As a teacher in a Chinese university who doesn't care that the government here blocks Facebook, because I don't like Facebook, anyway, I often send mass emails back to my friends in the states so they know what I'm up to.
After dispatching my most recent such message, I took a second look at it and realized that it actually had something to say about the importance of pedagogy in guiding political solutions to educational problems back home in the states. You know, unless we can somehow agree on what should happen in the classroom, we haven't a prayer of agreeing about what political / policy actions we can take to help education. And believe me, political / policy actions can have a decisive impact on what happens in classrooms.
I began by lamenting the passing of Elliot Charnow, a master teacher and one of the major mentors I've had in my life over the years. I wonder if such a truly exceptional teacher would have a place in the coming decades of high-stakes test determined education in America.
One of my best teachers ever, maybe THE best teacher, died last weekend. That was Elliot Charnow, known back in the day as "EC" (pronounced as, but never punctuated as, "E. C.").
For all four of my high school years in California, he was my concert band, marching band, orchestra, pit orchestra, and jazz band teacher. He was only 68 this year, but a lifetime of smoking had exacted its price, and several suffering years of emphysema finally drew to their inevitable conclusion.
Always the consummate gentleman, whether suited or turtle-necked, the worst name I ever heard him call anybody was "hamburger." Second worst was "hot dog," though I think some of the kids learned to act up in band just enough (but no more than enough) to bask in the pleasure of earning that appellation. If he ever referred to you as a "cat," that was a compliment already delivered.
Messages about his life have been piling on through email mass mailings and (I've inferred) Facebook conversations. One that I recently read touted his love of music, and ventured that his ability to convey that love made him a great teacher. This is, of course, correct.
But I think that he loved teaching and creating communities among young people even more than he loved music. A few years after he taught us in high school, he moved on to our local junior college, where he quickly rose into the administration, but continued to conduct musical groups, particularly youth groups, throughout his career.
And there has not been a teaching week gone by during these last thirty years that I haven't considered his example. Even though I myself have taught almost everything BUT music, I have consistently asked myself "What would Charnow do?" regardless of the subject matter or age level that I was dealing with.
One of the many things that made his teaching great was his attention to detail, coupled with an acceptance of the idea that kids, even older kids like ourselves, sometimes needed help doing things that you'd think we'd have figured out long before reaching that age. This willingness to address such "simpleton" issues, while common among primary school teachers, becomes less frequent, the further one passes through the grade levels.
Some of these issues were musical "common sense" things, like what to do with a note once you've started it, and where does it actually end, anyway?
However, I also remember our jazz band rehearsing how to walk and sit - how to get onto the stage and stay seated properly and professionally. At the time, practicing those things didn't seem worth the trouble, but nobody objected because 1) the fact that it was him asking added a certain coolness to doing it, and 2) there was no point in arguing with him about things like that, anyway.
Looking back on it now, I can see that such walking practice was all part of a whole, and just as critical to winning all those awards (which he somehow wrung out of us) as was the proper tuning of the instruments.
It's his love of community and that willingness to address those little "common sense" things that most frequently come to mind when I'm here in China teaching spoken English, because students here, though as bright as any other group of students in the world, often lack the "common sense" self-direction they need to develop their minds and to work together with others.
This failing, I think, is the product of a school system completely driven by high stakes testing, which rates not only the students, but also the high schools and middle schools which educate them, and narrows the curriculum to focus on those skills that will best produce those high test scores.
And if all that sounds somehow familiar to you, then I would invite you to visit China for a preview of what our own American students are headed for, a generation or two from now, after the execrable "No Child Left Behind Act," and it's equally loathsome successor, the "Race to the Top," have worked their full effect.
It's not that students here don't study. They do. A lot. With dorm rooms generally unsuitable for learning, they invade unused classrooms. And in fact, a chart on the ground floor of each building displays which rooms are available as study halls. Students pack themselves into those rooms, as silent bodies, immobile save for the occasional writing hand, or voiceless recitation. Each individual represents a solitary soul enclosed away from the surrounding population.
