Sunday, June 27, 2010

Shining the Floodlight

When I’m teaching, it sometimes seems as if I’m wearing a finely pointed headlamp, whereas I might do better using – at least occasionally – a floodlight. With my headlamp approach to teaching, I’m usually zeroed-in on some separate, distinct aspect of my work – perhaps a step in the lesson plan, or the behavior of a particular student, or maybe a small flaw I noticed in something I just said. Much like a miner’s lamp in a dark mine, my narrow beam of attention shifts here and there as I go about my work, lighting up this student or that statement or this problem, but leaving everything else in relative darkness. I’m afraid it’s a hesitant, stumbling way to teach, sort of like feeling my way from one small illuminated spot to another. What’s particularly unfortunate about this style of teaching is that it tends to exaggerate both triumphs and mistakes. When I make a properly supportive and instructive response to a student’s comment, the headlamp’s strong illumination sets my success apart as seeming far more special than it really is, and, conversely, when I blunder in my everyday way, the blunder, in the sharply focused light of my attention, looks more like a complete catastrophe than the commonplace and harmless misstep that it actually is. I guess I’d like to use a floodlight style of teaching a little more often. If I could pretend that a floodlight was shining on my students and me as we work through an English lesson, I think I might get a truer picture of what’s actually happening. If the light lit up all of my students and me with an even illumination (which is what a floodlight does), then I could see all the successes and mistakes in class in their proper perspective – as just small pieces of a detailed and multifaceted big picture. Plus, if my imaginary floodlight could light up the whole world, and even the sweeping stars and planets, then I could see my small classroom on a country road, with its groups of mainstream teenagers and their grayish, well-tested teacher, as just another interesting place in a vastly interesting universe. Then, the little victories and calamities in a day’s worth of teaching and learning would shine no more brightly than the countless other important but often unnoticed events that happen when kids and a senior citizen come together on a planet among stars to help each other get educated.

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