Bird Droppings October 27, 2011
Walking along the way in my own journey
As I think back over who I am as a teacher and as a person I often wonder as to how I came to be the way I am and why do I take such a differing outlook than so many teachers to my endeavor. I recall my father essentially teaching me how to teach as a swimming instructor and in various Red Cross programs. Tell, Show, Test and Check was a favorite of his for teaching a subject or even a skill. I have used the FIDO principle many times over the years Frequency, Intensity, Duration and Over again.
As I attended college and began thinking about teaching as a profession I had courses in how to teach and what to teach to various groups of children and adults. We talked theory and realities we practice taught and were observed by professors. I look back and wonder, how does a professor who has never taught outside of college level teach anyone how to teach, say elementary school age children? But within it all I became who I am as a teacher, parent and person. I see this enterprise as an ongoing continuum and one that truly is never complete. Going back to my favorite Aerosmith quote that I have used so many times, “Life is about the journey not the destination.”
“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who does not know how to read.” Mark Twain
I spend a good bit of my day reading and find it so hard to understand when I see comments of I do not read or I do not have a favorite book. I may in the course of a day look at ten or twelve books looking for thoughts or ideas for my writings. But to profess to not reading how can you consider yourself even semi-intelligent. For it is through reading that we increase our vocabulary and understanding of the world around us. It is through reading that we develop and progress beyond where we are today. It is thorough reading that we move along the journey.
I was speaking with a fellow teacher today about such things. Why do kids not read for example? Some is a lack of encouragement at home during those hours away from school. Some is the example set by parents who are not readers. But I think a large portion is our current style of teaching to the test. We are teaching kids to pass tests that in some school impact the teacher’s annual appraisals and in some cases even salaries are test scores based. When we take away significance and choice and mandate specific memorization for test content we lose an aspect of who the child is.
Paulo Freire is a radical in terms of education and his outlook on what teaching and education should be about. Freire was a teacher, activist, thinker, innovator and college professor in various stages if not all of his life.
“As a teacher in an educational program, I cannot be satisfied simply with nice, theoretical elaborations regarding the ontological, political, and epistemological bases of educational practice. My theoretical explanation of such practice ought to be also a concrete and practical demonstration of what I am saying.” Paulo Freire
How much more is gained when you can touch or apply what it is you are learning. There is another side of Freire’s philosophy that interests me as well and that is very similar to Dewey that democratic process is crucial to a classroom and that the teacher is a learner as well as learners are teachers.
“In the context of true learning, the learners will be engaged in a continuous transformation through which they become authentic subjects of the construction and reconstruction of what is being taught, side by side with the teacher, who is equally subject to the same process.” Paulo Freire
An ongoing back and forth process one that provides both teacher and learner with answers and questions. I once considered this process to be symbiotic but as I learned and looked deeper it became osmosiotic. There was a constant flow back and forth between teacher and learner; it was not a reliance on one or the other.
“The teacher who thinks, ‘correctly’ transmits to the students the beauty of our way of existing in the world as historical beings, capable of intervening in and knowing this world.” Paulo Freire
I wonder how much of Dewey Freire read. Many of his thoughts run parallel to Dewey as Dewey saw experience as a critical piece so often left out when teaching. All of the experiences brought to the classroom by the students are bits and pieces that can be built on and added to. I am amused that Freire uses quotes around the word correctly. How many teachers are teaching correctly in the world? When you look at how a teacher is evaluated in Georgia with a six or seven question checklist and relatively simple responses and yet the process is one that is complex and not conducive to yes and no check boxes.
“It is easier to stick with what teachers have always done and believed, rather than go about the painful process of changing current thinking about teaching” Charlotte Danielson, from the book, Teacher Evaluation, Discussing why we continue to evaluate teachers in an archaic model
We continue to evaluate and judge teachers based on models that have been used since the early 1960’s and tend to focus on ease and the most simplistic methods. Time seems to be always a factor. I am wandering a bit today as I think about where I am on my own journey.
“There is no valid teaching from which there does not emerge something learned and through which the learner does not become capable of recreating and remaking what has been thought. In essence, teaching that does not emerge from the experience of learning cannot be learned by anyone.” Paulo Freire
I will have to admit Freire does get deep and philosophical at times. But this aspect of doing that aspect of experiencing that runs through his words to me is significant. Many teachers try and keep everything to a minimum in terms of how they teach. I was involved in a discussion on a new math program and was informed we only want students to learn function not how it works. So students memorize a line on a graph which is this or that and that gets answers A-D but in effect they never understand or learn what that really is or why.
