March 24, 2007

ill-fated advice

I'm writing from class, which is kind of ridiculous. Then again, so is class.

The people facilitating a 3-hour workshop on working with English language learners for my grad school class are currently off on a tangent about how important constructivist learning and teaching are. Constructivist educational philosophy essentially is about people constructing and developing their own knowledge and integrating real-world situations with learning. It's great. It's how I'd like to teach. But there are two problems, both of them recently voiced by people in this gigantic lecture hall, both of them worse for people who are first-year teachers in disastrous schools.

1. I teach math, and there are specific mathematical concepts I need to teach. While math is everywhere, and I completely, 100% believe that students learn math much better if they see it as a formal way of writing the math that they already do in their lives, it's hard to come up with concrete applications that make everything make sense. Now, if I teach math for 5 years, I'll have a lot more; and there's no excuse for the crappiness of my area and perimeter lessons. But when people say, "Yeah, it's a lot of work, but it's worth it," you have to ask, "For whom? On what time scale?" For me, this week, it's not. I promise. Next week, maybe. Next year, definitely. In the long term, no question at all. But for my own sanity, I need to accept that this year I will teach many crappy lessons that don't fully lead to understanding. I wish I had fewer lessons focused on why it's important for me to teach that way, and more help figuring out exactly how to do that.

2. Another teacher pointed out that our students are mostly used to a mode of teaching that's all about direct instruction and transmitting information. When we try to have them construct their own knowledge, they're like, "You're not teaching!" Martin Haberman wrote about the pedagogy of poverty as a set of teaching methods that rewards rote compliance, but he also pointed out that it has benefits (in terms of safety and ease) for students, and that students often push teachers to use it by complying with the pedagogy of poverty and rebelling against anything else. It takes a while to dissolve this. In an environment in which other teachers are also asking students to question, challenge, and solve problems, that resistance goes away a lot faster. The whole school environment needs to be oriented around learning and problem-solving, not just one classroom. And not just because I'm lazy.

Also. Can I just say. Next person who says "frontloading", "scaffolding", or "differentiation" as if I'd never heard the words before gets a plastic fork in the eye.

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