Saturday, December 26, 2009


Recently, after hearing a friend talk about tuning his piano, it occurred to me that I need to keep my English classes well-tuned. As I understand it, tuning an instrument involves adjusting its tones to a fixed reference (for instance, A = 440 Hz) so the instrument is able to play pleasing melodies and harmonies. If an instrument is “out of tune”, the reference point has been lost and the instrument produces sounds that only clank and jar. It’s as though each tone is isolated in its own universe of sound, with no melodious relationship with the other tones. As I wrote that last sentence, I thought of the many classes I’ve taught where the only “melodies” were those of dissonance and puzzlement – classes in which the students and I seemed utterly out of tune with each other. It was as if an orchestra had assembled but each musician proceeded to play, on untuned instruments, whatever notes came to mind.  These were classes that left me, and surely the students, as weary as if we had listened to incomprehensible and messy music for 48 minutes. To avoid this in the future, the students and I simply need to “tune” our minds at the start of each class. Our fixed reference will vary from day to day, but it’s important that a moment or two be taken to align our interests and goals – to get ourselves attuned to each other. As the teacher, I probably should be more like a concertmaster than a conductor. At the beginning of a class, similar to a first violinist, I must somehow let the students know what the fixed tone for the class will be, and then join the students in performing some sweet and surprising English-class music.

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