In my favorite teaching moments, I have made the time and the space for each student to experiment with ideas. I ask a challenging question. A student tries out an answer. I ask another student to evaluate the answer. Everyone feels safe. I have eliminated the stigma of “getting it wrong.” I try out an explanation myself, and check with students for understanding, asking a few of them to express in their own words what they’ve understood. All is quiet. I call on a more shy student who articulates a surprising view of the initial question -- one that touches on the point I had hoped to raise and that also opens another avenue worth a moment’s casual inquiry. I have succeeded most when I have sparked curiosity, and tacitly emphasized the value of being curious. I have led an exercise in free thinking, a practice of holding the world up to examination. This practice is much larger than myself; yet it is inflected by my learning, my work, and my passion and humor.
Through eight formative years, I attended progressive schools -- no grades, no majors, every formality of education traced back to its practical purpose. This education revealed to me the value of loving ideas; it had previously been hidden from me in the formal organization of knowledge and the system of tests and grades. I resist grades, and I think even the most summative of assessments should be regarded as cumulative. All of my teaching experience has been in schools with grades, tests, prerequisites and levels. I have adapted to do the kind of teaching I want to do within this system, but my students realize they are getting something different. I foreground subject matter so that you cannot hear the noisy machine of method and discipline that so many students have learned to tune out. In my class, students are surprised to find knowledge so unencumbered.
Grammar, rhetoric, vocabulary, critical thinking -- these arts apply to practical questions. I consider myself an English teacher with some special training in U.S. history. I am keenly aware of how the cultural and intellectual fabric of the modern world is always right in front of us. Shakespeare, Romantic Poetry, Nietzsche, Aimé Césaire, or Judith Butler -- even recondite and esoteric subjects when approached as a practical matter become full of relevance. I prefer primary sources. The subject matter, whatever it is, has its own brilliance. I try to remind my classes what a privilege we share when we read and study. We discuss primary sources along side miscellaneous evidence of contemporary culture because a student’s fresh impression of the world is the measure of his or her education. In an ideal school, every English course would be elective and interdisciplinary, allowing for the constant re-organization of knowledge.
Although I like collectivist thinking and work hard to create positive group dynamics, I also insist on regarding each of my students individually. Each student’s needs are unique. My teaching accesses the individual with self-assessments. I ask students to write self assessments in many possible aspects of their studies. I do as much one-on-one work as I can manage. The teaching of writing is very individual: the most effective way to teach writing is to sit down with a student and read together what the student has written.
I find myself helping young people cope with the emotional uncertainties of adolescence, giving them intellectual equipment that is not only immediately useful but also fundamental to life-long happiness. My own adolescence was unsettling and chaotic, and I was lucky enough to encounter teachers who could help me channel my angst into productive habits of mind. They set me on the course of my life of learning.
It’s rewarding to know that, in turn, some of my students have gone on to live lives of learning, but -- always more interested in process than in product -- it is so much more rewarding to show up each day and teach.