Philosophy of Teaching

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Paradoxes and Oxymorons

by John Ashbery

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What’s a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.

Make no mistake, teaching is a mystery—for at its heart is love. Its impetus is passion, an irrepressible enthusiasm, a need to share and give. It seeks to be plain but cannot pretend its freight is fraught, and that the ware-ness of its wares is passing strange. What else is worth the conveyance but that which dances away? It honors that elusiveness with a double humility, bowing both to the subject and the object, this verb like the current of a New Year’s kiss. And then the true teacher steps back, not with the winking swish of the prestidigitator, but with the astonishment of the alchemist at seeing it done, at seeing the learning land and launch in the soul of the next living. But, really, what is the surprise? The teaching is because the poem is.

TEACH THE GOOD STUFF

I believe, as an English teacher, my duty is to teach both discrimination and the lack thereof.

Given the vast expanse of literature (in the broadest sense) out there, students should be given guidance as to what is of worth and why. They should be shown the various kinds of integrity, influence, innovation, and effectiveness available within spheres of textuality, contextuality, and intertextuality. They deserve to know the rationale behind curricular choices. I should be giving them the tools to cultivate their taste.

But I also strive to cultivate a kind of cultural omnivorousness and a skepticism to categorical prejudices. I believe artistic value crosses genres, media, classes of social sanction, languages, and cultures. I try to ensure a measure of diversity in the primary texts of my curricula. And I try to pepper throughout the year secondary texts, clips, and snippets that demonstrate how everything we are learning has applications that are far-reaching, immediate, relevant, or surprising. After all, one thing the post-modernists have taught us is that everything all around us is text—and we are always parsing and making meaning.

My 7th grade classes covered, at various times, the following books:

Kit’s Wilderness ◊ Anahita’s Woven Riddle ◊ Fahrenheit 451 ◊ The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency ◊ To Kill a Mockingbird ◊ A Gathering of Old Men ◊ Romeo and Juliet ◊ The Chosen ◊ Watership Down ◊ Of Mice and Men

In addition, my 7th grade classes have always included a Book Choice unit, where small groups of students have read books ranging from Harry Potter to The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, Jodi Picoult to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

We have discussed poetry, movies, rap songs, academic treatises, Powerpoint presentations, commercials, and infographics—anything that has caught my eye and wonder.

TEACH THE HARD STUFF

I believe a good guide helps you find the best ways to get lost.

Sometimes in the pursuit of being more helpful, we can forget that competence can be aped absent of real understanding. I try, instead, in planning my curriculum and individual lesson plans, to knock out the crutches first and design pockets of frustration, ambiguity, strangeness, and stress—and then build the appropriate scaffolding around them. I relish the tackling of difficult themes, ornery texts, and sticky wickets of language, for then there is nothing to do but figure it out. Nothing delights more than the student surprised at his or her own capability after struggling with something hard—and proud at wrestling something worthy.

Relatedly, I find the value of assessments is only secondarily in the information they provide about performance; I find their primary value to be that they invite concentration and mental effort, and so I often spend an inordinate amount of time crafting and refining sequences of them. If we aim higher than the shallow metrics of mere effectiveness, we may find the game of learning can transcend into an art, and that we may repay the trust and cooperation of our students with a real difference and actual growth.

I also believe that often the most confounding things are those most familiar.

The heart of what I try to teach in English is rhetoric, how communication choices produces specific effects. I see grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, research, discussion, collaboration, technology, everything through this lens. The vector of my grammar instruction is toward the writing and analysis of expansive sentences; I emphasize the difference in perspective and validity of sources in research projects; small group work is accompanied by reflections on the effectiveness of strategies of cooperation, communication, and management. And the ultimate aim, for me, of literature study is critical literacy, the examination of personal and social agendas suggested by a considered reading of the text. Once one can see that there are layers of meanings and politics behind even the simplest message, one is then vaccinated against apathy and ignorance.

Giving students the tools to notice and use the rhetoric at all levels all around them is a way toward the negative capability that Keats and Unger speak of, a perceptive mode that defies categorical constraint. For me, an ability to think deeply is the foundation of originality and integrity—and there is no easy way to go deep.

TEACH TO ALL AND EACH

I believe teachers ought to honor the opportunity of an audience, whether earned or enforced. They are each the captain of a rarefied space and so should steward it with benevolence and compassion.

