Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Change Agent #1: Add "Life-Change" or "Success" to Your Class Goals

Let’s look at the Georgia State Standards for Literature. (Put a portion here.) Now I’m not belittling this document. I understand that it must be written in terms of testable content. But let’s say I follow it to the letter and do what it says.

So I take Moby Dick and discuss diction, plot and structure. I note the creative use of analogy and description. That’s fine, and it’s all good to know, especially if your students aspire to teach literature and possibly if they want to become writers. But that’s a small percentage of our students.

When you think about this standard, doesn’t it sort of remind you of a dissection in Biology? You start with this beautiful lively frog. Then you put it to sleep and explore its wonderful structure until it’s dead. Isn’t it possible to do the same with Moby Dick?

Listen, the reason we’re into literature is that there’s life in great literature. Great teachers help students discover that life. Others kill it by over-analyzing it.

Now I don’t have a problem with what the state standard says. I do have a problem with what it doesn’t say. Standards don’t typically address the larger purposes of teaching literature.

It says nothing of developing a love for great literature. It says nothing about helping students achieve success in their lives.

I think the State would respond, “But that’s a 'duh.' Of course that’s what we’re up to here!” But I’d respond, “If so, let’s put that in our personal standards or goals for our class.”

Here's the practical outcome for this point. Someone who wants to simply “comply with state standards” may start the first day of class like this:

“This quarter we’ll read some great literature and learn to identify such fascinating bits of literary technique as symbolism, setting, mood and irony.”

And then we expect students to shoot up their hands saying, “Please, please! Do ‘irony’ first!” “No, no! I want ‘symbolism!’” until finally you intervene:

“Class, I know you’re all eager to understand the structure of literature, but you’ll have to wait patiently for the appropriate section.”

Why do we not see this response? We’ve done nothing to meet students at their point of need. They enter the class with no felt need to understand irony in literature. And they have no clue as to how putting effort into this class will possibly make them happier and more successful. As a result, students who aren’t motivated by grades will decide that this is a good class to catch up on the sleep they missed the night before playing Halo.

A person who understands our ultimate purposes in education might start the class this way:

“Students, my hope is that during this class you’ll discover some practical ways to live a more successful life. Right now you may see yourself as a little girl living at the end of a dead-end street, preparing to live a dead-end life. But you’ve got your entire life before you. And great literature reveals to us how people outside of your cul-de-sac lived their lives – some ending in great success, others in tragedy; some deliriously happy, others with huge regrets.

By reading great literature, you can find characters you identify with. You might find great ideas to live and die for, traits you’d like to adopt, places you’d like to live, something you’d like to accomplish, the type person you’d like to marry, the kind of friends you want to attract (and avoid).

You see, students, literature isn’t just about plot, structure and symbolism. It’s about life and how people live it. Sure, we’ll learn the elements of good literature. But more than that, I hope you’ll learn something specific that can change your life.”

Now isn’t that totally different than the first introduction? Don’t you think it will pull in more students than the former? You could continue this way:

“So, after you’ve read the first chapter of “Huckleberry Finn” for tomorrow’s class, don’t just think about structure and style. Think,
  • “How do I identify with Huck?”
  • “What do I like about his life that I could adopt?”
  • “What disgusts me about his life that I should avoid?”
I don’t just want to know that you’ve read the book. I want to know that you’ve thought about it, reflecting on your own life in response to your reading. If you do, it just might change your life.”

So there’s a radical difference between the “life-changing teacher” and the “merely complies with state’s standards” teacher. So as a teacher, when you’re preparing your lesson plan for tomorrow’s class, I challenge you to ask the question, “How can tomorrow’s class impact a life?”

Any ideas from you on how you motivate your class from the start?

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