Wednesday, August 22, 2007


1. Emphasize the art of criticism

In the last ten years, I have gradually focused increased attention on helping my students build up their critical capacities, to the point where now I emphasize criticism more than creativity. My changing beliefs are well-expressed in Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way, where she relates that many of the ancient Greeks (especially Euripedes) believed that criticism – the rigorous evaluation of what is right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly – was far more important than creativity. Euripedes was a critic in the sense of the American Heritage Dictionary definition: One who forms and expresses judgments of the merits, faults, value, or truth of a matter – and this is what I want my students to be able to do this year. Whether they’re examining a chapter of a novel or assessing their own thoughts about a particular essay topic, I want them, most of all, to be able to discriminate – to be able, as the dictionary puts it, to make a clear distinction, distinguish, make sensible decisions, and judge wisely . I want them to become critical young people. Creativity is important, yes, but the ability to intelligently criticize – to demonstrate the art of critical thinking – is at the heart of what I’ll be trying to do as an English teacher in 2007-08.

2. Continue to improve the orderliness of my teaching

Of all the pedagogical ideas that are important, “order” is right at the top of my list. In so many ways, the concept of order – “the logical or comprehensible arrangement among separate elements of a group” (American Heritage) – plays a vital role in my classroom. This is true largely, I suppose, because order is good for my students and me. A sense of order can bring a sense of peace, which in turn can lead to productive thinking and action. Without order in the classroom, there would be only its opposite, disarray, and disarray leads to nothing but more of itself. So I will try, first of all, to provide an orderly atmosphere in my classroom. I will keep the room spotless and neat, which I believe can help promote spotless and neat thinking, reading, and writing by my students. When they enter my room each day, I want them to feel like they are coming into an area where each thing has its proper place, and where harmony seems to be the primary force. When they read our literature books, too, I want them to feel, and recognize, a similar type of orderliness. We read complex and enigmatic works of literature, but my goal for the students is that they learn to discern the unity and concord beneath the surface of the writing. Although, like their lives, these books may initially seem baffling to the students, my responsibility as their English teacher is to show them how to uncover the hidden harmony in the books (and perhaps, indirectly, in their lives). And of course, I have the same responsibility as far as their writing goes. The only way words can communicate in a powerful manner is if they are arranged in an orderly way. Imagination, creativity, fluency, and vision are all important qualities of good writing, but none are as important as order. Like my books are arranged in a tidy way on the classroom shelves, I expect my students’ essays to be always assembled in a shipshape manner. And perhaps, if they’re working in an orderly classroom and reading beautifully arranged books, it won’t be all that difficult to produce clear and coherent pieces of writing.

3. Teach the proper way to eat a book

Strange as it sounds, I would like my students this year to learn how to “eat” a book — meaning thoroughly chew, consume, and digest it. This is different from the way many of us often read — skimming through the pages, dashing from one chapter to the next, and then racing on to the next book. This is not eating a book, but only tasting it. Instead of truly consuming books, we often merely nibble, sip, and sample as we rush along. I want my students to read in a different way. I want them to learn to sit down at the table of a great book, settle themselves in, and enjoy a complete and nutritious meal. Reading a book by Dickens or Willa Cather or Toni Morrison is like having a meal at the home of a distinguished person. We wouldn’t rush through that meal, and we shouldn’t rush through a classic work of literature. This year I want my students to slow down (not an easy task for most of them), read each word thoughtfully, ponder the sentences and paragraphs, and slowly digest the meaning and beauty of the writing. Eating quickly can cause discomfort, and so can reading quickly. At the very least, reading hastily will cause my students to miss the most nutritious parts of the “meal”. They may close the book at the end and leave the real nutrition inside. I don’t want that to happen this year.

4. Teach like a mountain

I’ve always loved being around mountains, and in this coming school year, I would like to embody some of the qualities of mountains in my work as a teacher. First, I would like to be strong. There is nothing on earth stronger than a mountain, rooted, as it is, far down in the earth’s bedrock, and my students need to see a similar type of strength in their teacher. It shouldn’t be a boisterous, arrogant strength, but rather the strength that comes from knowing that I am part of an infinitely sturdy universe, and that endless mental and moral strength is always available to me. Second, I want to be reliable like a mountain. No matter what happens – winds, rain, snow, drought -- a mountain remains where it always was, steady and stable no matter what turmoil swirls around and across it. My students deserve to see this kind of steadfastness in their teacher. They need to be assured that Mr. Salsich will be consistent and dependable, there for his students hour after hour, day after day, no matter how well or poorly things seem to be going. I hope I can also imitate the calmness of a mountain. Mountains don’t react; they gently and quietly accept, and from this springs their true majesty. I would like to exhibit a mountain-like gentleness and quietness in my acceptance of every present moment in class. Far from encouraging misbehavior, as some might predict, this kind of stately acceptance has a way of promoting the strongest kind of compliance and harmony in a class. Finally, I hope I can be responsive in the way mountains are. Watch a mountain carefully from afar and you can’t help but be aware of its total responsiveness to everything. The smallest breeze sets the mountain’s trees fluttering, and even the wispiest cloud-shadow significantly alters the mountain’s appearance. When I’m with my students, I hope I can respond generously and suitably to even their smallest, quietest words and expressions. Like a mountain, I hope I can stand unwavering and receptive as my students pursue their English education around me.

4. Teach how to work in small groups

In my summer pedagogical reading, book after book emphasized the importance of teaching kids how to work together in small groups. The consensus among English teachers seems to be that small-group work – collaboration – should be near the top in every teacher’s priority list. The authors (all English teachers) suggested that adults fifteen years from now will be judged far more often by how well they function in groups than by how well they work alone. So...I’m going to give it a good shot. I’m planning to have occasional brief (10 minutes) small group discussions. (Example topics: “Rank the top three things you like about Pip”; “Choose a title for Chapter 17, and be ready to explain why”; “What is the single most important use of a comma...and explain.”) Also, as you know, I’m putting together a year-long small group project. Will it work??? Good question. I’ll let you know.

5. Be a better listener

This year, both in class and in faculty meetings, I want to watch and listen extra carefully (to quote Judy Oat from the retreat today). I want to let each speaker know that I am totally focused on what he/she is saying. I’ll try to use what I teach my students: S.L.A.N.T.S. – Sit up, Lean Forward, Activate your thinking, Nod toward the speaker now and then, Track each speaker with your eyes, and Say back (paraphrase) what the speaker said before making your own comment. Most of all, I want to never interrupt a student or a teacher or anyone (in my opinion, one of the worst sins).

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