Thursday, November 12, 2009


Like most of us, I was trained to conduct each class on a firm foundation – a rock-hard lesson plan with specific goals and objectives -- but over the years I have gradually come to realize that, in fact, there’s never any solid foundation under my teaching, no matter how much I may pretend otherwise. Of course, in the small picture, the one that shows me in my little classroom with my handful of students, it does seem possible to construct a sure foundation, an unshakable base that will make it possible to reach specific and detailed goals. If, in this small picture, I think of myself as an engineer and my students as malleable materials that can be manipulated to reach certain ends, then yes, I should be able, with my engineering mind, to set up a foundation for each class that will make these manipulations possible. If architects can construct enormous buildings by laying down sure underpinnings, then I should be able to build a successful lesson each day with the same approach. There’s one hitch, however: teaching is all about a much bigger picture, one that involves human beings, and human beings are not buildings. My young students are more like cyclones or skies or shoreless seas than buildings. Thinking I can lay a dependable foundation for a class with living, breathing teenagers is like thinking I can capture a cyclone or organize the sky or measure the sea. It’s a foolish kind of confidence. Yes, I continue to design careful lesson plans, but it’s like the sailor who sets out to cross the Atlantic solo in his meticulously designed boat: He really has no idea what will happen. I pretend that I know what’s going to occur in each class, and why and when, but the truth is that I’m setting out to fly in a shaky single engine plane, with breath held and fingers crossed. The lessons I painstakingly plan are like carefully fashioned good luck charms, and no more. Once class starts, all bets are off, the anchors are up, the winds are rising, and who knows where this spacious universe of learning will take us.

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