Changing lives without aiming to

27 Sep

The first principle Andrew Metcalfe and Anne Game derive from their corpus of interviews is:

Inspiring teachers always challenge their students, but they do not set out to shape them and do not know how or when to measure the success of their classes. Through the strange chemistry of classroom relations, students change and yet become more themselves.

That is a terrifying thought for the bureaucratic mind, yet paradoxically the most successful teaching I ever did was most often very poorly documented. Often it took place in environments where I really did not plan every step of a lesson or unit of work, where I kept limited lesson  registers, if any, and where I was never entirely sure where the next lesson was going to take us. In such circumstances the contingent was foregrounded over the planned, and the result seems to have been deeper learning — learning in which I participated as much as those I was allegedly teaching! To quote the late Donald M Murray:

We also have an understandable tendency to over-organize our courses. Perhaps we want to impress our superiors, our colleagues, our students, or just to give ourselves a sense of security. We plan to teach diction in the third week in September, iambic pentameter in October, parallel construction in November, the essay in December, description in January, footnotes in February — everything neatly organized into some pattern which seems rational to the teacher in advance on the beginning of school.

I am not saying, of course, that one goes into a class totally freewheeling, though this has been known to work very well. One does have outcomes one wants to achieve, and material one wants to get through. One of the more sensible pieces of record-keeping is in fact a list of outcomes with check boxes so that one can see what has been achieved and what needs more work.

But the most “inspiring” poetry unit I ever taught was to a Year 9 class that informed me on Day One how much they hated poetry. My response was to challenge them to prove it! I brought in a large box of poetry books and set them all to find something they either didn’t hate or actually liked. This went on for a whole week. I interspersed the activity with the occasional reading. They were a bright group, so I even read them a poem of my own. That led to dead silence. I asked, “What have I done? Talk to me!” One student put his hand up: “I’ll tell you what you have done. For the first time ever a teacher has said something in class that really means something. That’s what you have done.” From that point on the students started finding poem after poem that they actually liked. After that the “formal” part of the course flowed easily. A couple of the poetry books went missing and were never seen again, I might add…

Some seven years later I met that same student in a coffee shop. He introduced me to his girlfriend thus: “This is Mr W. He’s the one who got me interested in poetry.”

OK, that is a peak example, and a rare example — but I treasure it. Wouldn’t you?


2 responses to “Changing lives without aiming to

  1. Tom Hanson

    October 11, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    Let’s try this again with the correct name and web page.

    I really enjoyed this post, these are two great quotes (I am a fan of Murray). And please feel free to treasure that peak example, that is why you became a teacher.

  2. ninglun

    October 11, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    Thomas J Hanson is editor of an excellent site Open Education.


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