Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Teaching Today

I taught for seven years back when dirt was young and students had already learned to think by the time they were in one of my classes. I taught at both USC and UCLA. Comparative lit, English composition, Japanese literature. All electives but for English comp. Comp lit and Japanese lit were lecture courses. Never more than 35 students in a class--except for the multi-discipline introduction to Japanese culture taught by a religion prof, an art historian, a historian and me for lit. That was lecture only to about 125 students.

I always had a curriculum published before classes began. I also had lectures prepared, pithy remarks noted for use if a class went silent. Other than keeping to the curriculum, 90% of my lecture material went unused. Why? Because I wanted my students to engage in thoughtful, informed discussions on what they read. I'd ask questions, call on students (yes, the dreaded "what do you think about what Mary just said, Johnny?"), guide a discussion.

I told students that while I expected some answers to the books we read, if a student had a different interpretation I would listen. If the interpretation was "wrong" but if the student proved his thesis, I'd grade accordingly. I had one student who was completely visual for themes and tests. Drew his test answers. Produced great projects. I kept his material for years. Creative, but was most likely lost on more rigid teachers.

I was so lucky when I was in the classroom. Sometimes half a class was men on the G.I. Bill. Yes, that G.I. Bill for Vietnam vets. These students had come out of a traditional education, where they learned the three Rs as well as deductive thinking. They didn't struggle with SOLs, but had to pass PSATs and SATs to get into college, G.I. Bill or not. I had students older than I, who had seen things I would never see, who brought different experiences into a classroom.

I got to thinking about some of these students the other day. I wonder what happened to them. No matter what they decided to do in life, they knew how to think and how to present their arguments based on their interpretation of what they read.

I couldn't step into a classroom today. I spend a lot of time with teachers and some students. I read student writing contest entries. I see so little deductive reasoning, so little free thinking. Even when we had a fiction writing contest, I didn't see creativity like the student who drew his exams.  I worry that today's youth can't think outside the box, can't look for patterns that aren't presented in the form of an exam answer, can't engage in civilized debate.

No, my teaching methods wouldn't work today. So, I post a question: what would Socrates do today were he in a classroom?


Michael Murphy said...

If he were teaching today, he might not have concluded this: "I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing."

Shirley Kennedy said...

Socrates would faint from the shock
of seeing what goes on in today's classrooms.
Looking back more years than I care to admit, I received an excellent education in California classrooms. I remember the 8th Grade Constitution test. No 9th grade if you didn't pass. Same with the Junior Comp test. If you didn't know your English--couldn't parse a sentence and write a decent essay, you got held back. What happened? It's all so different now, and very sad.

Monti said...

Hi Betsy,

I so worry about teaching for passing the SOLs. This is so wrong for creativity and learning to think outside the box. Where did this come from and where are we going!!!?

Mary Montague Sikes

sharonstruth said...

Hi Betsy,
Great post. My 22 year old daughter, a college student, has some of the same complaints as you. It's often about the students, because she loves a good, open-minded intellectual discussion about anything. But every so often, she even gets a professor who does't encourage that in the classroom. It's not the norm, but is always sad to hear. The good news is not all the students are missing the fire we used to have. But I agree...far too many are. I think it's a sign of the times. Sharon