Sunday, September 09, 2007

Subject: Education (Knitting/Spinning Content is Peripheral)

WARNING: This post is both a compliment and something of a rant, of probable interest only to teachers, and even then probably only secondary English teachers. (I fondly remember the chairman of the English Department at my university--who was a Hemingway look-alike and cultivated it--advising us not to betray that we taught English, particularly when trying to socialize on vacation, in a bar, while driving down the length of Baja, or while trying to get a car repaired in a strange town. He insisted that any meaningful communication was likely to shut down immediately because people become so self-conscious.)

Yesterday, I attended a conference at Amarillo College. Under the umbrella idea of helping students make better transitions to the college world, we were presented with several workshops to choose from in a 4-hour period. The sessions were short enough that there was no room for idle fluff--the ones I attended were practical: methods, some of them innovative, were soundly backed up by years of experience, coherent explanations, and scholarly research. Each presenter sent us away with annotated bibliographies, sample handouts, and links to helpful Internet sites. There was no wasted time. We were also given the opportunity to say what we liked and disliked and what we would like to see added for next year.

Administrators, curriculum planners, directors of educational service centers—this is what teachers find both useful and motivational!

I had the same reaction to two other recent workshops—Jim Burke at the Panhandle Literacy Conference this summer and a workshop at Region 16 by Carolyn Coil last spring. For the record, I also found that I had the same reaction to some of our staff development this year, particularly the presentation by a school law attorney from San Antonio. Her subject was Special Education law; she was informative and entertaining, but she obviously respected us as professionals.

What do I not find to be of much value? Entire days spent listening to some very expensive consultant who has all the answers if every teacher in America will just do it his way—including, evidently, becoming a member of his particular ethnic culture and giving up knitting (Yes, I noticed. I never knit at school, but now I’m getting the urge to represent). I also do not need a day of singing songs or ringing bells or doing monkey skits, only to go away feeling that now I may be evaluated not on course content or student progress but on whether I have students pass papers in sideways or from back to front. Or even worse, that to be taken seriously, I need to strew education textbooks around my living room, replacing the copies of Pride and Prejudice and Ethan Frome, and, I suppose, my spinning wheel Matilda. After all, a teacher is not supposed to teach the subject--she is supposed to teach students. Teach them what? The idea that knowledge of subject matter automatically flows from classroom management tricks just doesn’t hold up.

I'm certainly far from being the perfect teacher--I'm constantly revising and evaluating how I do things, and I'm very aware that there are some aspects of my job that I don't do as well as I would like.

Some will say that I am missing the main point of the "motivational" presentations, but I’m not. Is good classroom management important? Of course. Can it be achieved by gimmicks or devices? Only to a limited extent. Does it have to be exactly the same for every subject or every teacher and age group? Students, particularly high school students, see through form without content very quickly. Furthermore, our students will enter a wide world of different college professors, different jobs, and different communities. I come out of those sessions as fired up as anyone—they’re pep rallies, after all—but, just as I suspect most coaches will tell you, they are of very little use if I don’t have any plays to run on the field, and they certainly don’t replace good coaching and a knowledge of the game.

For the record, I do know there are some sentence fragments in the preceding paragraphs--I'm working at a conversational tone. Loosen up!

1 comment:

Soonerbeknitting said...

AMEN!! I do knit at some workshops because that is the only productive thing I get during the day.

Glad to hear about Carolyn Coil - she is coming to my school in Oct. to train us in GT differentiation.