Saturday, May 14, 2011

Teaching and Facilitating

Darren at RightOnTheLeftCoast addresses the issue of "teaching" versus "facilitating learning." Here are my thoughts:

Years ago, when I agreed to take on a student teacher, I first heard the term "learner facilitator" from the college's education department chair who introduced candidates that way at a meet and greet. And I mocked the term endlessly after that. In the classroom, I have always been a traditional, classical instructor, and am wary of "foo foo" education.

In my high school honors freshman English classes, I spend 3/4 of the year instructing my students on how to study literature as high school students, rather than the middle school language arts focus of simply reading and commenting on stories. We learn to analyze language and literature by focusing of diction, syntax, tone, mode/genre, allusion, allegory, rhetorical strategies, as well as thematic analysis. We also develop skills of rhetorical analysis in our writing, focusing of modes of literary analysis, style analysis, and argumentation.

In the final quarter of the year, I literally use the terms "sage of the stage" and "guide on the side," as well as "teacher/learner facilitator" when I expect them to put into practice the skills they have learned during the year. With the final works of the year - pieces such as Old Man and the Sea and Beowulf - the responsibility is on them. They lead discussion, research the scholarly work, develop a research assignment, and prepare for the final evaluation of their skills. Of course, I am there for guidance and will not let them miss an idea or perpetuate a misinterpretation. But they really need to walk the walk and put skills into practice. And the evaluation is literally weeks long.

The focus is on skill, not content, and they must apply the skills to all content. So, there is a time and place for "facilitating learning" in the classroom. That is true for my students as they work toward the AP language exam where the content is a mystery and they must be able to apply the skills I have "taught" them to any content. My pass rate of 94%, with more than 3/4 of students receiving 4s and 5s, validates the success of this model.

That said, teaching or facilitating isn't really the point, as long as learning is happening. Thus, in the grand scheme of public education, "Best Practice" is really about whatever works.


abellia said...

I applaud your involving your students in their own learning and having them taking responsibility for exploring thoughts on their own. One of my kids is about to graduate from St. John's College (Santa Fe), where in general they take a more egalitarian approach to learning. Some kids take a while to "get it", but it seems a model worth further use.

On the down side (and not really on topic with your title), there are many (myself and my kids included) for whom detailed literary analysis absolutely kills the joy of an otherwise wonderful book. If your goal is to have students get good AP scores, then I guess you're succeeding. If the goal is to encourage students to love reading thoughtfully and writing persuasively and with beauty, you may be losing the war with more than you realize.


mazenko said...

There is a clear line between reading for pleasure and the study of literature. No English class/curriculum should be designed with the goal of "creating life-long lovers of reading." We can teach them to "appreciate literature," but not to love it. No math teacher is tasked with making students "love" the "joy" of a "wonderful algorithm." No social studies teachers is expected to pursue the goal of "loving" the timeline of the Civil War. No science teacher is expecting "love" for the beauty of a graph or chemical reaction.

English classes are about developing literacy and critical thinking skills - not developing hobbies. Simply because there is an "artistic quality" to the content, does not mean that "loving" the art is the purpose of the class. That goal is not at odds with helping them develop the skills to "write persuasively and with beauty." I can do that outside of any literature - that skill can be done by responding to a quote or a picture. Literary analysis is not about the "joy of a wonderful book" -it's about understanding important societal themes and appreciating effective use of language.

abellia said...

Oh, I get to disagree here. If a calculus teacher doesn't help students to see the beauty of, say, the Fundamental Theorem, they have failed, even if a student can quote the theorem verbatim. A history teacher who doesn't go beyond timelines to encourage students to see how history is relevant to today's society, and perhaps to appreciate the way in which societies have changed, has failed.
A chemistry teacher that doesn't impart a little of the magic of the atom and molecular interactions has failed as well.

One can't MAKE a student appreciate the beauty or the world of ideas, but they can present things in a way that makes the interesting bits, well, interesting.

I can love reading Stegner, Harper Lee, Robert Penn Warren, Faulkner, etc. without analyzing tone, allusion or rhetorical strategies. If those elements of literature come up in the process of discussing such works, so be it, but one doesn't have to go looking in order to learn and appreciate great works of literature. If one is unwilling to discuss the big ideas, and instead focuses on minutia, you can miss exploring the beauty of beautiful works - at least for some.

mazenko said...

You can disagree ... but you'd be wrong. :-)

Note the focus on language - you use the words "see" and "appreciate," and those are my focus as well. We can teach to understand, connect, appreciate, see - but we cannot and should not make someone "love" or feel "passion" for these issues and subjects.

And the teacher has not "failed" if a student isn't turned on by material. Even Jaime Escalante wasn't getting through to all students. I'm a pretty dynamic, engaging, and mighty effective teacher. But not every kid loves or even cares what I have to say.

And, again, teaching English literature is not only about the big interesting themes. That's what book clubs are for. English teachers certainly develop the themes, and in many ways, great novels serve as "character education." However, the study of English is about the study of language. And if you don't analyze the specifics of language, kids will find it very easy to read a summary, or listen to comments, and discuss the ideas without ever actually engaging with the language.

The English classroom is my specialty - and the focus is on the study of language and recognizing literature as a record of the human experience. You can't do one well without doing the other.

abellia said...

Not to beat a dead horse, but I'm not sure I understand what you think that real goal of your teaching is. What does "engaging with the language" mean?

I know that you won't reach every kid. But if your goal isn't to make the beauty and interest in the world more accessible to those who are receptive, why bother?

I think that your point is that the details of the language of literature that are analyzed is inextricably linked to the work itself. I won't disagree. But why does that it mean that it needs to be studied on its own? What benefit accrues those who study those facets of literature? If the answer is an improved appreciation of the work, then I can't really quibble, but you still need to understand that for many, such analyses TAKE AWAY from the innate beauty of the the work, and to me that's sad.