Tag Archives: philosophy of education

Happy World Teachers’ Day!

SeDo Dictionary_34SM
Third Graders learn the “Dictionary Race” during a Dictionary Day Presentation.

Bet you didn’t know today is World Teachers’ Day! Empowering teachers, building sustainable societies,” is the slogan for 2015.

By sheer coincidence, today I will be working with eighty third graders as part of the Valley Grange Words for Thirds Program. The program is designed to give third graders their own personal dictionary. I have the honor of facilitating the process and teaching the kids a little history and some basic dictionary skills.

Another coincidence was that one of the email newsletters I subscribe to included a very appropriate quote by thinker Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900).

Your true educators and cultivators will reveal to you the original sense and basic stuff of your being, something that is not ultimately amenable to education or cultivation by anyone else, but that is always difficult to access, something bound and immobilized; your educators cannot go beyond being your liberators. And that is the secret of all true culture: she does not present us with artificial limbs, wax-noses, bespectacled eyes – for such gifts leave us merely with a sham image of education. She is liberation instead, pulling weeds, removing rubble, chasing away the pests that would gnaw at the tender roots and shoots of the plant; she is an effusion of light and warmth, a tender trickle of nightly rain…

There may be other methods for finding oneself, for waking up to oneself out of the anesthesia in which we are commonly enshrouded as if in a gloomy cloud – but I know of none better than that of reflecting upon one’s educators and cultivators.

And therein lies a wonderful way to celebrate this relatively unknown day… thinking about those who have educated and “cultivated” us. We are all teachers and educators. We are all learners and students. I expect to learn something from these kids today. And I hope they learn something from me and the experience they have.

As I read Nietzche’s thoughts I was most struck by his suggestion that educators are liberators. Dictionary Day today will have, for me, a slightly different meaning today. I will be considering how today’s lesson and the book each child leaves with will be freeing and surely contribute to the person each becomes. As the kids would say, “Awesome!”

World Teacher Day

A Great Teacher…

Tomorrow I will be teaching a course for substitute teachers. Yesterday I happen to talk to someone I believe is a truly great teacher. We bumped into each other in a grocery store. Since she looked troubled, I asked what was wrong. She replied, “I’m trying to do some math in my head.” We had a lot of fun with that. (She was buying some supplies for a class project that sounded really awesome.) Of course we ended up comparing notes and sharing “war stories.” People didn’t seem to mind going around us, standing in the aisle and laughing over some of the things we’ve experienced.

Towards the end of our conversation, we talked about some folks we knew who have recently retired. This great teacher said, “I’ve been teaching forty years.” We did some more math to estimate how many kids she’s taught. Then she added, “I really should be thinking about retiring, but I can’t.”

When I asked her why she replied, “Because I’m having way too much fun!”

The folks I’ll work with tomorrow may not be “teachers” in the formal sense of the word. But they will be teaching. My hope for them and the students they have–if only for a day–is that they will find the business of learning fun. It won’t always be easy. But it should always be meaningful. When we start to forget that, here’s a short reminder.

When Teachers Go Fishing…

Hannah caught her fish just as it was announced "time to leave."
Hannah caught her fish just as it was announced “time to leave.”

I recently had the opportunity to accompany a bunch of fourth graders on a school fishing trip. My semi-official role was photographer. But whenever I’m around the kids I’m also their coach and champion. So as I wandered about the shoreline looking for “photo ops” I also asked questions and offered encouragement and advice. I had some fun with the kids by asking them, “How many ya got?” When they replied “none.” I would try teaching them the fisherman’s answer. “As soon as I get the one I’m after and one more I’ll have two.” There is something of a never-ending optimism among fishermen. You can’t say you haven’t caught any until you’ve quit fishing.

One young fellow surprised me a bit when I asked about his catching. He replied, “I don’t think these fish like me.” I’m still not sure if he was sincere about his answer, but it was quite interesting to see how the kids reacted to catching and not catching. And there was another teachable concept in pointing out the fundamental difference between “going fishing” and “going catching.” Sometimes the process can be the result.

While a certain amount of skill is involved, ultimately the catching is up to the fish. (I used to have a little sign that read, “Even a fish wouldn’t get into trouble if he kept his mouth shut.”) The fisherperson’s role is to engage and excite the fish into taking the bait.

One of the teaching processes we often use is called “Q & A Teaching.” The process is based on the sound principle of engaging learners because you teach by using directional questioning designed to get the students to take the bait. If it’s not done well, it can be a lot like fishing without much catching.

An example might be stating a word problem involving math, then asking the class “What information do I need to solve this problem?” (There’s the cast.) One student calls out an answer that’s totally wrong. (Your line is now in a tree and the fish can’t reach it.) If you’re lucky, the next student gives the right answer. But what do you say to the first student? Personally, I don’t think wrong answers are “bad,” but some would say that calling attention to wrong answers creates a negative learning environment. We’re supposed to ignore them and move forward–unless we can somehow build on them. As most fisherpeople know, if you blow the first cast to a waiting fish, the odds are good you’ll just scare it into hiding.

Kids aren’t much different. Even if it’s unintentional, when we set them up to fail they’ll often go into hiding and stop trying.

But there’s another factor at work here and any teacher who’s made this mistake is painfully aware of its reality. You only only get one chance to teach it right because most students will remember what they hear first–even if you immediately correct your mistake. In my real estate classes there are two terms for holding title to property that are really quite simple, but they are also very easy to mix up. The terms are “fee simple determinable” and “fee simple condition subsequent.” When I first started teaching them, I would occasionally accidentally reverse them. When that happened, the number of students who got the subsequent quiz question wrong dramatically increased no matter how hard I retaught the concept. It’s become a concept that I now teach very carefully and deliberately. I still rehearse that lesson in my mind before I teach it.

I do not ask any questions until I’ve been over both terms at least once. I will emphasize the importance of getting it right by subtly suggesting “This might be on the test.” This emphasis is called “raising the stakes” and it’s another way of engaging learners. but I definitely don’t invite the students to give me wrong information until they’ve heard it correctly at least once.

Teaching kids is an awesome responsibility and while I’m not inviting paranoia over the ways and means by which we do it, I am suggesting deliberation and a disciplined approach. Sometimes knowing the right question and when to ask it is more important than knowing the right answer!

(Note: While I do not usually use photos I’ve taken of the kids at school to illustrate my writing, I have Hannah’s parents permission for this one which also appeared as the cover photo on a recent edition of the Eastern Gazette.)