Let's Get it Started

"The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach accordingly."

David Ausubel

My current grad course has an online forum, where we all take turns moderating discussions based on the text.  This was my week, along with my colleague James (we teach at the same school, but weren't really friends until we met out of school.  Isn't that funny?)

The effusive nature of most previous posts had bothered me, so I tapped into the Six Word Memoir for a framework: in six words, I asked my classmates to describe the methods of the most effective teacher they could remember. It was interesting to see the similar trends that emerged: openness and challenge were two of the most common.

Meanwhile, James used the above principle to run his forum.  Is this the most important thing? he asked -- and if not, what is?  Despite his many efforts at argument, he couldn't convince anyone to argue otherwise (except for the copout answer, "There is no single most important principle.")  One student offered a story in support: tutoring for a state assessment test, she came upon a question that referred to a letter written by Robert E. Lee.  Neither student knew who he was, so she tried to prompt them:
Me: Okay. Do you know any American Wars?
Students: Yes
Me: Alright. What was the very first American War?
Student: WWII?
Me: Well...actually i think it was the Revolutionary War... Do you remember what comes next?
Student: No. What does History have to do with this. I thought we were doing English.

So basically, I found out what they know....they know about different kinds of writing, but that isn't going to help them at all if they can't fit the writing into any of their prior knowledge.... I found out they don't know much about American history, so even though I am an English teacher, and responsible for them passing the English HSA, I have to not only backtrack, but backtrack completely out of my content area at this point.

After most of a semester in which you could hear a pin drop at any point in any class, we had suddenly revved everyone up.  The student who had shared this story went on to explain that he believed socio-economic status to be the single most important factor in determining success in school; if you were raised without the benefit of parental supervision and expectation, he argued, you couldn't possibly be expected to do well.  In reply, another student ended a rant with the following: "If you don't have the discipline to work things through for yourself, you deserve to be flipping burgers at McDonald's.  THE END!"  Another told of her own childhood as her voice shook with emotion: "My father was a drug addict, and my mother was never around.  But I'm not an outlier; they'll never make a movie about my life.  I just got myself to school, day after day, and here I am.  I'm doing fine.  I don't blame anyone."

James and I just gaped at each other as student after student broke his silence to unburden his soul and speakaloud of his insecurities and frustrations about the profession.  Somehow we had struck a nerve.  But how did we do it, and could we do it again?  That's anyone's guess.

Whenever anyone asks me what I like most about teaching, I don't hesitate to say: "Its unpredictability." You just never know what might happen next, and what it will be that gets things started.