On the other side I have watched a model of a watershed during a graduate class along with an explanation of what was happening when rain or excess water was present and how it impacted the surrounding area. Our lecturer was versed in experiential teaching. He builds on teachable moments and on hands on experience. For myself even thinking back to summers of teaching biology to kids who had failed biology during regular session, my main objective was to have them pass a comprehensive exam approved by school and department. We would spend the first hour each day learning vocabulary, doing what I hated but without vocabulary you cannot even read a biology test let alone answer questions.
After that we organized and categorized all the trees on campus. We studied hands on ecology and interactions. We watched videos of various settings deserts, (The Living Desert by Disney Studios), Jungles, and the Arctic (National Geographic films). Occasionally we would get out one of my ball pythons and talk about reptiles and amphibians. I have had live animals in my room since I started back teaching eleven years ago. Amazingly all of them passed the finals and in the three years I taught intersession only one student quit coming and it was a family problem. As the system changed and went to seat time as the criteria and worksheets were the lessons I stopped doing summer school. It was no longer teaching simply babysitting.
I wonder often as to the whys and how’s of so many teachers and think back even in our own high school to great teachers and ones I consider great. Those are the teachers who get kids excited about learning and who look for ways and means to bring life to the lesson and who are always learning as well. There are only a handful of teachers I would consider great as I think back and always a story or two. My middle son had biology in ninth or tenth grade and a presentation was made in that presentation a overhead slide was used that he knew was incorrect and waiting till class was over went to the teacher and told her. At first the teacher was reluctant to listen until he said my brother has that animal in his salt water tank and I am familiar with it. She said she would fix it so it would be right. Several years later in an advanced class Zoology again the slide and again the wrong name and scientific data attached. This time being more mature and angry he stopped the class and said the slide was wrong. So here is a student who tried to help a teacher who was not interested in learning.
“Why not, for example, take advantage of the student’s experience of life.” Paulo Freire
“A primary responsibility of educators is that they not only be aware of the general principle of the shaping of the actual experience by environing conditions, but that they recognize in the concrete what surrounding are conductive to experiences that lead to growth.” John Dewey, Experience and Education
Dewey taught we need to build from not exclude the past experiences in our endeavors to teach children. I have found this in the Foxfire Approach to Teaching to be a critical element.
“New activities spiral gracefully out of the old, incorporating lessons learned from past experiences, building on skills and understandings that can now be amplified.” Foxfire Fund, Foxfire Teaching Approach Core Practice 7
In my one of the books I have read several times, A wolf at Twilight by Kent Nerburn, The discussion of the old method of forcibly taking Indian children and placing in boarding schools to modernize them and make white Indians is a key element. I wonder if we learned anything in looking at how we treat children in schools even today. We make them live by our rules and standards imposing guidelines that fluctuate from class to class often teacher to teacher. Granted the days of the boarding school may seem somewhat at odds with today’s schools but in reality there is little difference. In a diversified culture we demand language that may or may not be known. Coming from a special education back ground I am always amazed at how we expect children who are poor readers in their own language to read and learn in another. Research shows you cannot in most cases exceed the level of attainment in a second or third language that you have in your first.
So I wandered and pondered this is my reflection for the morning a wondering and thinking about what can we do to truly change education as we know it. Freire points to Critical reflection as a means for educators to learn as well as teach. John Dewey builds on reflection as does Foxfire.
“In the process of ongoing education of teachers, the essential moment is that critical reflection on ones practice. Thinking critically about practice, of today, or yesterday, makes possible the improvement of tomorrow’s practice.” Paulo Freire
“Reflection is an essential activity that takes place at key points throughout the work.” Foxfire Fund, Foxfire Teaching Approach Core Practice 8
As I read this morning and thought through my various readings I wondered if the commonalities I was seeing in Freire and Dewey were perhaps things as educators we should be trying to attain rather than so often fight against. In Foxfire Core practice nine a thought that has for me been a key element of any teaching I do and that is making what I teach relevant and meaningful and have it be something the child can leave the room with and it makes sense outside of class.
“Connections between the classroom work, the surrounding communities, and the world beyond the community are clear. “Foxfire Fund, Foxfire Teaching Approach Core Practice 8
I just wonder many times what if teaching and teachers would ever catch on and really be concerned more about the kids than the content, more about the community than the curriculum, and more about humanity than the National educational initiatives. So I will stop and please keep all in harm’s way on your mind and in your hearts.