And even within a dorm, students often don't acknowledge each other. One of my students recently missed the class session where we practiced giving academic presentations to five different people. I asked her to do the same activity outside of class sometime during the following week. When I saw her next, she'd only presented to three other people. Why not five? Well, she only had three roommates. Once outside the door of their room, everybody else was a stranger.
Yesterday I talked to another wayward student, who had missed three class sessions, the most of any student in his section, only two absences away from a mandatory failing grade, according to our departmental guidelines. Actually, such laxness is a bit surprising, since he's someone with decent English skills who's hoping to use them to study abroad someday. So I spoke with him about it.
He was genuinely shocked. "It's hard to come here every week because I have so many classes!" he exclaimed, obviously assuming I'd know what he meant. When I started giving him some options for ways that he could make up the missing English class sessions, though, he realized that I just didn't get it.
"I mean, I attend this class much more than most," he explained. "I've got twelve classes each week (and Hermione Granger thought SHE was so great . .. ), so I usually only have time to attend three or four of them."
So what's he doing instead of going to class? It could be that he's simply playing computer games in his dorm room, or playing ping pong on a table set up outside somebody's lab. But I think he's probably sitting inside that lab, or in a study hall, studying. He probably figures that even if the professor is a gifted communicator, it doesn't guarantee he'll address what's on the test. And it's the test, and not the teaching, and not the classes, and certainly not the other students, that counts.
So, by taking twelve classes the first semester, and none the second semester, he can free up enough time in the spring to take advantage of opportunities for internships in businesses or far-flung academic projects that may come his way. It's all quite rational, really, and also indicates that he himself understands and is truly seeking out a better way of educating himself. I hadn't the heart to tell him that he'd be enrolled for the second half of the English course next semester.
It's my hope, though, that my class sessions are worth the students' while, which is why I try very hard to offer experiences that they're not going to get any other way, starting with getting to know their classmates, and helping them to understand that they themselves are each other's most valuable allies in learning, and showing them ways that they can help each other - common sense things, really, that some might think they'd have learned by now -- things that primary school teachers know all about, as do outstanding secondary school teachers such as Elliot Charnow.
Actually, I wrote down a list of guidelines that I use in planning my classes, to help me keep those goals in mind, which I'll append to the end of this message.
But really, sometimes it simply comes down to practicing how to walk and sit.
For example, a few weeks ago, I had the students give the above-mentioned academic presentations to five of their fellow classmates. They were allowed no scripts, but were required to have an organized vocabulary map and a set of pictures to accompany it. The point of the exercise was not simply to practice something five times, but to develop the presentation from one iteration to the next. Later, I asked the students to look back and consider how their presentations had changed from the first time to the last time.
I had one logistical problem to solve - how to organize the students so that everyone would find five different partners, without wasting time locating the next one. Well, my classroom this semester has movable desks and chairs, which itself is something of a miracle in Chinese higher education. The chairs in that room are normally arranged in four rows, so I simply had the first and third rows turn their desks around to face their neighbors behind them, and those would be their first partners. This, of course, is the sort of thing that American elementary school teachers do all the time.
Then, at the end of the first presentation, I asked the students in rows two and three to simply move to the next seat to find their next partner. The students at the ends of those rows would, of course, switch to the other row to find their partners, and then, when the next round of presentations was complete, we'd all change seats in the same direction again.
To ensure that this transition happened smoothly, I drew a class map with circles and arrows to illustrate the movements (which I've not reprinted here, since I don't know how to embed images). I've used many such maps during the semester, so the students by that time were used to seeing them. And I myself stood in the middle of the class, pointing and gesturing where to move. And yet, with all that, many of the students just didn't get it. They'd move against the flow of the other students, they'd wander into the other row, or they'd just sit there wide-eyed, like they were caught in somebody's headlights or something. I'd have to individually point to their seats just to get them to move there.
