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Chapter 12

Teaching
 
 
Man is born like a garden ready planted and sown.

- William Blake

 
Every so often, Missy, who directs the preschool now, gets out her easel and her sketchbook and sets up shop in a quiet corner of one of the downstairs classrooms. She closes the door, rigs up a good, bright light next to the subject's stool, sharpens up her set of artist pencils and voilà: an instant portrait studio.
 
Before long kids are clamoring to have Missy draw them; sometimes it takes a solid week or more for her to get everyone in. Usually I or another downstairs teacher will take her place upstairs so that she can stay in her studio and gradually work her way through the line of eager young models.
 
What Missy doesn't tell the kids is that this is her art class. She is showing them how to draw.
 
The teaching process begins with Missy's own feeling for her craft. She loves doing portraits and her joy quickly expands to fill the room. For her subjects, the experience of being drawn, of watching their own image slowly appear on Missy's easel, is enthralling. It's like seeing a photograph magically materialize in a darkroom developing pan.
 
Missy is careful to position herself so that the kids have a clear view of her as she draws. Probably without even realizing, they are watching her motions and mannerisms intently. A little a chatty hairdresser, Missy keeps up a light banter to quell impatience and prevent the atmosphere from getting too serious. She points out to each subject the items of distinction in their features as she draws them, describes her movements with the pencil, and alternately remains quiet as she sketches away with great concentration.
 
Just like artists in Central Park, Missy attracts a crowd while she works. Her enjoyment is contagious. She doesn't mind the gang of kids gathered around to watch, because she knows that just like her subject, the onlookers are intently studying her technique.
 
On the second or third day of the run, you'll find Missy seated on the subject's stool. Her former subject is now her student and she might, if the mood is right, begin to give some light instruction. How much directed teaching she will do will depend on the needs and wishes of each individual child, and on the chemistry between student and teacher.
 
Before it's all over, the room will be full of kids drawing other kids, or drawing themselves, and Missy will be floating around answering questions and giving encouragement. The portrait light - now lights - will stay on continuously. A display wall will quickly fill with art work of extraordinary quality. And the drawings won't be coming from a handpicked group of precious young artists but from whoever decided to hang around and try it it for themselves. Always most impressive to me are the sketches done by kids who don't necessarily have a gift for portraiture. Their leap in skill during that single week with Missy is nothing short of remarkable.
 
The class ends when there aren't any more portraits to be drawn. There's no art show and no prizes. Missy simply thanks everybody for a great time, packs up her things, and goes back upstairs to her little ones.
 
ANYONE MIGHT THINK a loose and open-ended approach to teaching is fine in areas like art, but what about hard-core skills areas like reading, writing, and arithmetic? Or science or history? Don't they require more rigor and regimen?
 
The answer, I think, is an unqualified maybe. Or a hearty it all depends. But certainly not necessarily, as the nation's curriculum experts would have all believe. For instance, when Nancy is teaching reading, oftentimes she first reads aloud to her students. She selects good, compelling stuff, or the kids bring in favorite selections of their own. And just as Missy draws, Nancy reads with excitement and passion. Kids gather round close to her and she changes expressions and voices to bring the characters to life right there in the room. There's no time limit either; she usually doesn't stop until everyone's too tired to listen any more.
 
Sometimes Nancy mixes in instruction. She teaches phonics, gets students to read along with her, writes down their stories and has them read them back, encourages them to create their own newspapers and magazines. It was Nancy who helped the kids make that hand-powered "television" I referred to earlier, which told each episode in subtitles. Without a whole lot of fanfare she posts their stories and poems on the walls, and helps each of them to maintain an active file of their work on the classroom Macintosh. And Nancy never forgets that play is a huge component of the learning process. She doesn't want the kids to think of reading as hard work.
 
