Wednesday, August 09, 2006

ON TEACHING: Labeling the Universe

This year I’m hoping I can avoid, as much as possible, attaching labels to my students. It won’t be easy, because labeling seems to be one of my most deeply ingrained habits. It’s natural for humans to want to grasp the meaning of things, and I seem to think I can do that simply by labeling everything. Almost as soon as I come into contact with a person, a situation, or a thing, I categorize it, label it, and then conveniently file it away in my mind and move on to something else. For countless years, teachers have fallen into this trap, and I am no exception. Without even being aware of it, I constantly affix labels to my students. I say to myself, “She’s a slow learner”, or “He has trouble with poetry”, or “She has ADD”, or “He’s a wonderful writer”, or “She’s one of the best readers I’ve ever taught.” I apparently believe that this process of labeling helps to significantly identify the student. By attaching a label, I appear to be convincing myself that I have a fairly good understanding of the boy or girl. The problem is that, whether a label is negative or positive, it ultimately has the effect of, not identifying the student, but actually masking the student’s identity. It’s similar to labeling a few constellations in the night sky and then saying you understand the universe. Each of my students – and I sincerely mean this – is as infinite and mysterious to me as the universe, and so attaching a label to him or her seems not only not helpful, but downright foolish. This year, instead of applying handy labels to my students, I should spend more time just appreciating, in an awestruck way, their vast inscrutability – as vast as the night sky above.

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