Tuesday, May 29, 2012


As a teacher, I feel my role is always one of facilitation.  I cannot force anyone to learn, but I can definitely facilitate the process.

In the past couple of months, however, I've really had to rethink what facilitation is and how it works.

The modern definition of facilitate, from Dictionary.com, is

  1. to make easier or less difficult; help forward (an action, a process, etc.): Careful planning facilitates any kind of work.  
  2. to assist the progress of (a person).
Have you ever noticed that facilitating some groups is easier than facilitating others?  I have recently been working with students of all ages:  preschool, elementary, high school, and primarily retirees.  In the past as well, I often worked with very disparate groups: usually business people, graduate students, and elementary school students.  Each time I've noticed that even if we're covering the same ideas, the facilitation is wildly different.  I don't have to spend any time at all getting my little ones to laugh and have a good time, but getting some business people to perform a complete audit would be easier than getting them to smile.  Similarly, getting mature (read "over 18") to slow down is no problem, but getting a group under twelve to pause is barely possible.

But this last month or so, I have really been blessed to note how facilitating my retirees is actually more allowing them to facilitate me, which is when I realized that all of "my" best lessons have essentially followed this pattern. 

Put simply, I am an expert on the subject matter primarily--that is why I'm the teacher.  I am not, per se, an expert on the other aspects of life.  But my students are.  Often I facilitate best when I allow my students to shine, when I allow my students to exercise their own expertise while they are mastering their subject matter.  My facilitation is to find ways to make the subject matter applicable to them--to help them see how it fits into what they're doing and where they're going.  Sometimes that's not always possible entirely, but the fact that I have allowed them to demonstrate their prowess for me opens them to hearing what I have to say--and to trying out what I'm introducing.
Sometimes this hands-off facilitation feels a little like flying by the seat of my pants, but in reality it is planned in such a way that allows flexibility.  It anticipates expertise and then, with a small amount of thinking on one's feet, it matches one area of expertise with another.

Below is an example of facilitation when expertise matches content across three very disparate age groups:

For example, I may want to teach the rhythm of language.  If I have elementary students, I need to think for a minute about what their areas of expertise are and how the rhythm of language fits into it.  I remember the chants on the playground, common forms of teasing, and games/chants to pick who should start.  I prepare in my mind similar English games, and, if I know their songs well enough, match natural English words to some of their own rhythms.  When my young students come in, I ask them to demonstrate their games.  I let them go on for awhile.  I play with them.  Then I choose to teach them an easy English version.  I let them play with it.  I let them feel it out.  I invite them to change the words--all the while playing because they are experts at play--until they have felt a real connection and usefulness with this material.

What about rhythm of language for business people?  I have often had business people stage an argument on a topic of their choosing--first in their own language--and have other people pay attention to how each person interrupts, states their point, sympathizes, etc.  They note the natural rhythm.  Then we come up with some stock phrases for working into an argument ("But," "I don't think," I disagree," "I see, but...," "Don't you think...,"  "Oh," "No!"), and allow them to do it again, half in English and half in their home language.  Finally, we work on some actual content and do the whole argument in English.  They are sustained by the topic that they picked as well as by paying attention to the rules of interrupting and the rhythm of trading comments--an esteem issue that they are experts at navigating.

Finally, for my older group, well, we're not studying ESL, but rhythm of language has a lot to do with the writing that they're studying.  How do I make it relevant?  They're grandparents (not just generally, but most of the ones who would benefit from this lesson are literally writing for their grandchildren).  They are experts in lullabies and telling scary stories--both prime examples of rhythm of language.  We tune into this (ask for examples), remember this (allow them to share), let them spend time working with it (allow them to rewrite words or weave the and then transferring it to the paper).  When we get to the rewriting, I want to eventually turn them away from the typical topics of lullabies and focus them on an aspect of their lives.  Again, they are experts on babies, children, and grandchildren as well as accomplished lullaby-singers and campfire storytellers.  It's just a matter of harnessing this expertise and providing another outlet for it.

Friday, May 25, 2012

What if?

Sometimes I just wonder about our teaching practices, especially the ones I spend a great deal of time being on both sides of with very little peace about.

Reactions to "canonical" (used loosely here) knowledge are one of my biggest issues.  To me, canonical knowledge is defined as:
  1. The "traditional" take on the "traditional" works
  2. The ability to perform seemingly lower order levels of Bloom's taxonomy in such a way that we feel our own principles have been violated.
Cases in point--examples of part 1:
  • The Problem:  The necessity of teaching Shakespeare repeatedly in high school.  

    The Choice:  Sure, there's a ton of other great stuff out there. Yes, there is in fact literature from other ethnic groups that maybe should be represented in our classes and may have a little more bearing on our students lives than some of the more (ahem) antiquated English works.  I mean, yes, I still think we need Shakespeare.  In fact, I love Shakespeare.  But in a multicultural world, perhaps I would have benefited from another perspective. 

    The Rub:  I know I'm supposed to be preparing my students for further academic study and most further academic study requires understanding of Shakespeare, not Toni Morrison.
  • The Problem:  Teaching Newton and physics

    The Choice:  I could show quite a bit of evidence of other thinkers from China, India, and the Middle East.

    The Rub:  That material is not readily available to me, would require a lot of digging on my part and I might still not get it right, and, if the kids were ever tested, the Newton answer would be the one that was considered correct.
Cases in point--examples of part 2:
  • The Problem:  Teaching reading comprehension, particularly ESL, with a controversial text

    The Choice:  Usually reading comprehension books choose articles which take sides for a few reasons.  First, it's easier to gain interest from the student.  Second, it's easier to summarize.  Third, it clearly shows how to build an argument--even if the argument may not be unbiased.

    The Rub:  For students to show that they have understood, they have to repeat arguments with which they may vehemently disagree.  There is often no outlet to voice such disagreement.
  • The Problem:  Preparing students for reading comprehension on the SAT/PSAT

    The Choice: 
    I could encourage them to use what they already know as well as decompress the text for an in-depth reading, but both can backfire.

    The Rub:  Often these excerpts are chosen because they touch upon a common academic thread but may take an uncommon view on it.  Once again, students are asked what the author believes.  There is no outlet to say what they believe, no matter how problematic the information that they have just parroted is to them.

What if we asked for real reactions first?  What if we used Marshall Rosenberg's NVC outline of using specific observations, hooking them with feelings, looking for the needs that underlie the feelings, and then having a step to go (an academic step) before we tried to teach the "approved" view?

I still think that the approved view is important.  The canon is one of the elephants in the room.  I don't think that we can eliminate it, even if we only use it to help provide understanding of what must be overcome to move forward.  But perhaps showing a preference for the students' gut reactions and slowly funneling them into academic arguments would not only help in clearing the air so that they can understand the orthodox view.  It may also make them feel heard so that they do not feel hindered in repeating the orthodox view when asked.  And, most importantly, marshaling their feelings and views into an academic format may give them a chance to have those alternate views heard, effectively expressed, and hopefully incorporated into our future.
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