Stop talking, start looking, and share what you know

by Mr. Sheehy

This afternoon I was crafting the opening activity to my juniors’ unit on The Crucible – a process that in itself is always a bit amusing. I always begin by thinking, “What would I like to tell my students about this author?” And then when the reality of talking to my students for more than three minutes in a row hits me – three minutes where I’m not giving instructions for an activity – I change my mind and invent a new beginning to the unit. I love speaking in front of groups, possibly because I’m fairly good at it, but I have to admit it’s not the speaking that I love, it’s the communication. So when I talk to students who aren’t listening, the communication dynamic doesn’t exist; the only thing is me speaking. What’s the fun in that?

Take last week. At one point during an interactive activity concerning Faulkner’s story, “A Rose for Emily,” I was trying to explain the symbolism of the character Emily. My comments came as an answer to a student’s question. I was sitting in the desks with my students – a tiny class of juniors, and my comment was conversational, a “just one of the group” moment. The problem was that halfway through my explanation, I noticed that a few students had begun a silent bickering with one another – the one at the board serving as our recorder and a couple students in the seats were the perpetrators. I stopped talking mid-sentence . . . and no one noticed.

Now I am capable of controlling the room and insisting upon silence, but this activity was not the place. This was a conversation, and since no one was interested in listening, I stopped talking. Why fill the air with more carbon dioxide?

I was not offended particularly – if I could be damaged by such an incident I would be in another profession – but such incidents and other less dramatic moments are ones I do recall and are why I don’t seek to talk much to my students, as a group. Even if I rule over them and insist on rigid attention, the product is more like the image of Jack Sparrow in the cannibal kingdom – back ramrod straight, eyes apparently open, but in reality, sound asleep. I can’t find the learning in that, and so I don’t look.

With such thoughts in my head I explored the web for resources on The Crucible and Arthur Miller, determining to make students read through them and tell me what they should know about Arthur Miller – after all, I’m the good listener, why shouldn’t I put myself in the spot where I’m good and put them in the spot where they’re good? They talk, I listen.

Even when I don’t use that teaching strategy I like to assemble a resource page for authors and works as we read them, so I tend to burn at least two hours at the beginning of each unit of this type looking for some ripe fruit. I’m not ashamed of the way I spend those two hours, even though I know it’s a long time, because I am usually rewarded by the search.

How can’t I find some fruit? This web is so overwhelmingly big that if you look long enough, you’ll probably find just what you need. I found what I needed today at the one hour mark. I had been rummaging through National Public Radio’s stories on Arthur Miller and I discovered a link to web resources on his plays.

I need to interrupt myself here to say that teachers of high school students should pay serious attention to NPR.org – every story they do is archived there, and no matter what author I’m studying I almost always find something interesting – the kind of resource that can break the flow of typical presentation style. Plus, the information is what you’d expect from a multi-million dollar, classy news organization.

Returning to the web discovery, one subtle link on this unexciting looking page referenced a handout/guide produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This handout is a gorgeous 14 page guide to the play and Arthur Miller, complete with a picture-driven character guide.

Sure, I had spent an hour clicking around on random stuff, but when I found this guide, I had found something that will likely benefit me and my colleagues for years. That’s time I’ll spend. I quickly announced my discovery to anyone nearby and when one fellow American Literature teacher asked to see it, I ran to our department wiki, described the guide, and provided a link to download it. I then emailed my colleague a link to the wiki, building the use of that collaborative tool into our normal exchange. Hopefully she can add some of the resources she has to the same page – and then next year neither of us will have to spend two hours searching for basic resources. Or, then again, maybe we will; I didn’t have to do it this year. Either way, we’ll begin with more knowledge than each of us possessed alone at the beginning of the unit this year.

That’s the layout of the planning period, but here’s what it contained: a fairly talented presenter has quit lecturing because it doesn’t seem to engender learning in the subjects; a seemingly pointless search across the web to assemble resources for students led to the discovery of a wonderful resource; a simple exchange between colleagues was formalized and recorded in a way that provides better exchange and building of knowledge.

It’s not how I expected teaching to be. But it’s better.

Thanks for reading.

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  • Original image: ‘listen closely‘ by: Laura Billings
  • Original image: ‘bicycle‘ by: Brian Yap (葉)
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