Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Good Teacher

Last week, before class, a student of mine asked me what I thought made a good teacher. I didn't have a lot of time to explain, and he didn't seem to be asking me because he thought I wasn't a good teacher, so I rambled off some half-baked thoughts on teachers having individual expectations, goals and philosophies, but the question stayed with me well after the class ended.

I've been teaching for four full years now and have been evaluated by faculty members, at least, four times. Each time, my evaluations have come back with sparkling reviews, much to my satisfaction. But the reviews always read as though the evaluator is a little surprised, as if they didn't expect the kind of teaching-style I have. Sometimes my students seem surprised, as well.

My best teachers were the ones who challenged me individually. The ones who recognized that each student had a different skill level of ability and who taught to that individual, to that level. "You always want to teach to the smartest kid in the class," I've heard, and I think there's something to that, but there's also something inherently significant about teaching to every student, challenging them and making them think about the more difficult questions and issues in a way that allows them to connect to it and make the information not just relevant, but resonant.

Every time I go into a classroom, I have a set of notes that I want to address to the class. These notes touch on aspects of what was required of them in preparation for the class, but they go a few steps further and ask questions that get the students involved. Student involvement in my classroom is essential. I attempt to provide them with the tools they need (background info, definitions...etc.) in order for them to answer the questions thoughtfully. My lectures begin with the information, often I ask someone to talk a little about what the piece we read for class was about and as they summarize, I either add in moments that are important to what we've read or I ask other students to chime in if they think a detail or piece of the story is relevant, but unmentioned by the summarizer. Once we're done summarizing, I pose questions, point out analyses and points I'm not sure they would have recognized on a first read (and most students do not read a text more than one time before class) and guide them toward interpreting and analyzing the points in the piece. I encourage them to give their opinions, even though there's always one who totally misses the boat, but is incredibly devoted to his/her opinion on it--as uninformed and illogical as it might be--and encourage them to engage one another, respond to different opinions and use examples from the text.

In short, I don't overteach to them. I don't tell them what I think they should believe about the text, I just help them get there on their own and, when they stumble, I offer some guidance. Inevitably, the class becomes a lot about discussion, using the texts to support their opinions and relating relevant personal tales or examples from society to the text in order to gage a fuller understanding. In short, my classes teach and, ultimately, learn from themselves and I, as their teacher, act as a guide. My goal as a teacher is to help teach them how to fish instead of slapping that slippery, hooked sucker down before them while saying, "Here is the fish and this is what you should think and know about how we got to this fish."

It seems to be working so far. A good teacher, in my mind, is one who sharpens thinking skills, provides students with the ability to figure things out for themselves, encourages them to look closer if they only see the surface and to push their thinking beyond what seems obvious to the more complex thoughts and themes that lie beneath the surface. Some students get this early on and excel, often pushing the envelope even farther because they've perfected the pattern of thinking until there's nothing left to think about, but only a greater truth that feels present. Until there's really no other way they can see the text but as a representation of women's lib or historical documentation...etc. I push them to keep thinking until they've concluded something that is completely plausible, but, perhaps not always, the only possibility. My goal is to not only make them think well, but to accept that there are other possible answers to some situations and many ways of reaching those answers. My favorite is when a student says, "This might be really stretching it or reaching for straws, but..." and then they go on to say precisely what it is they were supposed to get out of the text. Their disclaimer is really a demonstration of them having leapt past some of the steps it took to get to the overall understanding while still reaching it. Eventually, they go back and take the time to go through all the steps to get there.

I'm not above relaying to my students a personal anecdote that can contribute to their understanding of a text. At times, when they look most confused, I launch into a tale about my own family or life, an opening that will allow them to understand the point of the text, then I liken that moral or purpose to the actual text. The conclusion and lesson is usually evident in my personal story, which allows them to see the point of the text more clearly. Sometimes it's about connecting the dots in a text, recognizing that all the words are there for a good reason, but they aren't all working toward the same goal all the time. Some points are aimed toward women's lib while others are geared toward justifying one's own life choices (in the text) and in even more cases, those points of reference overlap and do double the work.

Usually students take some time to get that they're expected to talk a lot in my classes, to understand that I'm not just going to give them the right answers, but expect them to figure stuff out on their own or with some help. We are four weeks or so into the semester and my students are growing more confident, asking more questions of the text (questions that are sometimes posed to the class or questions of clarity that only I, most likely, will know the answers to, given my close analysis, research and preparation before the lecture). They are starting to engage with one another, push one another's opinions and conclusions on the work and even choose patterns of logic from the pool amongst their peers that appeals and makes more sense to them than others. This is where it gets fun.

I'm not sure if I'm a good teacher or whether, at the end of the semester, my students feel like they know so much more than they did. But I think my goals in a classroom might be different than that. Sure I want them to remember the texts and the authors and the work we've read. Sure I want them to understand what issues from the texts are significant or why we keep reading the same texts over and understand that there are layers of reading and analysis...etc. The thing is, I don't want to give them everything, especially not mine or other scholars' conclusions about texts. I want to teach them how to wear down a path of logic to get to those conclusions themselves. I want to teach them to think.

I hope I'm a good teacher. I'm trying to emulate what I think a good teacher should be and do, but I guess I'll never really know. I do all the other things: the grading, the office hours, the emails and looking at continuous drafts. I make myself as available, helpful and understanding as I can without compromising my syllabus or expectations, like all my best, most memorable teachers did for me (Mr. Lyons, Mrs. Hickey, Dr. McGuiness, Dr. Leonard...) In the end, I think the best teachers are the ones that teach students how to fish...and that's the kind of teacher I try to be.

