Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Day 158, Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Yesterday, I was listening to a Schubert quintet in the early morning before class, and I began focusing on the wonderful harmony in the music. One definition of harmony is “a pleasing combination of elements in a whole”, and I certainly heard that in this piece of music. I especially noticed the contrast between the deep-sounding, unhurried cello and the sprightly, fast-paced violin. There were moments of soft, slow sounds interspersed with periods of almost skittish sounds – times of near silence balanced with periods of practically riotous sounds. This was true harmony – a pleasing combination of the most varied and opposite elements. It started me thinking about my teaching. I have an infinite variety of students – quiet, loud, shy, noisy, diffident, self-assured, and so on – and my job as their teacher is to, like Schubert, blend them together in a “pleasing combination”. I’m sometimes tempted to over-emphasize the work of the confident, voluble students – to gauge the success of a class by how well the “smart”, talkative kids take charge -- but to do that would ignore the natural harmony of the class. Who wants to listen to a piece of music in which only fast-paced, high-pitched violins are heard? A conductor needs the voices of the languid cellos and basses every bit as much as those of the elevated and lively violins and clarinets, and a teacher needs the silent, pensive students as much as the vociferous ones. Diversity, not uniformity, is the necessary ingredient for harmony -- in music as well as in teaching.


Today my students performed the annual and very important ritual of looking back through their “essay binders”. Over this year they have written approximately one formal paper every week, and each of these was placed in their binders as the weeks passed. Today the kids looked through their accumulation of essays – their “body of work”, you might say – and I can’t help but believe it was a rewarding experience for them. First of all, they were able to appreciate the sheer amount of writing they did during the year. Flipping back through essay after essay after essay must have made them feel proud of how much formal writing they had produced. I think they also grew to understand the good quality of much of the writing. I asked them to select the assignment they thought was the most interesting to write, the one they found hardest, and the one that gave them the greatest feeling of accomplishment. The ensuing discussion was fascinating – and very satisfying for all of us. The kids felt good about what they had produced – the bountiful “yield” of their writing crop for the school year – and I felt pleased that they obviously considered themselves fairly proficient high school writers, as they should.

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