And the next time we switched seats, some still didn't get it, and even after the third or fourth time, the students sitting at the ends sometimes got lost. And it was at that point, that I noticed that some of the desks I had asked to have turned around never had been. So the chairs couldn't slide underneath. The students, though, just sat there, unable to put their feet under the desk, but not complaining about it, either.
Now, mind you, these are talented engineering students who can correctly apply mathematical derivatives and half-derivatives, as well as complex sums and integrations and matrix multiplications, all of which most of the people reading this message (including me) haven't a prayer of pulling off. So why couldn't they follow a simple direction given slowly in a simple vocabulary that they could all understand, with accompanying gestures and diagrams? And why didn't those who DID understand take the lead in helping their wayward neighbors?
Because no one had ever asked them to do such things before in a system where nothing but test scores mattered. So it was like a blind spot to them.
And yet, understanding the relationships between such charts and the real world, and understanding how to organize oneself within a group, as well as understanding how repetitions of a task can serve to develop that task, and not simply to practice it, are all essential. They not only serve as models for developing English skills, they serve as models for developing ANY academic skill in a self-directed manner.
So when dealing with those sorts of details, and with developing some sense of community among the students here, I often think of Elliot Charnow. I ask myself what he would do, how he would break the task down, and how he would help the students to feel caught up in something cool that they themselves had produced. In fact, I often wonder what magic he would be able to work, were he personally present here in China, something that, sadly, is nor longer a possibility. This weekend, his memorial service will take place in Placerville, but I'll be unable to attend.
On the other hand, I hope that, even if in some imperfect way, I am able to represent him, so that in some sense, even if the subject is not music, I can nevertheless bring to my students some of the same sense of wonder, responsibility, and accomplishment that he brought to so many of us, so long ago.
And I also hope and pray that high stakes testing does not destroy our young people's common sense, the way it has here in China.
After reading this note, one of my friends sent me the following link from the New York Times, which basically expresses the same message as I have. I hope, though, that this message of mine has filled in a few more of the explanations as to how high stakes testing can destroy a student's real education.
Oh - almost forgot - my appendix of teaching goals - added at the end of the message since most people probably wouldn't be interested in reading them. Not all are applicable to every situation (though that is the ideal), and I may have left a couple of them out.
These are the principles upon which to build the class:
● Project production will be the centerpiece of instruction. Since it’s a workshop-type task, a workshop-type organization of instruction is the most appropriate form for instruction to take.
● ergo: The teacher should demonstrate his own work as an example of how to do assignments, and don’t ask them to do anything that he himself wouldn’t find valuable / enjoyable
● ergo: Use the intelligence in the room. That is, thirty students are always smarter than one teacher. Much smarter.
● ergo: The homework assignments should be of genuine use the to students. i.e. it doesn’t matter as much to the teacher that they get done as it should matter to the students themselves.
● Along that line, the consequences of not having one’s homework should be immediate - i.e. the students without homework will find it harder to use their homework to participate in the classroom activity of that day.
● Also along that line, the teacher should also do all homework assignments himself to see how valuable they really are.
● Homework should be assigned each week and due the following week.
● Homework is not collected, but checked at the time it’s due (usually at the very beginning of the next lesson). It can’t be collected because the students will need their homework to proceed further.
● Aim for the more skilled members of the class and let the less skilled catch up to them.
● On the other hand, a certain amount of redundancy needs to be built in, so that newer learners have a better chance of understanding, while old hands have a chance to deepen their language practice.
● Don’t hesitate to assign tasks (such as homework) because of fears that some students might cheat or copy. At some point, one has to trust the students, and I’ve found that the vast majority are honest and honorable.
● Written homework assignments should always be done by hand, not by computer. And there should be a defensible reason for hand-drawn and hand-written homework other than the teacher making it harder to cut and paste from the Internet.
● The teacher should not waste his time doing things that the Crazy English guy on television does better, anyway. If the students mainly need such things, maybe it would be better to let them watch television rather than attend class.
● Since the teacher is modeling a creative process for the students, he needs to take a certain amount of risk in what he’s doing. It may be, then, that some of the lessons will be complete failures, but it’s still better to try new things than not to.