.

It’s not that students need to be having fun in your class all the time. It’s certainly not that you should assign “fluffy” work just to let the kids enjoy themselves. It’s about altering the perception so that, even when they are working, students think it’s fun. Find ways to use activities that students enjoy as forms of assessment. I see that as a huge part of my job.

Students like to talk to each other. Students like to argue. Throw in a few texts that students need to understand and you’ve got a debate. Change the conversation a bit and you’ve got a Socratic seminar. How can we use Nintendo DSs or PSPs as a medium for assessment? Can we use text messaging?

The Work

Siddhartha is a deceptively simple book, so each night’s reading shouldn’t be tough (this novel is at the senior English level at my school; where is it at yours?). Even carving out 10 minutes in class for reading is enough to take out a big chunk of homework.

From a variety of sources — including my sage school neighbor who fits into the god class of teachers I described above — I’ve refined a series of quickwrites over the past few years. These questions focus on key scenes or issues from each chapter. Each night there is reading, there are also quickwrites to respond to. Once again, for those who need it, justification: CA English Standards — Reading: 2.2, 2.4, 3.2, 3.7; Writing: 1.3, 2.2.a,e; Listening and Speaking: 2.3.

The Fun

I stamp these responses the next day and they are the basis of our class conversation. Students enjoy talking to each other about things they don’t entirely understand. Well, most students do. Classes of nearly 100% participation are rare, though I have been lucky enough to experience that (about 5 years ago). During class conversations, students (ostensibly) write down notes to keep track of what others say. The ideas of others help because students write final versions of responses at the end of the unit, once they’ve had a time to consider the opinions of their peers.

It’s work to keep track of all the ideas floating around the room, but students tend to see it as more enjoyable since that info is coming from their friends and from their contemporaries. And I see the product of all that discussion when I assess their final quickwrites.

It’s possible to enjoy the content while working on skills. However, most students don’t see it that way. It’s difficult to make someone think that work is a pleasure and every day is a battle to find that balance, but that’s the edge we need to teach on.

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