Sunday, November 4, 2007

Practicing Idealism

I find that I often take time to report about my bad students on this blog, and neglect to point out the awesome students that I do have. I think we all have a tendency to do this from time to time, and unfortunately, the general trend in education is not necessarily towards "bad" students, but definitely tends towards lazy, unmotivated students who aren't used to taking responsibility for their education.*

However, this past week and a half, I have had students making excellent points and asking thought-provoking questions (I also had almost an entire room full of 55 students who didn't do the reading the day their paper was due, but that's a different story). The two comments that stick out the most follow. I long to teach roomfulls of such students someday.

This comment came the class after my students were asking me where stratification comes from (which is cool in and of itself):

"Don't you think that stratification is so ingrained into humans that it's probably just a result of our evolution?"

"Yes, yes, yes!!!" said Practicing Idealist, jumping up and down (I didn't actually jump up and down, but I was inside).

This comment came during review for an exam:

"So, I understand how Marx thought the structure of society (i.e., capitalism) was the cause of all other social consequences, but how does culture fit into his theory? Or did he discuss culture at all?"

These comments both clearly showed that some of my students are thinking about the material in my course, and I'm trying to remind myself to remember the proportion of students who are motivated to learn on the days when I despair. The are out there.

After teaching for awhile I've come to the conclusion that being a good teacher is one of the hardest jobs in our society (it's easy to be a bad teacher - we can all come up with multiple examples of them). This means, however, that bad students can lower the morale of good teachers faster than anything else. So, my new plan is to teach to the students who meet me halfway and are motivated to learn. In class discussion, therefore, beyond cursory review of the day's article, I start asking the students to talk about what interested them in the readings. This means that the students who haven't done the readings are probably left in the dust quite quickly, but it's not my job to hold their hands. I would much rather teach to the students who are thinking about the material, and have thoughtful, intelligent conversations with them.

Perhaps this makes me insensitive to the needs of the whole class, but I can only be as effective as my students are prepared.

*I blame two major things for this trend: 1) policies like No Child Left Behind, which encourage teachers to teach to the test if they want to keep their jobs, and thus promote a culture of non-creativity and non-curiosity in the classroom from a young age; 2) the "self-esteem movement" that started roughly 20 years ago, and promotes feeling good about yourself as the end-all/be-all, rather than encouraging students to achieve in order to reap the rewards of high self-esteem. We know that it's easier to change behaviors than it is to change beliefs, so it should come as no surprise that teaching students that they are incredibly awesome, without the substance to back it up, is going to lead to some disastrous consequences when they are actually asked to perform in order to get an "A."

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