Meanwhile, dozens of young children learn to read under her auspices without necessarily having been "taught. " Some kids need a lot of help learning to read, others little or none at all. Woody, who has been teaching reading for more than fifty years at the Peninsula School, one of the nation's longest-running alternative schools, states emphatically that there are as many ways to teach reading as there are students to learn. It is imperative, she says, for a teacher to respect the individuality of every student, to help them find, in her words, "the magic way" that works for them.
 
Mary preferred a mythological approach to teaching. One year, for example, she and a group of kids invented a magical adventure game against which the more recent "Dungeons and Dragons" would pale by comparison. Dubbed "The Cellar Adventure," the game was very Tolkienesque and involved hunting buried treasure in a mysterious land filled with ogres and dragons. First, they wrote out the game's rules, characters, and story line, and even created maps. Then they spent a great many days enacting the drama in real life. Suddenly the school's dark, dirt-floored cellar - accessible only by a heavy trap door - became its most popular and exciting classroom.*
* [Ed. note: If you'd like to read more about the consequences of the cellar adventure game, click here].
 
The game involved reading and writing, but that's not really why Mary cooked it up. She was operating according to her keen awareness that awakened and engaged children learn better. She also understood the almost limitless power inherent in a group process where, when it is a mutually supportive one, everyone brings out the best in each other. So her first order of business every year was to help kids form real working teams; then as time passed, to stop whenever necessary to repair any tears in the fabric that might have occurred along the way. No one ever got left behind, and whenever someone would begin to drift away, she would turn it over to the rest of the group to bring the odd child out back into the circle. The kids responded magnificently to the challenge of this level of responsibility, in part, I surmise, because it galvanized in them a feeling that it was their class, and not just Mary's.
 
What always amazed me the most about Mary's teaching style was her indomitable belief in every student's ability to succeed. She absolutely refused to give up on anyone. Once, before she started the Free School, while teaching at a small private school in then-segregated Texas in the early 60s, she took under her wing a black high school student who was struggling academically. Even though the young man wasn't keeping up in his standard subjects, he elected to join Mary's Latin class. He then proceeded not only to become accomplished in that classical language, but to transfer the model of competence he had internalized there to other areas - to such an extent that he was able to go on to college and then to a successful professional career. Now, he writes to Mary each Christmas to fill her in on the latest news of his life and to thank her for the difference she made in it. Mary would be the first to say that her former student deserves all the credit for his amazing turnaround, and of course that is so. Nevertheless, the power of the role of teacher, properly played, must never be overlooked.
 
JOHN GATTO WRITES inThe Empty Child, "Kids don't resist learning; they resist teaching." A few years earlier, Herb Kohl wrote an entire book with the very same thesis. Called I Won't Learn From You, it explores the tremendous damage done to children in our schools by negative teaching. just as the title suggests, Kohl says that the poor performance of a great many students is ofen not due to any shortcoming on their part. Rather it is an expression of their will to resist the control of adults who they feel do not have their best interests at heart.
 
The infamous "Pygmalion in the Classroom" study, where, unbeknownst their teachers, the test scores of two incoming fourth-grade groups - one high-achieving, the other low - were reversed, provides a sobering empirical demonstration of the power a teacher's attitude toward his or her students can have over them. After a fairly brief interval with their new teachers, the children were tested again, and lo and behold, the former high achievers were suddenly performing at the level of the former low achievers and vice versa.
 
It is perhaps this very situation in the nation's schools, where our children are daily held hostage to the beliefs and expectations of a single adult who increasingly remains a remote stranger in their lives - that has led people like Mary to start their own schools, or hundreds of thousands of homeschooling families to abandon the idea of school altogether. Whether at home, or in the wide array of alternative schools that now dot the nation, a vastly different model of teaching - including self-teaching - is at work.
 
It derives from a very different model of learning, one based on a fundamental respect for the centrality of the learner in the teaching/learning process. Such a shift of emphasis from teacher to learner in no way diminishes the value of good teaching and good teachers. There will always be a place in this world for people who can effectively teach others, whether those teachers wear some kind of professional badge or not. Frank, who calls himself a craftsman, not a teacher, was able to teach Jesse a set of valuable manual skills; at the same time, he helped Jesse do some important growing up.
 
