During this sabbatical year I promised myself that I wouldn’t even *think* about teaching until the summer. After all, this is my chance to focus exclusively on scholarship. I am enjoying the opportunity to focus on one project, to read a new book in its entirety, to work uninterrupted. However, as our university plans the fall schedule I’ve begun to think about my return to the classroom.
Although I have focused mostly on research, during this year I’ve read books on teaching, and have returned to larger questions, and have started to rethink my goals as an educator. What is it I really want to teach my students? Am I accomplishing this? Is there some way that I could radically redesign my courses to create more authentic learning experiences for students?
I have been teaching college students for almost twenty years, but education has been a central part of my life for forty. Not just because I've been in school that long, but because my first five years in school were spent as part of an educational experiment. From five to ten years old, I attended an alternative, "free" school in upstate New York that was created, in part, to address the lack of racial integration in the Buffalo public schools. The school's philosophy was based on the idea that children learn best by playing. Left almost entirely on my own, I didn't read until I was 8; after that I wrote and staged my own plays, learned basic math concepts by playing with brightly-colored Cuisenaire rods, and spent most of my day dancing to Beatles music. I can't say that this radical approach worked for every student, but I learned quite a bit. When I entered public school, it took me one month to catch up to the students who had been sitting, learning lessons and taking tests. (And I was not a precocious child.)
In many ways I'm a much more traditional teacher than this experimental background would suggest. I am an intensely organized instructor whose classes in literature, humanities, women's studies and literary theory are carefully planned and adhere to a detailed syllabus. However, this early experience in an alternative pedagogical experiment--and my later traumatic "mainstreaming" into public schools — made me radically skeptical about traditional education.
In his new book, Weapons of Mass Instruction, John Taylor Gatto makes many powerful and polemic arguments about the evils of compulsory education. To me his most provocative point is that children should be producing new knowledge, not consuming the opinions of others. He gives examples of how he went against school policy and gave his students opportunities to solve real problems –such as the conducting their own polls of local elections and investigating the dwindling supply of red snapper in Manhattan. His emphasis on empowering students as potentially capable investigators into local issues which concern them contrasts common practices of teaching to the test and confining students to classrooms where they are fed abstract (meaningless) information.
As college teachers we have much more autonomy over what happens in our classrooms than K-12 teachers, yet how much do we emphasize “coverage” (teaching to the test) instead of finding creative ways for students to solve problems that would benefit our communities?
As the last months of my sabbatical wind down, I plan to ask myself some hard questions about my own teaching. Perhaps I will return to my roots and get radical.
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