Tag Archives: teachers

Trust Your “Primary Wisdom”

What role can and should intuition play in a teacher’s decision-making process? Since first hearing the phrase “data-driven instruction,” I feel like the importance and credibility of teacher instincts have been downplayed and denigrated. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that intuition is the “primary wisdom,” and I tend to agree.

I have quite a few years of teaching experience to draw upon, so when my gut tells me something is the right way or the wrong way to proceed, I feel that impulse with a pretty high level of confidence. Most of the time, I’m able to articulate a rationale for why my instincts are good, but I never have much empirical data to go along with that rationale.

So what role does “data” play in my decision-making? Well, how do we define data? If we’re talking about statistical reports based on conflicting research projects, I don’t find that very helpful. Far too often I’ve seen researchers generate conflicting data. Far too many times I’ve seen objective data cherry-picked and used subjectively by leaders who are bent on imposing a specific philosophy or agenda. I can’t count how many times data has been presented to me as gospel when it was generated in very different contexts from my own.

Data based on traditional research models has never been very helpful to me in solving real-world problems. The best data I receive is when I ask students, either individually or as a class, “So, did this work for you? What helped you understand? What seemed frustrating or irrelevant about this activity?” What they tell me is golden. I consider it, sift it with my own perceptions, and almost always end up learning something that I can use next time.

Although I respect the research process, the truth is that most classroom teachers simply don’t have the time or resources to properly frame and conduct a valid research project. We’re sort of busy doing school. Unfortunately, that leaves us with either accepting data that comes to us from other sources—some of them with shady track records—or relying on more subjective, qualitative, anecdotal forms of data to inform our decision making. Even if we had the means to conduct more empirical research projects in our schools, the findings would be most applicable to our own settings and of more limited value anywhere else.

Am I right to trust direct reports from my students and my own instincts over empirical data derived from other contexts and presented to me by people who have obvious–and what I might consider misguided—agendas? If my intuition is unclear, or if the situation is new to me, I’m perfectly willing to consult other sources. I particularly admire Robert Marzano’s work in synthesizing the results of research projects with similar focuses in order to hierarchically organize the most important findings of those projects.

I invite readers here to join me in trusting your instincts and the words of your students. Those sources are not wrong. They’re important “primary wisdom.”

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What If Students Write for Themselves?

writer“You can write your way out of dark places. I know because I’ve done it.”

My confession emerged yesterday during a class discussion of Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” an essay in which she writes empathetically about a plain moth unsuccessfully struggling to find its way through a window and to the light. Woolf’s essay becomes a meditation on endurance, limitations, and eventually death. Its purpose seems to be nothing more than Woolf reflecting on why the observation of this small moment reverberated in her with such emotional intensity.

Most writers can relate to that. I know that when I’m trying to work my way through some sludge or explore my own state of mind, I need to write about it.

If writing has any utilitarian value, maybe it’s just that: Writing can help us explain ourselves to ourselves. Writers understand this, but how often do writing teachers help students appreciate the value of such reflective writing?

In school we ask students to learn persuasive and expository techniques and approaches. We help them create description and figures of speech. We give them advice about how to organize and develop their writing.

Then we ask students to write for us or for other audiences.

What if we helped students to better understand the value of writing for themselves? What might it mean if students learned that writing can help lead them out of their own dark places? What if young writers could learn to see how writing can be their vehicle for problem solving and conflict resolution? We can help student writers understand that when we put our emotions down on paper, they become more of an object. When our feelings are written down, they are a little more outside of us, which means we can see them better and work on them with more clarity.

Personal writing leads students to spontaneously experiment with words in ways that result in surprising versions of their own writing styles. The satisfaction (maybe even pleasure) derived from this personal writing can infuse other more academic writing with fresh, unique voices. Young writers are more willing to dig deeply as they think about their own situations and issues; they can then apply that deeper level of thinking to the scholarly tasks that schooling demands.

Those of us who approach reading by using class time for both personal reading and literary study can adapt our writing instruction in a similar manner. What if students had time each day to write only for themselves, but we still covered all of our composition goals of teaching students to write effectively in a variety of modes for a variety of audiences?

I can hear the chorus of well-intentioned objectors warming up in the background: “But that kind of writing isn’t on the state test.” “We don’t have time for that kind of writing.” “How do we grade it?”

Those are realistic concerns, and there are ways to address them, but please don’t let that kind of thinking become an obstacle to the most important goal: Help students see themselves as writers.

A student recently said to me, “When I talk, I have a small voice or sometimes no voice. When I write, I have a big voice.” She is a different, more powerful person when she writes. And she knows it.

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The Brave Faces

My heart is with kids who say to themselves:

• I try but I still fail, and I don’t know why.
• If someone in my family doesn’t get a job soon, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
• I don’t like to read. I know most of the words but they don’t connect.
• My teacher has favorites. I’m not one of them.
• I go to a school with thousands of students and hundreds of grown-ups but no one talks to me.
• My parents check my grades every day and always find something to complain about even when my grades are all good.
• My friends are bad influences but I don’t know what to do about it.
• I’ve never had a boyfriend/girlfriend. Am I normal?
• I’d like to go to prom but we can’t afford it.
• My classes don’t teach me anything I need to know.
• I try to be friendly but people act like I’m not there.
• If my parent goes to prison, I’m not sure what will happen to my family.
• I’m angry and afraid I’m going to hurt somebody.
• I don’t have a computer at home so I can’t do certain homework like other kids.
• My teacher doesn’t like me and I don’t know why.
• I’d like to have friends but I don’t know how.
• I don’t understand math the way other kids do.
• Everybody tells me to take advanced classes but they’re so hard that it’s ruining my life.
• I don’t see where I fit in at school.
• When my teacher calls on me I’m afraid to answer in case I’m wrong, so I always say, “I don’t know.”
• I think I’m depressed but I don’t know what to do about it.
• My boyfriend hits me.
• My mom hits me.
• My dad hits me.
• I’m going to graduate but I know I’m not ready for college.
• There are people in my school who scare me.

Those of us who work in schools are surrounded by brave faces suffering in silence. Today’s challenge: Say, “Hello. How are you doing?” We might get an answer; we might not. Either way, a simple exchange like that can do more than the words convey as we let students know they are not alone and not invisible.

We can’t solve all the problems, but we can smile and say, “Hello.”

 

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