Thursday, September 19, 2013

How to be a better teacher than Miss Perkins (it's not hard)

by Anne White

I discovered a short story, "Against the Odds" by Martin Gardner, in his book Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?  It was first published in the College Mathematics Journal in 2001, but (according to this summary and the Amazon linkBlackberries is the only other place you're going to find it.  I found my copy at the thrift store, but you might check the library.

The plot is almost too predictable, too simple.  Luther Washington is a young African-American boy (so he is described), around 1960, who has a gift for abstract mathematics.  He runs up against a female (white) teacher who doesn't know much more math than her students do and thinks he's just showing off.  Luckily, he eventually gets (more or less) sent to the principal, who does know something about math, and who puts the boy on the road to a college scholarship.  Ten years later, after earning his Ph.D., Luther wins a major mathematics prize.  The teacher, now retired and married to the basketball coach, doesn't recognize the newspaper photo of her former student but mumbles something about "affirmative action."

The story raised some questions for me, besides obvious ones like "could that ever happen?" Actually, that could be taken either way, as that summary points out: the first part of the story certainly could happen.  It is depressingly realistic about ignorance in teaching that kills the desire to learn.  The second part is, of course, a fantasy, a wonderful Cinderella solution, but one that probably doesn't happen often.  It's nice to see Luther's career success, but it's just a bit of luck, really, that he suddenly gets noticed by the right people, and doesn't have to bury his dreams.

It's with the earlier part of the story that we, as parents and educators, need to concern ourselves.  We can even ignore the question of racial prejudice to some extent, though it is largely what keeps Miss Perkins from seeing Luther's brilliance.  But based on the description of the teacher's limitations (an American-history major who got stuck teaching math), is it likely that she would have been more accommodating of a white student whose talent for math surpassed her own?  Would she have been more accepting of a student who showed great aptitude for American history, or would she have been as narrow-minded about the correct response to questions in history and government?  Is it not also something of a stereotype to assume that an American-history major would not recognize vectors, or that she would be so uninterested in her own teaching subject, however accidentally acquired, that she wouldn't go the library that night, or phone up a colleague, and find out what that confounded boy was talking about?  Or ask him to stay after school and show her how his proof worked?  That's what you'd do, isn't it?

Well, you and I aren't Miss Perkins.  She may be a Dickensian stereotype (especially in the "devout Baptist" part), but she's got enough truth in her to make it worrisome.  Stories pop up in the media about teachers who can't spell, can't punctuate, and yes, can't do math.  More stories come up about families who turn to homeschooling after encountering their own version of Miss Perkins. We know there are problems in the public school system.  We know there are bad teachers.  We know that exceptional learners of all kinds, including gifted students, often get shortchanged by "the system." What does all that have to do with Charlotte Mason?

Just one, maybe two things.  Miss Perkins might seem to be mostly racially motivated, but as teacher-detectives we need to look at what else is going on. Stick with me, class...who can tell what educational principles Miss Perkins violated?  What was her biggest mistake?  Pride?  Sloth?  Misuse of authority?  Not recognizing Luther as a born person?  Not giving him the respect due to his personality?  Messing with Luther's desire for knowledge?  Stomping on his living ideas?  Putting all the stress on the idea of the teacher having to put information into the student's head, instead of recognizing that he could figure things out aside from her?  Thinking that if she didn't know something, there was no way that a teenager (let alone a minority-group teenager) could know it?  (It's always a temptation to think "I can't learn anything from this person, because I'm X and he's Y.")  Ignoring the Gospel command (quoted by Charlotte Mason) to "Take heed that ye offend not--despise not--hinder not--one of these little ones?" All of the above?

I think that list covers most of her educational sins, but there's one other point, and perhaps it is a greater problem for some of us...who are, like Miss Perkins, teaching outside of our own fields, or without any "official" teacher training.  Yes, we have wonderful educational resources to draw on; even "scripted" ones that practically guarantee teaching success without having to have deep knowledge of a subject.