The majority of practitioners in all of the varied alternatives to conventional schooling -homeschoolers very much included - operates according to a model of learning that, above all, honors the personhood of the learner. It reviles against coercion and respects the right of the learner to co-determine the conditions under which he or she will engage in the process. It holds volition and choice paramount. It maintains a bedrock faith in every child's inborn desire to learn and grow, to become knowledgeable, effective, and competent. And finally, it recognizes the validity of independent learning and self-teaching, where teacher and learner simply occupy the same being.
 
Recent brain/mind research is on the verge of confirming approaches to education that replace coercion with free choice, teacher-centeredness with child-centeredness, competition with cooperation, enforced togetherness with opportunities for solitary pursuits, management with autonomy, memorization with exploration and discovery, grading with self-assessment, and obligation with exuberance.
 
Joseph Chilton Pearce writes extensively about the emerging new biology and field theory-based model of learning and human intelligence in Evolution's End, a title he chose to convey his growing concern over humanity's failure, thus far, to utilize the immense potential of the mind. Pearce states that all human knowledge is, in fact, innate, and that what we call learning is actually a process whereby deeply embedded development unfolds from the inside out in response to the right cues from the environment.
 
Echoing Howard Gardiner, Pearce views each individual as a collection of potential intelligences, and translating them from mere potentiality into our personal experience of them is what some call child development, or others education. Further, writes Pearce: "Nature's agenda unfolds these intelligences for their development within us at a time appropriate to each * , We can fail to nurture an intelligence by pushing it too soon, waiting too long, or ignoring it altogether. All the infant/child wants to do is what nature intended, which is to build up structures of knowledge; all that he or she needs to do that is a sufficiently stimulating environment, or in Pearce's words, "to be surrounded by mature, intelligent intellects, open to mind's possibilities and tempered by heart's wisdom, recognizing that to the human all may be possible."
 
If we look to the ongoing research into the abundant intelligence with which babies are born, this whole idea of innate knowing begins to sound a lot less mystical. For instance, we now know that a healthy newborn baby (who has not been excessively traumatized during the birth process) will respond immediately to the image of a human face if held at a distance of six twelve inches - the distance between a mother's face and nursing breast- since this genetically encoded visual circuit has already been hardwired for st that purpose.
 
Next, the stimulus of the initial face recognition will trigger the ripening of the baby's entire visual apparatus, which will then become the key that begins unlocking myriad doors in the infant's rapidly expanding intellect. The very same is true for the development of language, whose building blocks are equally hardwired into a baby's neural circuitry and are only waiting for the appropriate environmental stimuli in order to begin gradually coalescing and unfolding into articulate speech.
 
Does this notion of "hardwired" intelligence negate the importance of teaching? Hardly, because it is nature's imperative, according to Pearce, that no human learning occur without a stimulus from an already mature form of that particular intelligence. The kind of stimulus he is referring to, however, is anything but mechanical or one-dimensional; rather it is holographic. Teachers influence students on a myriad of subtle - or not so subtle -levels, as the "Pygmalian" study so dramatically confirms. Here Pearce reminds us how it is estimated that 95 percent of all learning takes place below the level of conscious awareness, meaning that students in a teacher/student interaction are taking in far more than just information or the demonstration of a particular skill. They are also affected by teachers' moods, beliefs, and attitudes, as well as by how teachers feel about themselves, their students, and what they are teaching.
 
As Pearce says, "Teachers teach who they are" - meaning that beneath all of the trappings, teachers teach by modeling, not by instructing, managing, or evaluating student performance, the foundations of the role as it is typically practiced in conventional school settings. Therefore, teaching can longer be viewed simply as a process whereby one person more skilled than another breaks down a subject or a procedure into small enough pieces for the student to digest successfully.
 
