Saturday, June 26, 2010

Knowing is Doing

As I wind down every school year, I usually reflect on how I do some things in my classroom. Here is something I wrote down reflecting on whether or not we can tell if teachers "know" their content.

I remember taking English classes with gimmicky worksheets designed to help me read this part of Shakespeare or that part of Homer, etc. I remember these worksheets quickly giving way to comprehension tests that never seemed that hard if you read the book. I then remember showing up in my first college English class and being blown away by what was expected of me. I never really learned how to do the study of English literature and language; I was woefully unprepared.

When I finally figured it out, I was hungry for it. I wanted to learn why Chaucer calls the doorway of Cressida’s house "quaint." I wanted to experience Shakespeare because he was the only superfamous writer I knew of who could incorporate romance, drama, tragedy, and fart jokes in a single play. I fell in love with writing. Once I understood, I became more and more interested.

Then I returned to high school. I didn't teach every lesson this way, but I found myself using some of those worksheets again. Students were uncomfortable with doing the study of English, but they sure loved doing the worksheets.

After 5 years of teaching, I can safely say that teachers who best know their subject are those who don't need the worksheets. Let me explain.

All academic study (science, history, English, mathematics, foreign language) becomes more and more ambiguous as you go higher. Most people are uncomfortable with ambiguity, so they try to avoid it. I can think of no better way to avoid ambiguity in the English classroom than by turning to worksheets. Those simple fill-in-the-blanks; those elegant comprehension maps. They take ambiguity and box it. They take that complex, central concept and they sterilize it. The best teachers I have known are those who take the ambiguity and place it at the center of their classroom activities without the sterilization endemic in too many worksheets. I say too many because the occasional thinking map is a good stepping stone, while constant thinking maps just become monotonous.

So, how does this ambiguity appear in the classroom? There are numerous discussion-based ways of making ambiguity the center of teaching. One of the best ways is to create essential questions for a unit. When teaching a novel, I usually come up with a central question to guide our reading. For example, when we read The Crucible this year in my English 11 class, we asked ourselves “When and why rebellion is necessary?” Our investigation of this question led to many great discussions of many core American values (including the War for Independence). Navigating these complexities is easier when you begin with a question in mind.

There are also seminar-style lessons that can be used. My personal favorite is Socratic Seminars. These seminars can be used to teach deep discussion methods or even good questioning techniques. When my AP seniors read Paradise Lost, we held a Socratic Seminar on whether or not Milton thinks Satan is a sympathetic character. There were great questions and great points made throughout our 60 minutes of seminar. The questions are central again, but this time students practice coming up with some solid answers. Watching the students have this discussion without teacher input (one of the caveats of the seminar format) has really shown me how well I have communicated some of the key concepts in a literary work.

There are also ways to have students wrestle with ambiguity all on their own. The I-search paper and project is a really fun way for students to wrestle with ambiguities that they want to explore. The presentation portion of the project is especially important. When they are in front of the class answering questions about sensitive topics, they really struggle with the content they’ve undertaken to study as they try and formulate answers. Watching students develop these projects and then defend them shows me that they are comfortable with ambiguity.

As I enter the summer, I develop a list of content-growth opportunities. These are things like a new novel to read, a seminar on some aspect of my teaching, exhibits in museums I'd like to attend--even opportunities to teach different classes. First up on my list this year is reading Jennifer Government by Max Berry. My mentee this year recommended this novel and thus far it is not disappointing. Following that, I have the AP Annual Conference in nearby Washington, D.C. I hope that the experience there will be as rewarding as my other AP experiences have been. The bottom line is that knowing comes from continually doing the things we profess to teach.

What are you doing this summer? How do you keep current with your content? What will you be doing to reinforce your knowing? New ideas are the most refreshing thing about summer, so let's hear yours.

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