And there's the problem.  We are not teaching machines, any more than our students are learning machines.  What kills learning for the student goes double for us, even if we have such thought-out-in-every-way materials that we can now teach on auto-pilot.  Especially if we have such materials.  Charlotte Mason did not approve of too-elaborate manipulatives and models for students; and, by the same token, she would probably not care for lessons that don't let any unscripted learning sneak in.  Especially lessons that go so far as telling us what we, as well as the students, are to think.

If Miss Perkins seemed determined to shut down Luther's learning, it appears that she had already shut down her own. (Ignorance breeds intolerance?)  Her teaching had been reduced to one-lesson-at-a-time, and please don't ask me any questions that might make me look foolish or take us five minutes over the time limit.  This is what this lesson's about, this is how you do it, and this is the right answer.  Some people say they like math because there's always one right answer...but no, it's not true even in math.

Yes, teaching is "easier" if there are lesson plans, assignments, printable tests with answer keys.  "Open the book and teach" brings high praise from reviewers. Homeschoolers are, proverbially, always looking for "curriculum" that does everything but diaper the baby and cook dinner.

Charlotte Mason would say, run from anything of the sort.

A little help, yes.  As someone who has attempted to "help" by writing several AO study guides, I'm sympathetic to all the reasons of our lack of time, lack of background, having several children to teach, and all the rest of it.  The reason I wrote my first Plutarch study was simply because nobody had written one for me to use.  If there had been a set of notes, I would have used them, but I couldn't find any, so I just kept reading and looking stuff up until it started to make sense.  To keep others from having to reinvent that particular wheel, I put the notes online.  And I've been extremely grateful for other people's work in other areas.  But especially with Plutarch, I can't tell you why he says everything he says, what everything means, or what, exactly, to say next.  Or what not to say.

So if we take Miss Perkins as a cautionary tale, let's be careful about thinking that any written lesson or teacher's manual (short of the Bible!) contains complete and final knowledge of anything; and let's also be open to truth wherever we find it.  Even in a murder mystery that turned out to be so graphic I'd never read it again:
"'My mind would make these magic little leaps. You know what I mean?' I nodded. I knew about minds making magic little leaps."  ~~ Sue Grafton, C is for Corpse
Here's to our students' success.  May we not offend these little ones.  May we not take ourselves and our educational materials so seriously that we close our eyes to curiosity and new ideas.  And may we take our desire to learn...and the humility to learn from each other's magic little leaps...out into the world. Because there are still a lot of Luthers out there.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Literature as Moral Instruction

Some Advisory Progeny sort through
a few family books. 
You may have noticed, and perhaps wondered why, AO does not use any of those popular reprinted Victorian morality tales which are specifically geared toward the teaching of 'character.'  It is not because we are not concerned with the development of good character in our children.  Rather, it is because we believe that the little books and studies which purport to 'teach' character are misguided, at best, and usually poorly written. In her third volume, Miss Mason refers to such books as twaddle:
What manner of Book sustains the Life of Thought?––The story discloses no more than that they were intelligent girls, probably the children of intelligent parents. But that is enough for our purpose. The question resolves itself into––What manner of book will find its way with upheaving effect into the mind of an intelligent boy or girl? We need not ask what the girl or boy likes. She very often likes the twaddle of goody-goody story books, (emphasis mine, WC) he likes condiments, highly-spiced tales of adventure. We are all capable of liking mental food of a poor quality and a titillating nature; and possibly such food is good for us when our minds are in need of an elbow-chair; but our spiritual life is sustained on other stuff, whether we be boys or girls, men or women. By spiritual I mean that which is not corporeal; and which, for convenience sake, we call by various names––the life of thought, the life of feeling, the life of the soul.

I would put character development under this 'life of the soul.' How could we define that further?  Could we say it is the growth of both an instructed, informed conscience, combined with habits of right action?  The habits we can discuss later. For this post, we will focus on how we instruct the conscience.  The Bible, of course, is the best instructor of all.   Real, living books also serve very well for lessons in what we would call 'character development.'

