Monday, October 20, 2008

My Philosophy of Education

On my first day of middle school, I wore my boy scout uniform.

To my innocent, sixth grade mind, this seemed like a logical idea.  In elementary school, I wore my scout uniform every Monday, because Monday was the day we had den meetings.  When I graduated from cub scouts to boy scouts in February of my fifth grade year, boy scout meetings continued on Monday.  So I continued to wear my uniform.

I liked wearing my uniform.  I was proud that I was in the boy scouts.  Proud that I knew how to camp outdoors, how to cook, how to use a map and compass.  Proud that the experiences I had were making me a better person, though maybe I wasn’t fully aware of it yet.

Wearing my boy scout uniform on the first day of middle school was probably one of the worst decisions I could have ever made.

Most teenagers know the detailed social rules and taboos of middle school culture would not permit the average student to wear a scout uniform, unless it could be construed as an anti-establishment statement.  Instead, I was embracing the massive organization and the recruitment visions of my scoutmaster by wearing my earthy tan uniform with its bright badges and neckerchief.  Unlike most teens, I had not yet learned those social rules.

I tried to be brave.  A week after that first day the initial pain had dulled and my resolve had hardened.  I wore my uniform again, thinking I or they would get used to it.  I told myself that I couldn’t be the target of their emotional insults or physical assaults forever. 

Eventually, however, I learned that the best way to avoid social conflict was to blend in, or better yet, disappear.  It wasn’t just wearing my uniform that taught me this.  But when I think of those first few days and wearing the uniform, it embodies that feeling of alienation I felt throughout middle school and struggled to overcome in high school before ultimately and finally defeating in college.

I teach to break down social barriers.  To linguistically redefine the common usage of “gay” as an individual’s sexual orientation, rather than the superlative opposite of cool.  To encourage the jock and the nerd to empathize with one another.  To put the Latina and the White girl in each other’s shoes.  To make the 6th grader in his earthy tan boy scout uniform feel that his individuality is valued and that his opinions and voice are an important contribution to his community and have the potential to change lives.  All this can happen in the books we read and the thoughts we write and the discussions and interactions we have as learners inside and outside of the classroom.

While the social aspect may be what drove me into pursuing education as a career, I have a commitment to my chosen profession that makes me yearn to do it exceptionally well.  Before studying education, I thought teaching was a simple mix of presenting information with enthusiasm.  Mr. Keating from Dead Poets’ Society was my idol.  When I took my first real education courses, I learned that while there is an art to teaching, there is a critical science that one cannot successfully teach without.

As the importance of pedagogy became central to my teaching, I began contributing to discussions with other educators online by writing my own blog and commenting on those of other educators.  Edublogging has become my personal form of professional development where I can reflect on my teaching ideas and receive constructive feedback from peers.  By writing about my thoughts on education, I’ve been able to process many of the methods I want to implement when I am a full-time classroom teacher.

Upon completing my college’s professional development program and graduating, I had had the opportunity to practice multiple intelligence theory, differentiated education, applied Bloom’s revised taxonomy, and other pedagogies in a number of classrooms in the middle and high school setting.  My wife and I had applied for the Peace Corps, and I taught as a substitute while waiting for an invitation to serve, expecting a chance to teach English in another county.  Instead, we were assigned to South Africa, where volunteers help to educate primary school teachers.  Although we accepted the invitation, I was terrified – I was supposed to “teach” educators who had been working for up to 30 years when I had just finished college.  What could I possibly teach these experienced instructors?

I arrived in South Africa to find that the majority of teachers received training from an Apartheid led government over 15 years ago.  Those educated after the end of Apartheid fell to a similar fate: they teach as they had been taught.  In a culture where age and experience is respected more than education, I had to be mindful of my youth and race, humble in my interactions with professionals who felt understandably vulnerable, and advocate for pedagogically sound methods.  I had to teach proven methods to the toughest of critics, which further solidified for me the importance of pedagogy and its practice.

I believe I can best continue to explore my philosophy of education in a school environment as a classroom teacher.  The coming of age social struggles drove me to education, but the study and implementation of pedagogy is what intrigues and sustains my love for it.

Teaching a Love of Reading

I've posted my contribution to Professional Learning Community for the month.  Here's the teaser:
I would like to propose that we stop telling our students what to read.
If you have any students like I’ve had in the past, at least half of them won’t read something because you tell them to anyway, so why waste your breath?
Please consider taking a look and thanks for reading.