That means teaching with kindness and acceptance, giving each and every student the benefit of doubt. It also means nurturing a classroom culture that reflects those selfsame values. Extending trust is a risk, and that risk must be required of the teacher and made reasonable for the student.

It also means teaching with empathy and humility, questioning any assumption about what goes on in the mind of the other. Since this is part of the responsibility of teaching, teachers ought to hold themselves accountable to how students respond—or don’t—to their instruction.

It is always my quixotic quest to elevate to excellence every single student in the class—within the constraints of my very human capabilities. The relentless goal is always mastery, not superficial acceptability. However, in recognition that every individual progresses uniquely, I differentiate my instruction by offering scaffolded options, areas of freedom and choice, and individual attention. And I’m always harder on myself than on the kids.

LET OTHERS TEACH

I believe teachers ought to also honor the fact that their students have lives and influences and obligations outside of each classroom.

While I have been known to announce at the beginning of the year that my class is the most important, I have always had—perhaps fortunately so—the deepest respect for each and every one of my colleagues. Explicitly and implicitly we work together to provide an overall educational experience. We should, as a result, try to keep our individual contributions and demands harmonious, even synergetic. This is as simple as being mindful when one schedules an exam, as humane as celebrating a student’s extracurricular accomplishment, and as exciting as pulling together an interdisciplinary initiative. It’s in my nature to be affable and accommodating, and I’m prone to be particularly so to my peers in the trenches.

…And those trenches extend into the home. The parents and guardians of each of my students deserve to be considered partners in my endeavors, and I’ve made a concentrated effort in the last few years to send regular updates directly to them. These updates occasionally include suggestions on how to continue the conversations of the classroom, and I find parents overwhelmingly appreciate these extensions of what is essentially professional courtesy.

And, finally, we often forget that students are often very capable and passionate autodidacts. I try to validate their interests and encourage their peculiar pursuits, and I consider my stints of extracurricular sponsorship opportunities to witness and nurture those impulses.

TEACH HOW TO LEARN

I believe that the direct instruction of academic skills supports a progressive pedagogy.

I only feel comfortable with the demands of rich and complex content or the anxieties of a constructivist project if I feel confident that I’ve clearly taught the principles and skills to succeed—and enforce them with guided practice.

This involves more than a lecture on how to take notes. It may mean, additionally, providing guided notes, or assessing and commenting on notes, or designing note-taking assignments, or having a student publicly taking notes in parallel to another piece of instruction. The architecture of the class should reinforce the principles espoused.

I read with personal and professional interest research on how the brain assimilates information and apply my own evolving sense of effective learning strategies to the classroom. I have taught concepts of single-tasking, stressed recall, interleaving, spaced repetition, fluency, and windows of concentration; they inform, moreover, the design and schedule of assignments and assessments. I give guidance on how to be appropriately engaged in my classroom—but I try to make it easy to be so.

This structural framework has the effect of allaying the uncertainties around the other, more open-ended aspects of the class. To me the ideal class invites play—and accomplishment.

LEARN HOW TO TEACH

Ultimately, I believe in the contradiction of an ideal praxis: that good teaching, in a kind of rough grace, is constantly enacted but always elusive.

Thus I am always in the process of reform, always tweaking, honing, rethinking, throwing things out to start from scratch. I make both iterative improvements and prototype new content, methods, or systems. I keep a cache of ideas and notes that I review every summer. Every time I grade a major assessment, I reflect on the backward design of the class. I try out new technologies to see what advantage I can make of them, and keep a habit of trying new things and taking risks to remind myself what it’s like to struggle to learn and master something.

This is both because of my natural restlessness but also because, like a Heraclitean river, the reality of my classroom is in constant flux, shifting in ways both big and small. Every student poses a unique challenge, as does every new class of students. Technology, social forces, and historical events are gradually shifting the norms and paradigms of their lives (and mine). New genres of communication take hold, new kinds of “reading” develop, new tropes and themes emerge. At the same time, I myself am growing older and growing in distance of age and experience from my young charges.

And yet, the more things change, the more things stay the same. The fundamentals of centuries of wisdom and folly remain essential. The rudiments of clarity, empathy, challenge, and engagement remain fixed. You prep, you show up, and you teach.