Sunday, November 22, 2009

Teaching and Parenting

Before becoming a parent, I naively thought that my experiences as a teacher would help me as a mother. Come to find out, it was really the other way around. Being a parent has taught me to be a better teacher. Parenting has little to do with standing in front of your child, dictating instructions. Instead, it’s about letting moments unfold, learning from them, and trying to help your child explore and learn from those moments as well. Parenting is not about filling your child’s head with all your wisdom. It is about letting your child find his own wisdom and having the patience to let him come to that knowledge through a series of sometimes faltering steps. Parents guide their children. Parents coach their children. Parents are there to structure the environment, to provide models. As parents we don’t assign our students worksheets on how to behave. In the case of my son, just learning to walk, I don’t design activities for him to complete lock-step (forgive the pun) by a particular deadline. I provide him with opportunities to explore. I encourage him to try and try again. And I hope that I encourage his excitement about trying new things.

Isn’t this what good teaching also involves? What I’ve discovered is that the more I reflect on who I want to be as a parent, I am also called to revisit who I want to be as a teacher. Is it really important at the end the day, at the end of the year, at the end of high school for students to know what year Kahled Hosseini wrote The Kite Runner? Will the daily lives of my students be enriched for knowing that in chapter 16 there is a metaphor on page 211? Is it really important if students remember verbatim the definition of verisimilitude? Or, instead, is it better that my students know how to identify a theme, analyze it, and connect it to their experience of humanity? Isn’t it more important that students are able to critically analyze texts for their bias? And if this is true, if teaching should be about helping our students develop applicable skills related to our content area, why do I continue to feel it is necessary to give what essentially amounts to reading tests at the end of units?

I don’t think I’m alone here. I’m in the process of putting together my unit teaching Middle Eastern literature, centered around the reading of The Kite Runner. And in the process of gathering materials, I of course stumbled across the various pre-packaged units, many of which rely on multiple vocabulary and reading quizzes. However, even when searching various teacher prepared lessons on sites like TeachersPayTeachers, what I discovered were rafts of multiple choice quizzes bogged down with plot questions. What does a test of plot-based questions really test? That students read a text. Really, is that all we expect? I hope the message I send my students is not that we read simply for the sake of finishing a book. Instead, we read to connect to others, to empathize with the lives of others, to learn more about ourselves. Shouldn’t our unit assessments reflect that learning?

What I’ve come to realize as a parent is that the learning that sticks with a person is the learning that cannot be measured (usually) by a multiple choice test. As I mentioned in an earlier post, good teaching involves setting the stage for learning. What this means for me is that I need to spend less time standing in front of the class, and more time thinking about the skills and themes that I want my students to understand by the close of the unit. Teaching becomes more about what I hope my students are able to understand and do by the close of a lesson, and less about what they can recall for a test. That is not to say that all discrete knowledge should be dismissed. Instead, it means that I need to find more meaningful ways of helping student understand how to use and apply that knowledge rather than simply recall it. Teaching is about helping students become more than just book learners. It is guiding them to be life learners.
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