Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Teaching in the Dark

I don't know that people can really be taught how to teach.

Anyone can memorize strategies. Anyone can follow the Teacher's Guide. Anyone can give a multiple choice test. But what do you end up with? None of that accomplished what I thought ought to happen in a classroom.

I once had a sophomore English class of 15 or so kids who wouldn't talk. They were good kids, but I don't know if any of them were destined to become college English majors. Scheduling controlled the kind of students who ended up in a section. Maybe these were excellent math/science minds. The answer needed to be 24 or it was wrong. The experiment needed to prove at what temperature oil boils.

Discussing a novel was wide open territory. That kind of horizon might have been too far to travel for them. I knew it would be a long year if I couldn't bring them along on the journey.

Out of desperation, I decided to make them invisible. If no one saw them, they wouldn't have to risk being embarrassed for an answer. So I took a lantern that we were using for the fall play to class. The windowless room would be pitch black without the florescent lighting.

I struck a match, replaced the globe, and lowered the wick, knowing most of them had never seen a lantern lighted. When I told the girl near the switch to turn off the lights, she hesitated. This was not a direction ever given. "Go on," I said encouragingly.

There was a soft gasp. I let the silence settle as their faces faded into the darkness. Every last classroom expectation disappeared.

They became anonymous.

I asked a question about the chapter. No one answered, as usual. "I know," I said. "It's a hard thing to think about. I'm not sure I know how to answer it either. I can wait."

They realized there was no point of raising a hand that couldn't be seen. They calculated this puzzle. Finally someone spoke quietly, admitting he wasn't sure either, since I wasn't sure, but thought....Then someone else spoke. Then someone else. I asked another question and another, all based on possibilities they'd offered. It was a discussion, all right.

I suppose you couldn't do that now. I'd be reported for having matches. A parent would complain that I'd endangered lives. I'd be written up for violating fire codes. It wouldn't qualify under Common Core guidelines.

But I can tell you this: Nothing was ever the same in that room again. They found their voices in the dark. And they weren't about to go back. I still have that lantern. If lighted, you'd see the same glow. But I see those golden sophomore faces.


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