Recently, while combing through the files (and files) on an old computer in order to see what's worth taking with me to a new hard drive, I came upon three points toward a "teaching philosophy" that I forgot I had written several years ago. Things haven't changed....
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The most successful, enduring learning happens in and through relationship. Any classroom presents a teacher with as many different opportunities for relationship as there are students in the room. With the motivated, already-skilled, eager students, the relationship often builds through the work, through the material and a mutual desire for engagement, and learning is deepened by the increasingly sophisticated questioning that the relationship allows. But with the student whose fundamental skills and understandings require more attention (practice, reinforcement), the relationship is of more immediate importance; its development is crucial for surmounting the obstacles of low self-confidence and motivation. I also believe that a teacher's relationship with his or her students can be as much the foundation for future learning as are the specific skills or understandings attained. My aim is for my students to see me and to remember me as uncommonly challenging and also unfailingly approachable, to see that the tasks I set before them may be difficult, but that support is available.
Training for any special skill demands consistent attention to the fundamentals, and writing is indeed a special skill. Few can do it well—that is, clearly, coherently, persuasively, engagingly. I often ask at the start of a new course for a volunteer to tell me of a particularly developed skill he or she has. Usually, I learn about a student’s refined artistic or athletic ability. I then ask what the fundamental skills are that must be mastered before one could dream of attaining that special ability. My purpose is to shed light on the often overlooked basics, and on the process of building from them. More specifically, my purpose is to begin emphasizing reading as a special skill.
I purposefully use the verb “master” above: the traditional master-apprentice relationship, through which a newcomer to a skill learns by observing, greatly informs my teaching. The apprentice painter or dancer or pianist or carpenter or plumber can watch the master at work, noting precisely what he or she does at various stages of creation or revision (or repair), or in particular emergent predicaments, and then can imitate to practice and progress. Having taught for nearly a decade at an arts-intensive high school—a school for talented high-school-age dancers, actors, visual artists, musicians, and writers—I am often reflecting on this time-honored approach to learning, and in doing so confronting the distinctly different situation in which the striving young writer finds herself. Unlike the apprentice sculptor or ballerina or actor or violinist, the apprentice writer does not learn much of anything (aside from quiet perseverance, perhaps) from watching the master: a writer at work is not very instructional. What the young writer must do is make the page the master, which requires developing the ability to read closely and sensitively enough to see the master’s moves in the phrasings, the sentences, the paragraphs.
A student in the literature class or the creative writing class must learn how to read profitably, and in my view the best teachers for such classrooms are the ones able to model productive reading practices delightfully, and, in turn, to demonstrate the relationship between such reading and skillful, effective writing. When with enough practice students begin to recognize the art in the individual sentence, they begin not only to read more perceptively but to write with heightened attention and specificity, and they soon find themselves with more to invent and to argue on the page.
To not know is a very fortunate starting point. I am influenced here by oft-quoted words from John Dewey's How We Think: "Genuine ignorance is ... profitable because it is likely to be accompanied by humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness; whereas ability to repeat catch-phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with a varnish waterproof to new ideas." Students begin to see, to observe—to notice for themselves—when they feel comfortable encountering the new, or when they cannot convincingly claim to know about the object under study. I strive in my classrooms to make plenty of room for not-knowing (and am helped when my material can't be "known" quickly). I encourage students not to escape ignorance but rather to get familiar with not yet having enough information. Only from there can well-earned discoveries be made, and discovery is the first step to a sense of ownership over an idea. On a related note, I feel more and more commitment to teaching patience, whether with an object for analysis or in the drafting of a scene for a short story. "It's not that I'm so smart," Einstein is reported to have said. "It's just that I stay with problems longer."