Miss Mason explains why:

The instructed conscience knows that Temperance, Chastity, Fortitude, Prudence must rule in the House of Body. But how is the conscience to become instructed? Life brings us many lessons––when we see others do well, conscience approves and learns; when others do ill, conscience condemns. But we want a wider range of knowledge than the life about us affords, and books are our best teachers. There is no nice shade of conduct which is not described or exemplified in the vast treasure-house of literature. (emphasis mine, WC) History and biography are full of instruction in righteousness; but what is properly called literature, that is, poetry, essays, the drama, and novels, is perhaps the most useful for our moral instruction, because the authors bring their insight to bear in a way they would hesitate to employ when writing about actual persons. Autobiographies, again, often lift the veil, for the writer may make free with himself.
The above quote is taken from Leslie Noelani's Modern English version of Ourselves, Miss Mason's fourth volume.

On pages 50 and 51 of volume 6, Miss Mason explains how well the children are able to extract the morals from the biographies they read:
The way children make their own the examples offered to them is amazing. No child would forget the characterization of Charles IX as 'feeble and violent,' nor fail to take to himself a lesson in self-control. We may not point the moral; that is the work proper for children themselves and they do it without fail. The comparative difficulty of the subject does not affect them. A teacher writes (of children of eleven),––"They cannot have enough of Publicola and there are always groans when the lesson comes to an end."

A while ago I read the above passages to my children (grown and nearly grown), and asked them if any of the books we'd read came to mind immediately.  One of my daughters said we'd think she was weird, but Winnie The Pooh and Shakespeare's Sonnets came to mind almost immediately. I also remembered another time when we had a lesson on gossip at church.  One of our daughters had been reading A Tale of Two Cities, by Dickens (she was about 11 at the time). She told me the lesson, which used the verse about how the tongue is as a roaring fire reminded her of the darkest days of the French Revolution, when a careless remark could get your neighbor arrested, and a malicious remark could have him beheaded. Another of my children spent a good deal of profitable time pondering over the lessons about false friends which she gleaned from reading Dickens' Oliver Twist.

Children are able to handle much stronger stuff than we give them credit for, too.  This is another reason those 'goody goody storybooks' Miss Mason spoke of often miss the mark. As a small child away from home for the first time, another of our daughters requested of her grandmother that a 'comforting story' to be read to her from the Bible. The grandmother asked for a suggestion, and my young daughter (about 8) asked for the story of.... Jezebel!  That is not the story most of us would choose, is it?  I pondered over that for a while and then realized that what comforted that small child of 8 was the meaty and firm knowledge that the wicked did not prosper forever.  Left to my own devices, I would have made another choice for a 'comforting' story.

The goody goody storybooks Miss Mason would not use in her own classrooms seek to create a sort of a recipe, or formula, for character development rather than deal holistically with the child as a whole person who is nourished not by morality tales, but by living ideas in literary form.

 As Charlotte mason wrote in her sixth volume:
Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest. He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs. Urgency on our part annoys him. He resists forcible feeding and loathes predigested food (emphasis mine. WC). What suits him best is pabulum presented in the indirect literary form which Our Lord adopts in those wonderful parables whose quality is that they cannot be forgotten though, while every detail of the story is remembered, its application may pass and leave no trace. We, too, must take this risk. We may offer children as their sustenance the Lysander of Plutarch, an object lesson, we think, shewing what a statesman or a citizen should avoid: but, who knows, the child may take to Lysander and think his 'cute' ways estimable! Again, we take the risk, as did our Lord in that puzzling parable of the Unjust Steward. One other caution; it seems to be necessary to present ideas with a great deal of padding, as they reach us in a novel or poem or history book written with literary power. A child cannot in mind or body live upon tabloids however scientifically prepared; out of a whole big book he may not get more than half a dozen of those ideas upon which his spirit thrives; and they come in unexpected places and unrecognised forms, so that no grown person is capable of making such extracts from Scott or Dickens or Milton, as will certainly give him nourishment. It is a case of, “In the morning sow thy seed and in the evening withhold not thine hand for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that."

I suspect that most, if not all, of the Victorian style morality tales count as 'predigested food.'
 Feed the children's minds, and their 'characters'  upon living books, of which the Bible is chief.