How to Think

May 17, 2012

I am a few days away from the end of my fifth year of teaching. More importantly, to me, I am in the process of wrapping up my first group of advanced writing classes.

The best teacher I have ever had was a man named Robert Milder at Washington University. I took three classes with him and I always felt pushed to my potential. In one of these classes he told the class the single most important thing a future teacher can be told (though I did not know, at the time, that I would be a teacher). He said, “It is not my job to teach you what to think. It is my job to teach you how to think.”

So much of teaching right now is of the “what to think” variety. Many students come to high school knowing very little and virtually all schools are focused on having students do well on a standardized test. It doesn’t leave much room for trial and error. In fact, many students come to me completely unwilling to offer an opinion. They have been taught to wait for the right answer to come to them from a teacher and then to parrot it back at the appropriate time. Still, sometimes we manage to have a good, critical discussion. It just doesn’t happen very often.

This year – this last trimester, really – has been very different for me.

Last summer, when I started working on the curriculum for these writing classes, I knew right away that I wanted to expose them to as much contemporary writing as possible and that I wanted the class to be largely workshop-focused because, if they take writing classes in college, this is what they are going to see. They need to have read good literature that is younger than they are. They need to know how to workshop and how to analyze an unfinished piece of writing.

One of my classes hit the ground running. There were some good, talkative kids in there who had a sense of what they were talking about and things went really well. My other class struggled. Discussion was often maddeningly short, but they were quiet and stubborn. I talked a lot in that class because they were missing so many things that I felt needed to be talked about. This was disheartening because my goal, really, was to barely talk at all.

What they heard when I talked was just me workshopping a piece like I would if I were student in the class (though, perhaps a bit gentler), but it had some kind of effect because now that class has pretty much caught up to the other class. And it’s not that they’re saying exactly what I want them to say – they don’t – it’s that they are thinking and coming up with good points and sometimes catching things that I missed. The level of discussion is so much better than it was at the beginning. What they are saying shows an entirely different kind of thinking than they had at the beginning of class.

And, for once, I feel like I’ve done what I set out to do.

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