Saturday, October 11, 2008

Being Subversive

One of the first books I purchased as a grad student at UC Berkeley was Postman and Weingartner's Teaching as a Subversive Activity. It was in the fall of 1972, and my cohort of education graduate students had not only survived the late 60s, we were ready to take the reins, get in the classroom and begin to subvert the dominant paradigm.
We cut our teaching chops on Postman and Weingartner's main ideas. Here are the things outstanding teachers do:

They avoid telling students what they “ought to know”.
They talk to students mostly by questioning, and especially by asking divergent questions.
They do not accept short, simple answers to questions.
They encourage students to interact directly with one another, and avoid judging what is said in student interactions.
They do not summarize students’ discussion.
They do not plan the exact direction of their lessons in advance, and allow it to develop in response to students’ interests.
Their lessons pose problems to students.
They gauge their success by change in students’ inquiry behaviors (with the above characteristics of “good learners” as a goal).

Today, given the oppressive nature of so called "school reform," this book and these ideas are enjoying a resurgence. Not surprising. I found myself referencing Teaching as a Subversive Activity in a recent meeting with one of the student teachers I am now mentoring. It's so difficult for teachers to find themselves in the classroom with constant criticism, continual questioning, outright bashing, and the copious barrage of verbiage that passes for constructive analysis of what, when, where, and how all this effective teaching should be done.
One of the benefits of my 33 years in the profession is that I have the perspective of time. Many of my former students have gone into teaching; that says something. Many have kept in touch, certainly not enough to ay anything with any degree of certainty. Now and again there are surprises.
Last week I received a letter from a student I had in two classes 15 years ago. I will protect her identity, but include most of what she wrote here:

Hi Mr. Greene~

I have often wanted to send you a thank-you note for the incredible experience I had with you as a student at El Cerrito High School. I just cannot tell you how many times, and in how many ways, your class has helped me in the 15 years since leaving high school. Your passion for teaching, your ability to expose your students to your rich perspectives without seeming overbearing or condescending, is a true gift bestowed on all of us who were fortunate enough to learn under your guidance. I still vividly remember the amazing, albeit sometimes obscure, books, the fishbowls, the posters and music… and I could go on and on. You truly opened my eyes while feeding and encouraging my curiosity. I really credit the experiences in your classes for making me a deeper, more critical, thinker and a person willing to stand up for what I believe in.

This is not my best piece of writing and it probably does not adequately express my gratitude. I really just want you to know that you have left a lasting impression on me and I am so lucky to have had you as a guide.

I hope all is well and that life has been good to you.

Take care,

To be sure, I am flattered, proud, and humbled. What matters most is that this note came out of the blue. I know I made mistakes, wasn't always as professional as I might have been, and, at times, could have been more self-reflective or less didactic. Yet, I know that much of what teachers do is like planting seeds. We rarely get to see them grow. When we do we begin to learn the most about what and why we teach.

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