Friday, March 4, 2011

A Special Moment and a negative which equals "A puzzlement."

Many things have been whirling around in my head this past week concerning education in general.  It has been hard for me to ignore or even put behind me the many happenings in education from the teacher union fight going on in Wisconsin as well as the number of school districts giving out pink slips to teachers all over this country to Bill Gates saying we need merit pay for those teachers who are outstanding.  The icing on the cake so to speak in my emotional turmoil was the person who criticized the PS 22 sixth graders from Staten Island who sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," at the Oscars.  He said it was terrible.  I really don't know what to say.  It was a special moment for me to listen to those children.  IF you didn't hear them, go to YouTube and search for PS 22 Staten Island Choir.  They were great!  And it was a significant ending to a good show.

Later on in the week on a television news hour a segment showed Bill Gates speaking about education, saying that we need good teachers and that good teachers need to be paid more than the other teachers.  I'm glad to see that Bill and I are on the same page--that good teachers need to be paid more.  We just happen to think differently as to how we should operationally define "good."  He and I also agree on something else that he said, that there is no research that suggests that larger classes inhibits learning.  Where we differ is that he is generalizing this finding to all kids and all classes.  Mr. Gates.  Did you have large classes at Lakeside School in Seattle?"  I don't think so.

Then, add to this milieu a large number of people, some politicians, who have NEVER taught in the public schools that want to denigrate public school teachers by lowering their pay and taking away some of their retirement funds.  My heart aches for the teaching profession.

I really would like to have an academic discussion with Mr. Gates about class sizes, student learning, teacher characteristics and the rest of the foggy side of teaching.  Since it will never happen, let me once again present my side of my learning about teachers and teaching.  Let me start with the song from the Sound of Music (those kids from PS 22 inspired me), you know the song, the Do Re Mi Lyrics--"Let's Start From the Very Beginning..."

Let's start with the environment.  ALL teaching is done in either a large group, a small group or individually.  My definition of a large group is where a student can hide in plain sight.  Not raising their hand, sitting in the back of the room, not sitting tall, head down, no eye contact, being quiet and not participating in discussions, etc.  That's hiding.  And to some degree it depends upon the teacher's skill in handling a class.  I know of one professor who within the first hour would know the first name of every student in the class even though in might be a class of sixty or more students.  I couldn't do that.  Beyond my capabilities.

A sidebar story:  One year I taught forty-two and for a short time, forty-three fifth graders.  It was crowded in my classroom, there was even a kid sitting at my desk.  Although I taped the kid's names on the front of their desks to help me remember, I just couldn't keep everyone straight.  So by accident I started giving them nick-names like, princess, six-gun, admiral, hot-rod, movie star and so on.  I just made them up as I went along.  "Hey, quarterback, can you erase the board for me?"  The kids really enjoyed their different names.  "What did Mr. Blackwell call you today?"   I found out later that some even went home and told their family they wanted to be called by their nickname.  One little guy didn't like what I called him one day and had me pick another name.  He was cool with that.  It was fun for the kids and for me.  We had a good time and it didn't get in the way of learning--perhaps it might have even facilitated it.  

But my point is that the environment is important in the teaching/learning process.  How one learns in a small group is quite different from private lessons or tutoring.  You with me, Cupcake?

In a recent blog I wrote about the learning objective--the Cognitive, the Affective and the Psycho-motor domains.  Cognitive, that's the knowledge stuff that we teachers are pretty good at teaching--numbers, reading, geography, spelling, sentence structure, etc.  It's the Affective Domain that worries me--the feelings, the liking to learn, the interest in, curiosity, creativity, etc.  At this time in our society, I see the affective domain getting short shrift.  Who cares if they dislike math, just get the right numbers down on the test.  To be truthful with you, it may be that the affective domain is the most important of all the factors involved in teaching.  I still remember Jo Tyllia's comments to me many years ago.  "Get them (the students) to like learning and then get out of the way."  So true, Jo.  

The last three teaching/learning functions are fanatically complex.  There are only three ways to teach and to learn.  Not necessarily in order of importance, these three functions are:  expository, investigative and performance.  Expository is writing, talking, reading, explaining to another.  I can write a book about teaching--that's expository function.  A student explains a project to me--that's expository.  Kids read from their textbook--that's the expository function.  

Investigative is trying something out--trial and error.  A lot of play is investigative in nature.  We learn a lot through investigative process in life.  How fast is too fast in driving which results in a speeding ticket--that's investigative learning.

And finally, performance.  Standing in front of a class reading or speaking is a learning experience.  Those kids from PS 22 Staten Island learned much, I am sure, at the Oscars performing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."  We perform for ourselves and for others--and learn from that experience.  Teaching is performing at times.  We teachers learn all the time thanks for our students.  Maybe that is why we are addicted to teaching.  Perhaps.  

Nine factors in the teaching/learning arena.  And you mix them up with kids and hope you can find some learning at the other end.  It's a little bit like teaching a kid to ride a bike; first psycho-mortor skills to balance, steer and pedal.  Then cognition to know where to ride and how to stay safe.  Finally, the affective part in allowing a kid to enjoy riding a bike and wanting to do it some more even after falling down.  

Somewhere over that rainbow there are teachers using these teaching/learning functions and getting kids to learn.  Some are getting fired.  Some are getting pay cuts.  Some will leave teaching in the next year.  But they are good people. Teachers are people too.

Thanks to all the teachers in our society.  My very best to you all.

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