Thursday, August 24, 2006

Entertaining an Elephant

In an excerpt I read from Fires in the Bathroom, Kathleen Cushman points out the lack of student voice in the curriculum and ultimately appears to equate this feeling of alienation with the disruptive behavior outside of the classroom of which the book title implies. The only way to combat the tendency of teachers to spoon feed information to students and fill the students “banks” with information which will later be tapped during an exam is to change the idea of what it means “to teach”.

In William McBride's book, Entertaining an Elephant: A Novel About Learnng and Letting Go, the protagonist s ready to fill the "banks" of his students and is challenged by questions that the debate team leaves unwashed on his board each afternoon. In a Shakepearian twist the janitor is the bearer of wisdom and the hero, a mid career burnt out teacher must learn to accept that his persoanl definiton of "education" is not without fault. The main character is tossed into the world of essential questions, and reluctantly creates a democratic classroom with student voice.

Teachers truly need to embrace the opportunities for student voice through project based learning. So much lip service is given to “teachers as facilitators” that the meaning is lost behind classroom doors. Students can emerge as contributing individuals during project based learning. Leaders naturally emerge and take charge of groups, artists find a need for their skills among their peers, those who are organized can share their talent, and through personal experience I have seen the quiet or non-participant become engaged when offered the warm welcome of small group instruction.

The only way to reach multiple intelligences and multiple personalities effectively in the same classroom is through a broad scoped authentic project with an essential question. The question must not simply be the teacher fishing for a set preconceived answer but must encourage the students to think out of the metaphorical box and go further with their own series of questions. The project must contribute to the field of knowledge they are studying and apply directly to their perceived world of importance.

Students come into our classrooms with a certain expectation of freedom. They enter the safeguarded doors of our classroom expecting to have a voice, expecting to demonstrate their previously mastered skills, expecting to direct the disscusion in the classroom toward their agenda. The want the teacher to monitor the disscusion, help them when they are struggling with expression, help them mediate problems in their groups, and show them new ways to answer essential questions.

According to Jacquelynne Eccles in her article; Control versus Autonomy During Early Adolescence, when teacher's view of adult control comes into conflict with their perception of expected freedom students ultimately become alienated.

Removing the alienation of the student voice in the classroom and allowing students to create the environment around them by creating authentic works of demonstrative knowledge will ultimately reengage students in the post-modern classroom. The proceeding is not so easy to say and even more difficult to employ. Teachers’ roles as facilitators are now developing authentic projects. Teachers must step up to meet this challenge if the action research that Cushman has presented has any value. The reflective students she revealed in her discourse could easily be sitting in any of our classrooms.


FHS Engilsh Teacher said...

I have had many conversations about the whole language vs. phonics debate. When I began my Master’s Degree in Literacy I was confused. I learned through phonics. I learned in a series of neat rows. Why is that so bad? What is it with the push for “authentic” reading? Also what’s with this push for “cooperative learning?” I was so confused. My first and second year as a teacher was difficult because I wanted to revert to what I knew worked for me. After all I turned out okay.
Then my daughter began to have problems reading. I was floored. What was the problem? She was learning through phonics. The same way I did. My daughter’s teacher happened to be a 30 year veteran. Set in her ways. I asked her about whole language. She said there was no proof it worked.
By that time I was knee deep in Miscue Analysis world. I know I read to my daughter and I know she understood everything we read. So I conducted my own research only to prove that my daughter’s comprehension was an astounding 98%. So why wasn’t she reading fluently?
Like Mr. Reaf in Entertaining an Elephant my daughter’s teacher was not open to trying new things. In the book Mr. Reaf was lucky enough to have Luis to guide him and question him. I loved the fact that Mr. Reaf was so out of touch with his students and their culture. He just assumed that Luis was Mexican, and uneducated. He also didn’t value authentic literature. He had his lessons planned for the whole year and had no intention of changing .
Through quotes his class began to have real conversations about the things that were important to them. They began to have real writing experiences. I laughed so hard when one of Mr. Reaf’s students said that his sister would be carried away by the roaches if Mr. Reaf didn’t read the letter he wrote to the landlord. They cared and were excited about those letters because it mattered to them. It had value.
Mr. Reaf’s hesitation towards change does not surprise me. It happens to the best of us. We find something we think works and decide to stick to it no matter what.
Like Mr. Reaf I was skeptical about group learning, and whole language. I did my own research. I discussed learning and teaching with my four aunts in Honduras who have seen Education in a third world country completely change. I also spoke to a very experienced educator in my previous school who told me that the reason that rows were created in a classroom was simple. Number one it saved space, and number two rows were created to “train” the children. They would become factory workers when they got older, so they wanted to get the children used to the “form.” I looked that up as well.
Now I understand that homework, projects, reading, and writing needs to be meaningful to the students. Students need to be allowed to learn their way. They need to be exposed to variety. They work best when they bounce ideas off each other. Don’t we do the same? When we are stuck on a lesson, don’t we immediately go to a colleague to help us clarify and expand our ideas? I know I do. I really enjoyed reading this novel. It reminded me of some of my old views and so many educators who are not brave enough to throw out their lesson plan books at the end of the school year.
As for my daughter, she discovered note writing. It was important for her to have “very important” conversations with her other seven year old friends. Her reading is amazing. She reads with the same inflections and tones I read to her. She discovered what was meaningful to her. I couldn’t be happier.

goddess said...

This discussion struck a different kind of chord with me. I'm a musician, and a mediocre one at that. Often in the music world there is the hierarchy of who the best is on down. The best always get the gigs and the students and the people who are at the bottom are disregarded. Therefore I had many a great pianist or cellist that couldn't teach. With them music was the thing that came naturally, so trying to teach it could make them flustered when the class didn't get it as easily as they did. I think some of the best music teachers are the mediocre musicians who had to work and try many different methods to find what worked for them. That way when students don't understand something the teacher has a plethora of techniques they have already tried. They generally aren’t afraid to try something new because they can remember the struggle to learn a concept or master a technique.