We urgently need a new vocabulary to describe the teaching/learning interface. The old Western scientific, cause-and-effect paradigm doesn't suffice anymore, since we have expanded our understanding of the teaching/learning process to the point where we know it isn't something that one person does to another, but rather is a form of interactive collaboration occurring on many different levels. Since the knowledge and skills we previously believed needed to be taught to the student are already there waiting to be awakened, we can no longer accept the old schooling premise that the teacher is the cause and the student is the effect of the learning process.
 
Thus, when Missy, Nancy, and Mary are teaching children in the Free School, they are conscious of the importance of being present with the fullness of themselves. Missy realizes she isn't just teaching the doing - the skills and techniques - of drawing; rather, she is modeling being an artist and loving art. She knows she is also modeling herself, and so at any given moment there might occur levels of sharing between her and the students that outwardly might have little to do with the "subject" of art.
 
The same is true for Nancy when she is teaching reading. What she is really doing is modeling the beauty, power, joy, and ease of reading. She's showing the kids for whom reading might not come as easily that reading is a pleasure, not a struggle. She never tries to force anyone to go any faster than they are currently ready, willing, or able to go. And like Missy, she's always available with her full self.
 
Whenever Mary teaches, and she still does from time to time, what she is actually doing is leading kids on a personal quest to discover how to embrace the totality of themselves, no-holds-barred. That is the way she has always lived her own life and kids instinctively understand and respond to her example.
 
THE PROPOSITION THAT a true teacher is a fully holistic model and not merely a taskmaster or a classroom manager means it is impossible for teachers to lead their students any farther than they have already taken themselves. One simply cannot model something one hasn't already experienced oneself. This, then, leads to the imperative that all of us who consider ourselves teachers, especially good ones, not only make sure we are fluent with the material we are teaching, but that we also pay careful attention to our own emotional health, as well as other matters of personal growth and development - and that we continue to do this on an ongoing basis. Everyone working with children of any age must strive to be whole persons. And this doesn't just include teachers in schools. Parents are -and should always be - among their kids' most important teachers.
 
For this reason more than any other Mary suggested in the school's early days that we institute a weekly personal growth group. "Group," as we simply call it, began in 1974, and has met nearly every Wednesday evening ever since. Here is where we work on our own personal life-issues and problems as they arise, as well as where we are able to delve more deeply into the emotional and spiritual dimensions of our evolving selves.
 
It is also here that we resolve the interpersonal conflicts that inevitably result from working together so closely. The work we do individually and together in group is instrumental in helping us keep our minds and hearts open to the kids we are coming into such close contact with every day in school.
 
I have a friend named John Lawry, who teaches future teachers at Marymount College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He once wrote an article, which he has since expanded into book-length form, entitled "Caritas in the Classroom: The Opening of the American Student's Heart." In it he confirms my belief - one that Joseph Chilton Pearce would readily embrace - in the primacy of openheartedness in the teaching process.
 
Professor Lawry writes that it is peculiar to the West to bypass the emotional connection between student and teacher. The article sprang from a personal discovery that his own classroom was transformed as he began reversing this tradition. He found that when he stepped from behind his mask of professional composure and began revealing his own emotional life, and when he started asking his students how they were feeling about themselves and their lives, their engagement in the learning process increased dramatically. Here he was modeling for them how to engage their students in the many years to come.
 
Lawry also refers to a little-known study showing that students of teachers who measure high in qualities such as empathy, psychological integrity, and positive regard have significantly better standardized test scores than students of teachers who measure low in those areas. While test scores can be interpreted in myriad ways for as many reasons, shouldn't it be obvious that openhearted teachers engender openhearted students, who in turn become more effective learners?
 
I think so.
 
Click here to read John Lawry's article, "Caritas in the Classroom," to which Chris refers, which first appeared in the Winter, 1996 issue of SKOLE, the Journal of Alternative Education.
 
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