Friday, April 3

three: unlearning

I shared this quote with my students this week, pulling it up right here where it lives on the little tumblr quote blog I keep. (who even knows what the students thought of the fact that their English teacher has a tumblr. are tumblrs cool anymore? were they ever? does it matter?)
“the most successful of our students have a worldview shift during our program, an entire change in their demeanor towards the built world around them. They come to see rules as malleable, power structures as changeable, and culture as embodied. They see design as a vehicle for slow but influential behavior change, and they recognize that over time, this behavior change impacts the landscape of the world. Over the course of the program, they see that they can design things (products, services, interactions, and policies), and these things cause the world to change.”
the quote is from this piece by Jon Kolko. he is interestingly the Vice President of Design at Blackboard, and Blackboard is the online course software I've been using to teach my writing class. my twenty students are analyzing space and the rhetoric of the built world around them. I am asking them to break apart the ways staircases and windows and furniture send certain kinds of messages. I want them to see that the way things are is not an accident, nor is it inescapable. the first step is paying attention.

reading Kolko's article made me feel a few millimeters better about my teaching. that failure and frustration are okay--that they are even crucial in the learning process--is something I always forget. or don't think about. I get too idealistic about the whole endeavor, too enamored of that Dead-Poets-Society-style magic, and then when almost nothing about the five hours a week I spend in a classroom every semester actually goes so smoothly or culminates in such exciting epiphany, teaching becomes very meh.

there are other articles and bits research and pedagogical theory I've latched on to with similar reaction. Robert Brooke's “Underlife and Writing Instruction” is one. the little summary comment-note I added to the top of my pdf copy includes the line "I found this very, very comforting."

teaching is hard. and it seems like we talk about it too much in extremes. that lesson you planned either falls on deaf ears or it lights up with fantastic sparks of insight. or maybe it's just that I selectively remember those extremes. class time is great or it's awful. we are either completely failing our students or we are doing all the right things for them. and our students are either complete slackers or overachieving superstars. these extreme stories are the most fun to tell, after all, whether to yourself or to your colleagues.

there are a million other stories.

learning doesn't necessarily happen on paper and it doesn't have anything to do with points for writing smooth transitions or points for drafting a logical thesis statement. it doesn't have much to do with the lesson plans you scribble in your notebook or the not-so-fabulous teaching evaluations you get.

I need to remember that getting things wrong and messing things up and wandering around on the wrong track are all useful learning activities. failures are probably more useful than "perfect teaching" or "perfect studenting" could ever be (not that either ideal is at all easy to imagine, from here). my frustration and faltering with this teaching gig... that's part of my own shift, too. don't forget. the failure is useful, for them and for you.

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