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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Learning to Teach by Uncovering Our Assumptions Part 2

by Judith M. Newman

Learning about Learning and Teaching

Let me share an incident so you can see how I began exploring my own assumptions about learning and teaching. I was reading Sondra Perl and Nancy Wilson's last chapter in Through Teacher's Eyes (1986). In that chapter they summarize what they learned from their study of writing in a single school in upper New York State. One notion which struck a chord was their concept of "teaching as enabling." They made me think about how difficult it is to find a balance between "imposing judgement and allowing for students' spontaneity, between controlling students' actions and offering free rein."

That described perfectly what I was then experiencing with one of my classes. Early in the fall, I'd received an invitation to write a book about the "politics of language instruction." I had extended the invitation to the teachers and suggested we work on a collaborative effort but, while no one said anything specific about the invitation, the body language was definitely saying "No Way'." I let the invitation stand until, finally, one student was actually brave enough to write me a mail message letting me know she didn't want to be involved. Her message forced me to look at my intentions for those teachers, at what I was trying to accomplish with them, and at this particular "assignment" as they perceived it to be.

A number of them, I was sure, were feeling themselves on a very short rein. However, as I reconsidered my intentions, I realized I didn't want to abandon the book just yet. I felt the teachers were ready to try writing for an unknown public audience in order to experience how publication makes explicit the need for such writing conventions as spelling, grammar, punctuation, and text organization. (This wasn't, by the way, our first writing effort—we had already completed a number of short pieces and had compiled two class collections.) I thought about whether I was imposing my agenda on them, taking away ownership, limiting their choices, or whether I was putting them in a situation which would help them grow. I decided to let the task stand, realizing that time would tell If the teachers were able to find their way into some writing, I would have facilitated their exploration; if they simply compiled, if they wrote to placate me (and their writing would show that—it would have little vitality), then I'd have imposed my intentions and I'd have to deal with it later on.

Frank Smith (1981) discusses the problem of students' interpretation of teachers' intentions in his article "Demonstrations, Engagement and Sensitivity" He argues students are learning all the time but that what they could be learning may not be what we think we're teaching. My story is about just such a clash of interpretations. On the one hand, I thought I was extending an open invitation: "write about a teaching or learning incident that seems important to you and we'll see how the stories come together." The teachers, on the other hand, heard me saying "write on this topic." Not only that, I was making them feel extremely vulnerable because none of them had ever written anything for publication before. It took quite a while for the teachers to believe I was really just inviting them to explore; that it didn't matter whether we actually produced a publication, only that we wrote with that intention in mind. This incident helped me consider the kind of invitations I was extending to my students and how they might not be perceived as I was intending them.

Mary Jane Cadegan (1986), an elementary resource teacher, relates an incident with one of her students which helped her see the gap between her intentions and the student's perception of the situation.

Seven-year-old Jason began writing very long pieces which were remarkable for their strong voice, sophisticated language, and touches of humor. Jason was quite willing to revise for meaning and to insert sentence markers. He was also quite willing to circle words he recognized as misspelled. Unfortunately, this resulted in a page awash in circles because Jason knew the invented spellings he was using were not conventional. When faced with the prospect of making a "good" copy from the lengthy revised and edited version, he was overwhelmed. After laboring through two experiences, he turned 10 me one day and announced, "I think I'll start to write shorter stories." "Why?" I asked him. "Because I can't stand writing all this stuff again. It's too hard."

As she worked her way through this incident, Mary Jane was able to look at some of her assumptions about making what she called "a good copy." A part of her resource room activity involves having students reread their writing for any unconventional spelling. She would then help them with the conventional form, but in order to draw their attention to the conventional spelling of these words, she felt it was important for them to copy the corrected writing. What Jason helped her see was that, at least for him, her insistence on recopying his stories was leading him to choose to take fewer risks as a writer. She had to ask herself what was more important for his writing development at that point in time. She decided to support his growth as a storyteller rather than force attention to spelling. She did the recopying for several weeks, only drawing Jason back to that aspect of writing when she saw indications of his increased spelling proficiency.

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