2018-06-29 Teaching: asking why and how

*this post contains a four-letter word some readers may find distasteful

As a teacher, I ask a lot of why questions—of myself and of my colleagues—because I want to understand my own and others’ rationale behind our teaching decisions. I ask about big-picture items like unit objectives and summative assessments, to detail-oriented items like lesson activities and the selection of texts to teach. Why teach The Bell Jar rather than The Catcher in the Rye, for example? Why have the students write a literary analysis rather than a letter to the author or another student? Why is it important to study the period in American literature from which these two texts are drawn?

When I attempt to answer these questions and ask them of my teacher colleagues, it strikes me time and again just how complex an activity teaching is.

For the skilled pedagogue, teaching becomes a series of questions whose responses have the potential to determine how well our students learn and what is valued and given voice in the classroom.

Let’s take the question of why to teach The Bell Jar or The Catcher in the Rye as an example.

The following are reasons why a teacher could choose to teach Salinger:

  • traditional—one could argue “classic”—text taught in high school
  • “safe” choice: since it’s considered “traditional,” you don’t have to necessarily explain to students, parents, colleagues, admin why you’re teaching this one
  • you have copies of the book in the book room (and that’s all there is left)
  • if you’ve ever taught high school English you have likely taught this text before, and so probably have lesson plans, activities, assessment ideas already mapped out and handouts created (and if not, your colleagues likely do)
  • students may know that this text is usually taught in high school so may be looking forward to reading it
  • many students love Holden and relate to his angst about being a teenager who is misunderstood by the adults (and sometimes peers) around him
  • you get to have the “fuck you” conversation with your students who likely have never heard a teacher lead a class discussion around such language

The following are reasons why a teacher could choose to teach Plath:

  • it’s not the one students expect: students may already have impressions and knowledge about Catcher because it is the book that’s usually picked
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal does a beautiful reading of the audiobook, which would be a great classroom resource and help your students hear the text and Plath’s tone
  • it’s written by a woman
  • Esther Greenwood, the main character, is a woman
  • it allows students to learn about some of the tension women experience as they face pressures from themselves, their families, and society to work or to stay home
  • the book is semi-autobiographical, which allows students to also explore the tensions Plath faced as a writer in her time
  • many students love Esther; her remarkable voice and story of struggle with her mental illness surfaces empathy and important conversation in class

Asking why reveals ideas about the texts themselves and their value as classroom material. Look to see what each text could be communicating to students who are reading and discussing it: whose voice is presented and thus valued? Whose perspective is privileged? Are students reading authors or characters who look like them? Who experience life as they do? Who are different from other characters or authors they’ve read?

Another teacher’s reasons to teach one text over the other might differ from my own.  And as a teacher who didn’t always see a lot of literature in her book room that was written by or about people who looked like me, I use that experience to help make my teaching decisions and respond to why—we all bring our own life experiences to make our classroom decisions.

Let’s take The Bell Jar. You decide to teach it because it’s told from a woman’s point of view and everything else you’ve read this year hasn’t been: Lord of the FliesOf Mice and MenThe OdysseyAnimal Farm. As a woman, you worry that students are starting to see that only men can both write and be the stars in the lit you read. If they see it often enough over enough time (it doesn’t take very long because it’s reinforced in society), they’ll start to think it strange and “unnatural” when a woman writes and when a woman tells the story. Because I am a woman and grew up reading books written about others who were not like me, I’m sensitive to the absence.

I ask a lot of why questions, but now I’m wondering how: how do students make this connection between what we read and what we value? How do our positionalities influence what we bring into the classroom? If I’m blind to perspectives that are not my own, how can I attempt to bring them into my classroom? How are teachers taught to see texts in this way?



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