What I Re-Learned from What I Had Forgotten about Teaching

As I was leaving my first period class, the teacher who used the room after me called me back. “Larry, it would help me start my class….” She paused and then rushed on, “if you could erase your boards–I need the space, and we do that for one another here.”

I blushed and mumbled an apology. I erased the chalkboards for the rest of the semester. A lesson learned in my first week of school after an absence of 16 years from teaching high school students.

What was I doing? Every day between 8 and 8:50 A.M. for one semester, I taught an 11th grade U.S. History class in a Santa Clara County high school. After teaching the class, I returned to Stanford University to teach.

The high school enrolled 1,600 students, of whom over one-third were minority. More that 90% of the graduating class chose higher education. I taught a “skills” class, one intended to be small in size and limited to students who had performed poorly in academic subjects or had major difficulties in reading and writing. In the first few weeks, I had 17 students, all but two of whom were Hispanic or black.

What did I learn after this extended absence from teaching high school students? Three lessons: my “skills” class varied greatly in performance; the “right-answer” syndrome dominated the class; and my students had a shrunken sense of their intellectual ability.

Administrators created “skills” class by grouping students based on achievement and teachers’ recommendations. Yet reading test scores for my students ranged from 4th to 11th grade. If the purpose of bringing such students together in one class was to make it easier to teach similar students, it failed.

Meanwhile, there was the “right-answer” syndrome. Students believed that questions had correct answers either from the textbook or teacher. And they had learned the rules in elementary school: keep silent or say something without appearing stupid.

Any teacher who is interested in getting students to reason aloud–which requires giving answers in front of classmates that may not be “correct”–must change the rules.

But changing rules was tough to do. We had intense, almost hostile, discussions about questions that had no correct answer such as: In the Civil War, why did southern poor white farmers who didn’t own a slave volunteer to fight for wealthy planters who owned most of the slaves? To answer such questions, students had to distinguish between facts and opinions, decide what qualified as evidence, and discover that history is interpreting facts. It was a struggle.

The “right answer” syndrome, of course, prevails across most high school subjects but they are far more pronounced in “skills” classes. Giving right answers to teachers’ questions and worksheets is “normal” especially when multiple-choice tests are given repeatedly. “How can this class be called U.S. History,” students asked me “if we cannot be sure of which answers are wrong?” And, the most basic question of all that went unasked: “If I cannot count on there being correct answers, how can I ever get out of high school?”

Just as evident as the “right answer” syndrome was the students’ low intellectual self-confidence. At least half of the class knew one another from other “skills” classes or special education programs. What was evidence of low self-regard? When I asked a student to read her paragraph comparing early 20th century immigrants’ dreams of a better life with her own dreams, she refused. “It’s stupid,” she said. “I never do these things right.” Often, when I asked students for their opinions on issues raised in class, they gave one-word responses–seldom a full sentence, never a paragraph. For those whose native language was not English, the reluctance was understandable. But when I pressed other students to enlarge their answers, they would say, “I don’t know nothing,” or “What I have is dumb.”

Establishing a mood in the class that encouraged students to take intellectual risks, to give opinions backed by evidence, and to follow up their responses without fear of being put down took the entire semester. For six students, I failed. They would seldom speak in class. Another six students showed modest improvement by speaking at length without apologizing for what they were about to say. And five students blossomed. They gained confidence in stating answers and punched back at my counter-arguments by asking me for my evidence.

My experience with this class drove home a point I had first learned as a teacher in the 1950s and 1960s: I was not simply fighting the usual battles to get students to think in class; I was also engaged in a losing struggle to lift students’ intellectual confidence after being labeled and segregated earlier in their school career.

NOTE: This post is a shortened version of a piece I wrote in 1990 for Kappan.

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