Blast from the Past: This blog entry first posted August 21, 2010; and was re-posted on August 16, 2018. Advice for the beginning of another school year.
This week lots of school openings and students returning to the university. I always look at this time of the year with lots of anticipation (and some foreboding); teaching is both something to be looked forward to and to dread. The part I love is the chance to share what I know with students who want to learn it; the chance to make a difference, to help others know something that they haven’t yet figured out. What a joy!
The dread? That arises from the inexorability of it all. The demands of teaching go on and on. In the schools, teachers have to bring it all alive every day; at the university, I only have to climb that mountain weekly, but it just never stops until the term is over. No matter how good I am this week, I know I have to somehow get ready to do it again the following week, with all the preparation that means. And whether you are prepared or not, the students will be back ready to go again.
The best teachers, and I’m obviously not counting myself among them, have a way of surrendering to the constancy of teaching. They appear serene (God only knows what they are feeling within), and seem to neither hurry nor loiter. This is the patience of teaching that is so remarked upon, this unwillingness to give in or give up. To remain tranquil -- even as you explain the same concept for the 30th time. It is the Zen tranquility of the mountain climber who takes one well-paced step at a time and who is so totally focused on placing his crampons in the best possible place while maintaining his vision of the summit (trees and forest, it is all one to the great teacher).
Of course, more limited teachers try to go too fast and they undermine their own success. They are so enamored by the summit that they lose sight of where to put their feet. So, such teachers look at the state standards and have the kids do those tasks, without breaking them down and teaching kids how. The standards say kids should be able to summarize, so such a teacher assigns summary writing. That the kids don't yet know how to write a summary apparently doesn't occur to them, nor does the idea that learning to summarize can be broken down into a series of steps each of which could be mastered over time so that by the end the kids can successfully summarize.
Educational standards presuppose lots of underlying skills, insights, and knowledge--all of which need instructional attention. The standard might only say that students need to summarize, but the teacher needs to think of all the different kinds of texts that students would need to learn about. Summarizing a short text is different than summarzing a longer one. Summarizing stories is different than summarizing arguments. Summarizing a video or a speech requires the development of additional skills. And so on. Teaching summarization requires modeling, explicit explanation, and guided and individual practice that varies in critical ways. By the end of that kind of sequence kids should have developed pretty sophisticated summarization skills and an abilty to summarize lots of diffefrent types of material and for different purposes. (Of course, when the teacher just assigns a task that sounds like the standard itself, many kids never get there.)
I'd suggest the following beginning of the school year resolution: I am going to assign less and teach more.
Let me wish you all a happy climb: with an enjoyable arrival at base camp in coming days, followed by the long, patient, steady trudge up the face, and finally the exquisite excitement when you reach the peak.
May you and your students have a successful literacy year!
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