This Thursday, I asked five educators to bring a sample of their writing to a professional development session so that we could do some writing exercises.  I gave them a handout on passive verbs and another on the 19 most common grammatical errors, and started by asking them to circle their passive verbs and change the sentences.  When I introduced this exercise, I was as careful and gentle as I am with students:  with students, I do not want to further injure their already low confidence.  With educators, I must guard their egos.   So I told people to take their time, to ask me for help, that whatever work they produced was perfect.  Several people, including a man who has challenged me frequently in the past, could not change their sentences.  We discussed it briefly, and then moved on to identifying subjects and verbs, and then identifying clauses.  Again, people struggled.  Again, I gently encouraged, made corrections, joked a bit.  But as people started to gather their papers to leave (probably with a good amount of relief), I said, imagine how our students feel.

THE PROBLEM

Imagine how our students, who have been failed again and again by an educational system that sees them as numbers and teachers who fear to roll up their sleeves and interact with them, feel.  Teaching is not supposed to instill fear, shame, or humiliation.  Students are not supposed to learn alone, or never make mistakes, or fear that making a mistake will lead to humilation.  But too often, that is exactly what education means.  Too often, a well meaning teacher brings in a worksheet, passes it out, and tells students to follow the directions.  But often, there is never interplay, room for error, or freedom from fear.

THE SOLUTION

When I teach someone something, I create an organized, structured, exercise.  I tell students what and why we are doing something:   Sometimes I use what others have done, sometimes I make it up.  I know if I want students to learn, I must immerse them in an experience.  I do not say, fix your passive verbs.  I discuss how changing passive verbs can enliven writing and eliminate error.  I do some examples from the students own work, showing them that I too fumble and need to think and scratch out words to do the exercise.  Then I ask them to try, and walk around, and help people when and where they are stuck.

To do all this, I need to ensure students feel safe–no safety, no learning.  This is done with my body language, the words I use, allowing mistakes without penalty, and assuming that my students are trying as hard as they can.  Students respond to safety.  Students respond to praise.  Students respond to someone saying, see, look what you did here!  That’s great!  Now apply what you did to that sentence to this sentence.   Students respond to questions:  so who or what is the actor?  If you are writing, hip hop artists are doomed, who or what is dooming them?  Oh, the desire for material wealth?  Ok, so try that:  the desire for material wealth dooms hip hop artists.  This exchange is gentle, kind, but passionate and engaged too–and students need and deserve our full engagement with them.

THE REASON

When I show patience, kindness, enthusiasm, encouragement and passion, students learn, and find learning relates to what they need to know.  The magic ingredient of teaching is not knowledge although knowledge is critical.  It is not organization although this too is critical.   It is to judge all students as deserving of respect and caring, and giving it to them, day by day, in my interactions with them.

Although I am gentle with students, I am not adverse to asking hard questions or pushing against resistance.  But if a student resists, I don’t force my way through it; I address that instead.  Why do you hate writing?  Who told you you could not write?  Just this week, a resisting student related she had been held back in 3rd grade because her 3rd grade teacher would not help her write well, and she has hated writing and resisted ever since.  So I suggested she write a letter to that teacher, expressing all the fury and rage and humiliation she felt, and then burn it.  Or show it to me.  So then, we could get on with the business of learning writing.

I think this strategy is similar to Japanese philosophy:  the rod breaks while the reed bends.  I try to be the reed, but to never, ever, be the teacher who simply surrenders on a student.

No one taught me to be this way.  Honestly, I do not know why I am this way.  But it is my best trait as a teacher, and I dearly wish all teachers had this.  It seems the great ones do.  My tutors, for example, in their very different styles, show this same level of engagement and caring–whether through joking, prodding, passion, fury on behalf of a student because of a knuckle-headed teacher, intensity, or force of personality, have created what some would deem miracles of learning.

But we know better:  we know it is the engagement with our students wherever they are that leads to trust, and trust leads to learning.  It is ineffable, this quality, and shows many faces:  but the results are always the same–smiling, encouraged students who have learned something today.

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