Offering choices is Hard work

Today, teaching is hard work. This minute of this day. Hard because I know I want to avoid the mistakes of yesterday, and hope to see strides in learning tomorrow. Hard because it takes planning, thinking, forethought.

The trick is in devising ways to communicate to students that they actually not only have some autonomy, but are expected to use it with care and discernment. It is as if a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. The students must take the medicine if they are going to grow into healthy independent learners, or authors of their own learning, as I referred to it in August.

But the sugar to sweeten the deal is often, like processed sugar, an ingredient used far more than necessary for good health. For instance, it takes time to train people out of the bad habits they have adopted, so we wean them little by little from the teat of the teacher as author of their education. My dream is to show up daily to every class and have the students begin and proceed without my leadership: discussions, homework sharing, quickwrites, free reading, reading or writing conferences. I/they have come close in the past, several days in a row, or longer in a few classes, but besides my own learning to step out of the way, it takes time to train them to assume the leadership roles in order to effect a practical transference of ownership.

Today, as an example, I needed to figure out a way for American Lit students to agree on an Essential Question (similar to a unit theme or goal), using an exhaustive list from which they have been sampling, and which they have applied in their discussions of short pieces, beginning with their summer reading titles. That they will have the freedom to determine as a class which question is worth tracing as we read The Grapes of Wrath is a step forward from where I was a year ago at this time, when I presented the essay question on the theme of the major work the very day we began.

But I couldn’t sleep at night. I agreed with many colleagues who publish books who said that students need help at the start of a book, and a glimpse of the final destination from the beginning is helpful. But I wrestled with my own training in thinking and learning, especially with socratic approaches to reading and a composition view swayed by Murray and Graves toward letting the writer choose her topic.

Today I asked students to read Chapter 1 silently and slowly, then to discuss in their small groups any way they might notice Steinbeck playing with language. (We have spent time on playfulness of readers and writers.) I had an additional prompt and example ready if anyone needed it, and a backup system for grouping and alternate short text in case anyone forgot her book. Then both groups, after sharing, were asked to generate a brief list of EQs they felt would go well with their text. That is what they are engaged in just now. The work pays off. We have what we need today, and as they transition to their creative writing groups to produce screenplays and interoffice production memos, pop-up books, and realistic fiction, all through a process of their decision, I type out this note. Ethiopia [mother and child]

My mission for tomorrow is to have them adopt an EQ that will drive the thinking, writing, supplemental texts (Dorothea Lange and Sebastiao Salgado photographs of continental migration) and close reading of the unit and possibly the semester. Even the Steinbeck novel is their choice, made last year in May by students who knew they would be taking this class with me. Some of the chose “The Pearl” as a summer reding book. I think of my niece, Amy, teaching Kindergarten for the first time and reporting a tortoise-paced student learning curve for the basic procedures: we know what the students will soon be able to do on their own, and grow impatient for the rewards. So, the “sweetness” of the moment are the comforting prompts, the homework reminders, the tailoring of choices to a particular group. But even today I will have a fifth period class of sophomores who are deciding and announcing their own homework, and my second period just operated their second full day on a lesson plan (Free reading, Speed Dating with books, and poetry exploration) they devised. I want to become the least intrusive yet most helpful experienced reader and writer in the room. It is hard to get out of the way and let them learn.


PHOTO CREDITS (top to bottom) Dorothea Lange, found on Jim White’s “World Famous: the photography portfolio of Dorothea Lange”; Sebastiao Salgado, 1984, at the Peter Freeman Gallery at 1stdibs.com.


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