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?