Guess What's In My Head

Me: Je veux garder mon pantalon.

Student: I want to… something… my pants?

Me: Bravo!  Et ‘garder’?

Student: I don’t know that one.

Me: Think of what you would do with something you like.

Student: I would hide it.

Me: Okay… what if I tried to take it from you?  What would you do?

Student: I would smack you.

[Editor’s note: student is also a good friend and generally non-violent.]

The above dialogue illustrates one of the worst, and most common, teaching techniques: Guess What’s In My Head.  I was trying to help her define the word garder, to keep.  To me, the hint seemed obvious: of course you’d try to keep something you liked.  But looking at the sentence now, I am appalled.  There are a hundred different things you could do with something you liked, from framing it to eating it.  How did I expect her to guess “keep”?

As teachers, we have a fear of giving away the information; somehow we feel we haven’t done our job if we simply tell the student the answer, so we resort to cloak-and-dagger games.  It’s absurd, really, and yet I catch myself doing it all the time, and becoming frustrated with students who can’t guess what’s in my head.  I’ve been a lot more aware of it since re-reading the following excerpt from Judy Blume’s Blubber: Miss Rothbelle is an extreme case, but she reminds me that teaching means making sure students have the information they need, even if that means directly telling them what it is.

When she finished her song she was right next to Wendy.

“Wendy… can you tell me what was coming out of my mouth as I sang?”

“Out of your mouth?” Wendy asked.

“That’s right,” Miss Rothbelle told her.

“Well… it was… um… words?”

“No… no… no,” Miss Rothbelle said.

Wendy was surprised. She can always give teachers the answers they want.

Miss Rothbelle moved on. “Do you know, Caroline?”

“Was it sound?”

“Wrong!” Miss Rothbelle said, turning. “Donna Davidson, can you tell me?”

“It was a song,” Donna said.

“Really Donna… we all know that!” Miss Rothbelle looked around. “Linda Fischer, do you know what was coming out of my mouth as I sang to the class?”

Linda didn’t say anything.

“Well, Linda …” Miss Rothbelle said.

“I think it was air,” Linda finally told her. “Either that or breath.”

Miss Rothbelle walked over to Linda’s desk. “That was not the correct answer. Weren’t you paying attention?” She pulled a few strands of Linda’s hair… .

She walked up and down the aisles until she stopped at my desk… .“We’ll see if you’ve been paying attention… suppose you tell me the answer to my question.

”I had no idea what Miss Rothbelle wanted me to say. There was just one thing left that could have been coming out of her mouth as she sang, so I said, “It was spit.”

“What?” Miss Rothbelle glared at me.

“I mean, it was saliva,” I told her.

Miss Rothbelle banged her fist on my desk. “That was a very rude thing to say. You can sit in the corner for the rest of the period.”…

At the end of the music period Robby Winters called out, “Miss Rothbelle… Miss Rothbelle …”

“What is it?” she asked.

“You never told us what was coming out of your mouth when you sang.”

“That’s right,” Miss Rothbelle said. “I didn’t.”

“What was it?” Robby asked.

“It was melody,” Miss Rothbelle said. Then she spelled it. “M-e-l-o-d-y. And every one of you should have known.” She blew her pitchpipe at us and walked out of the room.