Archive for September, 2011

The Art of the Lecture

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The most recent issue of Rutgers magazine (Rutgers being my alma mater for both undergrad and grad work) explores the art of lecturing in a cover story aptly titled “The Art of the Lecture.”  In the article, experienced professors talk about why lecturing is important, and what makes a lecture–standing in front of students and speaking for an extended period of time–great.

As a product of the “student-centered learning” era, I immediately flipped to this article instead of the class news section like I normally do.  You could say that my generation of educators came of age during this era in which teachers are supposed to be “guides on the side” instead of the “sages on stage”–a phrase one administrator actually used to describe his school’s teaching philosophy during one of my interviews.   We passionately agreed with the theoretical texts in our grad classes that promoted this idea.  We considered lecturing at the front of the classroom pedagogical poison.  We all wanted to be Nancie Atwell.  Telling students information was passe; no, we were in the era of inquiry.  And we still are, for better or worse.

I’m not denying the importance of the student’s role in his or her education.  I believe in active learning.  Sometimes, though, a topic calls for direct instruction, especially in the confines of the school year.  Say, for example, I’m teaching sonnets.  I could give the students three sonnets to analyze independently and have them derive their own lists of what makes a Shakespearean sonnet different from a Petrarchan sonnet different from a Spenserian sonnet–instead of just delivering the information myself.  If I took that approach for all of the material I’m supposed to cover, though, I’d never get through our curriculum.  As such, we need to find a way to combine lecture and self-directed discovery.

Perhaps the argument is that by the time students are in college, they should have the ability to absorb information via lecture.  Like any other skill, though, I’d think that’s an ability that develops over time.  So maybe there is room for both in our high school classrooms.  We’d have to come up with jargon as snappy as “guide on the side”… maybe Collaborative Inquiry?  Scaffolded Discovery?  Zone of Proximal Engagement?

I leave you with some tips from Rutgers professors on being an engaging lecturer:

- “I have a streak of red in my hair.  I try to embody a particular persona to break down boundaries to new opportunities of connecting with students.”  Robyn Rodriguez, Sociology
- “Students love anecdotes.  I use them all the time to explain things or support a point before resuming the lecture.” Deborah Gray White, History
-”It is important for the instructor to be the most energetic person in the classroom.  It can be contagious to be around somebody like that.” Daniel Ogilvie, Psychology
- “Summarizing a student’s observation or answer to a question is helpful, but… it’s bad when there is an atmosphere in which the professor is the only one who is authorized to say things that are credible.  Or that the credibility that anyone else gets is what is conferred by the professor.” Andy Egan, Philosophy
- “I can’t be self-conscious at all… I’m thinking only about the students in front of me, because my job is to communicate with them.  And it is a performance.  It is showtime.” Daniel Ogilvie, Psychology

A Modern Crucible

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I love listening to NPR’s Morning Edition on my drive to work in the morning.  Today, I was particularly interested in an interview with Aatish Taseer, an author whose latest novel, Noon, explores how a man living in India journeys to Pakistan to learn the truth about his biological father.  The book focuses in part on the violence stemming from blasphemy laws in Pakistan–laws that ensure punishment for those who express irreverence for religion.

Taseer’s description of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws remind me of the lessons Arthur Miller teaches us in The Crucible, one of the plays I teach high school students.  In the interview, Taseer says this law is “an absolute absurdity.  [You] and I could have a conversation, I could go to the court right after the conversation because perhaps there’s something you’ve said that I haven’t liked, and I say, ‘This man has committed blasphemy.’  Someone would come and arrest you.  What the law became was an instrument for a majority to oppress the minority.”

This runs parallel to what happened in Salem, Massachusetts–people were accused of witchcraft for personal and political reasons.  In one instance, an embittered woman, desperate for an explanation for why so many of her children died during birth, accuses the innocent midwife of witchcraft as reason for why her babies died.  A man hungry for more property conveniently accuses a prominent land-holder of witchcraft, knowing he’ll be able to buy the land should the owner be executed.  In the story, witchcraft becomes a convenient way to get rid of someone, to blame someone for your problems instead of dealing with them constructively.

The Crucible, first performed in 1953, isn’t the first example in literature and history of this kind of injustice.  It reflects 1692 Salem as well as Miller’s observations during the Red Scare.  Historically, this story has repeated itself, and as it continues to make headlines today, it makes me wonder:  when, if ever, will this lesson be learned?

Playing Favorites

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I am not a fan of “favorites” lists.  To maintain absolute, unwavering loyalty to certain books, music, or films seems absurd to me.  Just as we constantly change as people, so do our tastes.  I drink my coffee mostly black these days, a far cry from the four packets of sugar I used to take when I was in college.  Similarly, over the years, my humor has changed, my interests have diversified, and my love for poetry has developed substantially.  All this affects the kinds of things I like to read.

So I felt a little uncomfortable reading a recent Chapter & Verse blog post on the Christian Science Monitor:  The Top Ten Books of All Time.  125 writers submitted lists of their favorite books, and the top ten most repeated titles made the cut.  I have to wonder, though–do writers know more than the general public about what makes a book good?  Isn’t a book truly great when anyone can pick it up, read it, and be able to respond to it?

It also bothers me that the most recent book on the list was published in 1955.  Does this imply that great literature is limited to the past?  I believe that some books might be especially significant in a certain span of time, then take a backseat for a while to a different perspective.  Being timeless is great, but there’s also something to be said for being timely.

I can’t complain too much, though.  If you click the Virginia Woolf link on this page of the article and scroll down, you’ll find the article I published about a year ago, “Who’s Your Dead Mentor?”–in which I claim that learning from the dead is better than learning from the living.  I defend my flip flopping with the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:  ”Speak what you think today in hard words, and speak tomorrow what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.”

Your New Favorite Book

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You loved the blog, and now you’ll love the book.  Look out, literary world:  Fern Ronay has officially released her first book, Stop and Blog the Roses!  It’s part nonfiction, part gratitude journal, part calendar, 100% amazing.  Buy it here and start blogging the roses in your life.