Update: The Professional Learning Community blog seems to be no more.  Here is my post originally published there in its entirety:
“It looks as though school, no matter the age or nation, has had only one role. And that’s to teach the mastery of technique and critical commentary and to cut off spontaneous contract with books by discouraging the pleasure of reading. It’s written in stone in every land: pleasure has no business in school, and knowledge gained must be the fruit of deliberate suffering.” (Pennac 1999 p. 91)

I would like to propose that we stop telling our students what to read.

If you have any students like I’ve had in the past, at least half of them won’t read something because you tell them to anyway, so why waste your breath?

Ask yourself instead, “Why do we want students to read?

You could go through a number of answers, and I think it’d be great if you left some in the comments of this post. But I think the reason that holds the most weight is this: to encourage them to become life-long readers and life-long learners. And there is no better way to mess it up than choosing for them what they should read.
I’m really big into book clubs. To me it’s an authentic environment that prepares students for reading in the adult world. The teacher chooses five to seven books on the same topic, like coming of age, culture, religion, and then lets students choose which book they read. The students reading the same book meet once a week in small groups to discuss what they’ve read. I wanted to take these great reading units typically only seen in the advanced placement/honors classroom and bring it to the mainstream and remedial classes.

It doesn’t work in the mainstream classroom. I tried it as a student teacher, and while some groups really got into it, plenty did not. They didn’t like the district required reading either. Almost everyone hated The Pearl, and while the ones that read Night thought it was important to read it, the ones that didn’t read it cared about the Holocaust, but not about the book.

If we want students to become life-long readers, we can’t force it on them. At the risk of comparing students to members of the equine family, you can lead a horse to water . . .

In Better Than Life, Daniel Pennac argues that we need to read aloud to our students. For him, it is the key ingredient that will bring back the joy of reading - focusing on the story, instead of the book, or the words, or whether or not the student can critically analyze from the historical-cultural standpoint. He believes that students will become so enthralled with the story, they’ll go find the book so they can read the end before you do.

I’m skeptical. I was read to in English class too, but I never ran out to find the book so I could read ahead. There was one critical difference, however. I was always tested on the book.
We have to satisfy one condition for this reconciliation to take place: we must ask for nothing in return. Absolutely nothing. Erect no wall of prior knowledge around books. Ask not a single question. Do not assign the smallest scrap of homework. Do not add a single word to the pages that have been read. No value judgements, no vocabulary explainations, no textual analysis, no biographical notes. It is strictly forbidden to talk about the book.

Reading is a gift.

Read, and wait.

Curiosity can’t be forced. It must be awakened.

Read, and trust the eyes that open slowly, the faces that light up, the questions that will begin to form and give way to other questions.

If the pedagogue in us has a hard time not “presenting the work in it’s total context,” persuade that little voice that the only context that counts, right now, is this moment in this classroom.
The pathways to knowledge do not end in this classroom; they should start from it.
For the time being, I am reading novels to an audience that thinks it doesn’t like reading. Nothing important can be taught until I’ve defeated that illusion and completed my work as a go-between.

Once these teenagers are reconciled with books, they’ll gladly take the road that leads from the novel to the author, from the author to his or her era, from the story they’ve read to the many meanings it contains.

Be prepared. (Pennac 1999 p. 149-50)

Pennac believes that the students will come to the books from the syllabus on their own. I don’t know if I’m as convinced they will, but I am also not convinced that it matters too much.

If students are reading something, we are in a much better position than if they were reading nothing. Unless they’re going to go on to become English majors, what they’ve read specifically does not matter too much.

No avid reader will read bad literature forever.

Pennac gives us a Reader’s Bill of Rights - rights that life-long readers have, but our students often are restricted.
  1. The right to not read.
  2. The right to skip pages.
  3. The right to not finish a book.
  4. The right to reread.
  5. The right to read anything.
  6. The right to escapism.
  7. The right to read anywhere.
  8. The right to browse.
  9. The right to read out loud.
  10. The right not to defend your tastes.

Some would be easy to enact in the traditional classroom. Some would be difficult.

Supposing you accept my belief that these should be posted in every classroom throughout the land, how do we do it? 

Works Cited 

Pennac, D., & Homel, D. (1999). Better Than Life York: Stenhouse Publishers.