A Good Suggestion

Before I get started today, I want to mention that this blog went over 83,000 page views a few days ago.  I truly am thrilled by that level of traffic and wanted (as always) to thank everyone who passes along the URL to someone else.  I believe that we teachers CAN improve teaching in this country and in this world but only by being willing to share ideas and resources.   We need to think and talk more about teaching, learning, and education.   There should be genuine joy and excitement in the exchange of teaching/learning thoughts.   I hope the blog encourages those activities.

Two nights ago, my wife and I went to see the play “Red” here in Richmond about the artist Mark Rothko and his paintings.  It was an excellent play and I enjoyed it all.  But there was one very short section that I have thought about 1,000 times over the last 48 hours.   In the play, Rothko is talking about how he learned to become an artist and develop his unique style.   At a critical point in his development, he saw a painting by Henri Matisse at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City that really intrigued him.   The work was so interesting to him that he went back day after day and stood there for hours on end just trying to figure out how Matisse had done it.   He stared at each part of the art work until he was able to unravel the mystery.

He didn’t check out a book about Matisse and read it.
He didn’t take a class on Matisse and have someone explain the work to him.
He didn't read about Matisse in Wikipedia.
He didn’t call up Matisse on the telephone and ask for a tip.

He went back day after day, hour after hour, and stared at the work to figure out how it was done.

I can’t even begin to tell you fascinating I found those two or three sentences.

I had a genuinely wonderful teaching experience this past semester.   As I discussed in a blog posting on January 1, 2013, I helped set up a class in Victorian Literature for 10 second semester senior accounting majors.   We read and discussed Great Expectations, North & South, and The Mill on the Floss.  

I served as the teaching assistant for this class.   In truth, this meant that I read each book and sat in on the class and participated in the discussions.  

The best part, though, was that I got to watch an excellent teacher at work each day.   The class was taught by Dr. Elisabeth Rose Gruner of the English Department here at the University of Richmond.   For 75 minutes each week, I got to observe a master teacher at work.   What a great experience.  What a great opportunity.

Dr. Gruner and I teach using very different styles.   My goal, though, was not to become her.   Rothko certainly didn’t want to become Matisse.   He wanted to understand how Matisse managed to create art.    I wanted to see how Dr. Rose taught.   I wanted to see how she managed to create learning.   Mainly, I wanted to see how she could get 10 senior accounting majors to learn, appreciate, and enjoy the writings of Charles Dickens and George Eliot.   That sounds absolutely impossible but she did it.   And, she did it well.  

Each day in class, we would start with some seemingly casual conversation about one of the novels and the author.   Some days we would actually read passages aloud together so we could hear the sound of the words.   Often, Dr. Gruner would pose a question about the reading for that day and we would spend 10 minutes or so writing out our thoughts.   We would then talk about what we had written.  It was a fabulous class.  All 10 students were deeply engaged every day.

I was interested in many “how did she do that??” questions.

--How did she get the 10 accounting majors to actually talk in class about literature without having them feel threatened?
--How did she get students who were incredibly busy to actually read long Victorian novels?
--How did she get the students to appreciate a writer like Charles Dickens who seems 500 years removed from the style of a current author?  (Great Expectations is certainly not Harry Potter.)

What did I learn?   I’m not sure I can tell you.   I know that Dr. Rose listened to the students wonderfully well, much better than I ever do.    I know that she was able to convey her genuine love of those books while still showing her frustration with some aspects of each work.   I know that she was not obsessed with getting to a predetermined answer in such a hurry which often inhibits interesting student ideas.    I know that she was great at asking questions to make the students think.   I will always remember those 10 accounting majors having an animated conversation on the last day of the semester when Dr. Rose asked:   “Well, if you don’t like the way George Eliot ended The Mill on the Floss, how would you have ended it differently?”  

I’m 100 percent convinced that I am a better teacher for watching her teach.   This wasn't my goal but I'm still delighted.

Would you like to be a great teacher?   Don’t read a book.   In truth, I’m not even sure that reading this blog is much help.   Don't ask for tips or clues.

Here’s my main advice, especially for new teachers.

Go find the very best teacher at your school even if that person teaches something like Victorian Literature.   Don’t find the most popular teacher or the funniest teacher.   Find the teacher who is genuinely the best.   If you talk with students, you'll quickly hear descriptions of a few, truly great, teachers.  

Ask that teacher if you can sit in on class for three solid weeks.   I don’t think one day is really enough to catch on to what is really going on.   Rothko didn't look at the Matisse once.   He came back day after day.

Before you start your class visits, write down several “how is the teacher doing this?” questions that you want to answer over these three weeks.

--How is the teacher getting the students to participate rather than sit on their hands?
--How is the teacher getting the students to prepare before they come to class?
--How is the teacher getting the students to think more deeply?
--How is the teacher getting all of the students involved and not just the ones who like to talk?

Then, during every class for 3 weeks watch what happens.   Try to look behind the superficial to see what is really going on in the class.

You don’t want to become that teacher.   That’s never the goal.   You want to understand how that teacher is creating the magic that we refer to as learning.   That will make you a better teacher.


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