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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