Friday, June 23, 2006

ON TEACHING: "Reviewing the School Year -- Failures and Successes"

Failure #5
I believe that wise teachers avoid both blaming and praising their students. The French saying, “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner” (who understands much forgives much) can be altered to also mean “who understands much doesn’t praise much”. If we have even a small understanding of the infinitely complicated forces at work in the universe, and in human lives, it would seem ridiculous to pinpoint one particular person as worthy of blame for some failure, and it would seem equally silly to identify one person as worthy of praise for a success. What happens with students in my classroom happens because of the intricate and harmonious workings of countless influences, both inside and outside them. To single out one of those influences for special praise – as in “You are so creative!” – seems unrealistic, even dishonest, to me. The fact is, it’s not my individual students who are creative, but the universe itself. For reasons far beyond anyone’s comprehension, there are times in my students’ lives when they “tap into” the creative energies of the universe in an especially powerful way, and at those times they do high-quality work. They may write an essay of great beauty, and as such it deserves praise – but the praise, I believe, should be directed at the work, not at the student. “I love the descriptions on this essay” would be much better than “You are such a good writer”. Somehow the universe, through this student, created a lovely essay, and I can best praise the universe by praising the essay. Imagine a starry night of immense beauty. Would I think of pointing to one single star and saying, “That star is the main cause of all this beauty”? It’s a helpful analogy, because a five paragraph essay by one of my students can be as beautiful, to me, as a starry sky, and just as I can’t locate one particular star that caused the beauty of the sky, so I find it impossible to honestly say that one force or quality in the student created the loveliness of the essay. It’s just a spectacular starry sky and a spectacular essay, both created by innumerable complex forces.

Last year I praised my students way too much. I threw out praises they way you might toss out candy – indiscriminately and mindlessly. In a way, I shortchanged my students by praising them so much and so often, because I was treating them like fairly simple machines. If a lever raises and lowers faithfully, it’s done a good job, but my students are infinitely more complex than a lever. I think each of my students is a million times more complicated, even, than the starriest of skies. To offer them personal praise for each little job done well is like looking up at the sky for a half-second, saying “Good sky”, and then going back inside. I’d rather skip the praise and keep enjoying, and appreciating, the great mystery of the sky – and of my students.

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