I just hope it works.

What traits and teaching styles did your best teachers have?


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Living Dead

This week has been "Doppelganger Week" over on the book of faces and you're supposed to upload a picture of a celebrity you've been told you look like to stand in as your profile pic all week. When I first saw this trend, I didn't think much of it. Like most facebook trends, I sort of just ignore them unless I feel as though the status-changing or something really matters. Around the election, for example, I was for it, even though I usually don't display my political leanings for the world (I grew up in a house where it was talked about constantly, but Mom taught us that it was sort of a private thing--who you were going to vote for--and didn't need to be displayed for the world). It's funny how these status changes are starting to become like forwarded emails. You get one saying "Here's a funny story. Now you have to send this along, too, to prove that you believe in the moral of this story and, if you don't, you'll die or have terrible luck...etc" or something to that extent. Now, it's more like "I love (fill in the blank) and I'm not afraid to say so. If you love (blank), as well, post this as your status for (x) amount of days!"...etc. You get my drift.

Last night, the question of doppelgangers came up at a get together Megan and I were at (pics to come). I hadn't thought too much of it until the conversation shifted in that direction, then I racked my memory for comments that began with "You look like..." For years, I didn't look like anyone and, in my childhood dreaminess, I believed that meant I might be meant for stardom: a unique face to light up the stage...or something like that, but then, around college, the comments started rolling in.

"Ya know. You look like that girl from that thriller, mystery movie. You know who I'm talking about...that girl?" I didn't typically know who they were talking about given that description, but eventually I came to learn it was none other than Ms. Ashley Judd. Not so bad, right? She's pretty beautiful and, while I don't see any resemblance, really, I'm happy to accept that I might have some similarity to her that I don't recognize. Our cheeks are different. Don't get me wrong, I have pretty enormous cheeks, but the bulk in Ashley's cheeks is set much higher than mine. Mine make my whole face round. Plus, her eyes are totally different. Not big and round, but narrower in shape. She has eyebrows and mine are barely noticeable. We've got similar colored hair, I suppose, but, for me, that's where the similarities end.

Most recently, a colleague of mine has been obsessed with calling me "Karen" after a character this actress played...

This would be Rashida Jones and the character would be Karen Filippelli from The Office. I'm not sure I really see that exactly either. We have similar hair/cuts and similar skin tone, but her nose is way better than mine (mine's a bit on the chunky side) and my face is definitely rounder while hers is more oval. I did start watching The Office to see what he was talking about, though, and have since had others make similar comments. I attribute the likeness to our clothes style--Karen Filippelli's and mine, that is. My husband has since agreed that it's not exactly Rashida Jones that I resemble, but Karen Filippelli.

But when the conversation turned to doppelgangers last night, it was inevitable that the person I've been likened to the most would come up. And she did, but in whispers and awkward asides to each other rather than aloud to me. I understood why no one wanted to state the obvious out loud, and at one point Megan cupped her hand over her mouth and said, "They think you look like that Brittany..."
Yes. This Brittany girl, God rest her soul. This, I can believe. We have a similar wideness at the end of our noses, like a triangle (only, in all fairness, mine is much fatter than hers). Our eyes are about the same shape and size, darker in the way hers are in this photo. We both smile...widely. A smile that takes up the better part of the southerly region of our faces. There are definite similarities and people used to say this all the time. Last night, however, no one really wanted to say it. At least not to my face.

When I posted the three above photos on Facebook today, the comments rolled in and the consensus was, in fact, that I looked most like Brittany Murphy. "Oh my gosh. You really do. You have similar eyes or smile or something..." "The healthy looking Brittany, not the coked up Brittany..." "I totally see it!" "It's true!"...and the comments poured in. I know. It's true. I've had students and friends claiming this about me for years, but now that Brittany is no longer alive, no one wants to say it out loud, as if I'm a walking apparition of the deceased and it might bode badly for me if they express our likenesses. Just think what it must be like for women who look even more like her than my vague likeness!?!

When I mentioned this eerie silence and awkward shifting that accompanied the conversation last night to Dustin, explained to him why no one wanted to say it out loud, he thought for a moment and finally said, "But what if someone looks like Marilyn Monroe? Or another long dead celebrity? Like Abe Lincoln or something? They're dead and people seem to be ok with that?"

While this is true, these specific celebrities died a long time ago. Their expiration dates have long since passed, whereas Brittany Murphy's is still so recent that, like two-days-past-the-expiration-day-milk, you can't really tell if it's ok to have or not...or, in this case, whether it's ok to liken a living person to a person that just died.

I say, why not? I looked like Brittany Murphy before she died and now I look like Brittany Murphy, who died. Just because she is no longer with us, it doesn't mean that an impending expiration date has been branded onto me. It's sad that she died, but even though I might share some similar physical traits that make us resemble one another, I'm not dead and I'm not Brittany Murphy. It's ok to say "Hey, you look like that Brittany girl..." but just keep in mind, you can say this out loud, to my face, because even if I do look a little bit like her, I'm not really her and our likeness won't jinx me.

I still think she was a beautiful girl and like to imagine our real likeness lies in the laughter and happiness we both seem to feel or share (though I hear at the end of her life, she wasn't quite as happy, but most people who worked with her claimed she was infectiously happy!). But, hey, I'll take Brittany Murphy as a doppelganger any day.

Rest in peace, Brit!