What Do You Want?

How central to a teacher’s thinking is the ideal graduate they are seeking to cultivate?  Over and over the teacher should return to a contemplation of what a formal school is hoping to grow.  We need to see the end in order to choose the best means.  The following questions are something of the type that I am thinking will keep us true to our calling.

contemplation

  1. What sort of student will seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, knowing that all else will be added to him as he pursues such?
  2. How does the Gospel inform my teaching? What specific aspects of teaching are directly related to Christ’s work in His Church?  By Whose authority do I teach?
  3. While it is necessary and good to fill my student with knowledge, how do I encourage that knowledge to lead him to understanding and carry him on into wisdom (Proverbs 2:6)?
  4. What kind of lesson will integrate in my student the knowledge, abilities, and heart of a true learner?
  5. In a world increasingly deceived by the notion that “knowledge is power” how do I cultivate virtue in my students, especially the virtue of humility?
  6. Of what influence is the atmosphere, the ethos, of my classroom upon my students? Is it too busy?  Is it too noisy?  Is the pace conducive to deep thought?  How to I consciously order this ethos so that it unconsciously molds the right heart in both myself and my students?
  7. How hierarchical is my teaching? Do I demonstrate a right ordering of my own loves in my teaching that my student might learn to order his?  Are the best things given prime time and lesser things lesser emphasis?
  8. How often are my lessons developed around a question or questions that breed contemplation rather than completion? How often are the questions ones I still want to think more about?
  9. How much of my “lesson planning” is simply my own further learning? Am I a student in my own classroom?  Does the content I am teaching still captivate me?
  10. How much coaching in the skills of good thinking, reasoning, reading, writing, listening, and speaking do I display in an average hour with my students?
  11. Are my lessons a display mostly of my own learning, or an arena for my students to add to their learning? How do I know this?  What are the criteria for my judgments?
  12. How does my student relate to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty? Are they real to him; do they actually exist in his world? Can they be known?  Can they be communicated to others?
  13. How permanent are the things taught in my classroom? If I assessed what I have taught to a student years later, how much would remain?
  14. How do I assess knowledge well? Can understanding or wisdom be assessed?  If so, how?  Are these the assessments I use in my own teaching?

I am sure there are many more, but just thinking about these questions as I have written them down have again brought me to that paradox of teaching: fearful expectation.  I fear all my weakness and inadequacies, but I hope and expect God’s grace to bring about great lessons for both my students and myself.  Think on these things.

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How Do You Activate a Student’s Mind?

There is a number you call to activate a credit card.  There is usually some highly confusing route in order to activate an online account, full of questions about my favorite flavor of milk or who my mother’s great-aunt’s husband punched in the nose.  But despite frequently checking the bottom of my student’s feet, and looking under their eyelids and behind their ears, I have struggled to figure out how to get middle and high school students activated.  How do you get these kids to think?

Thinking can be difficult to define.  But we must pursue something akin to a definition of it if we are to break free from the misguided, inaccurate, and reductive definitions that have brought to where we are educationally in our day.  If we wish to see a revival of thoughtful citizens in our land, we must educate in that direction.

And I don’t think what passes for thinking in terms of critical thinking, or problem solving, or the like is not what we used to mean by wisdom.  Good thinking produces good living.  The modern, who refuses to admit of such verities as “goodness” and prefers to opine about what is efficient, or pragmatic, or the like, cannot move toward what he does not think exists.  Many today want simply to produce a great worker, one who can solve problems for his employer or provide great responses to the chairperson’s board room exercises in creatively seeking to sell more widgets.

But good thinking comes from a pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.  It is disheartening to hear many of my high school students wonder aloud at this assertion.  “Seek truth, goodness, and beauty?  Why?  I can buy such things on iTunes, or find an app for it, or simply create my own truth, goodness and beauty whenever I wish.”  And that, of course, is very poor thinking.

So how does one’s teaching move beyond simple information and indoctrination to truly bringing a student’s mind into active thought?  Well, as an example, look again at the question just posed.  Then consider the question, and notice that your mind becomes engaged.  Questions engage the mind like nothing else I have met.

A group of students recently inadvertently compared two classes at my school, one being my own.  Prior to my class they were in a course (which I am keeping anonymous in case the teacher reads my blog!) that at least that day had been long.  It was the same fifty minutes as mine, but the students felt the two classes were of noticeably differing length.

The first long one had been characterized by the teacher talking a great deal about the subject matter.  They had a text they were considering, but the teacher was in a mode of telling what the text was about.  In their minds, the class did little more than give them material they would be tested on soon.

In my class (and please, this is not exalting my pedagogy I hope, because I can serve up a boring class with the best of them) on that particular day we had been considering a piece of literature that was very difficult for them.  It was a translation into English, it was from a time long ago, and it had lots of phrases and constructs they were totally lost in because it had begun its life as an oral poem.  Because I have taught this many times before, I could easily have simply filled in all the blanks and moved on.

But I was in the questioning mode, and I believe it is why the class seemed much shorter than the previous one.  They came out of the classroom, were transported to a land and time foreign but exciting to them, and watched as a mighty warrior rode a monster’s back till in terror the monster tore off his arm seeking to escape Beowulf, the warrior.  Why did this happen?  Is terror that powerful?  Have you heard about the wolf caught in trap who chewed off three legs and was still caught in the trap (Sorry, poor humor is a main stay of my classroom)?  Very little of the class was more than my asking questions upon questions and the student’s arguing with each other over the answers.

And this is not a discipline specific pedagogy.  Questions can activate any student in any subject.  One Spanish teacher took the notion of immersion a step further and instead of banal “conversation” in Spanish (Where is the bathroom?  Is there chicken on the menu?  etc.) she started asking them questions and making them respond to her questions.  The amount of thought required shot up.  Same in Physics, for sure.  As David Hicks, and many others have suggested, “Don’t ever teach a student what they can teach themselves.”  Questions activate the student’s mind like nothing else I know.  It can be messy, it can be hard to plan, but nothing makes for shorter classes.  And “Teach” often learns something too.