Monday, July 1, 2013

Only Hope Was Left

This is a re-post. A friend reminded me of how much I hate the sentiment expressed in the quote I mention below, and I just had to update it for this week. I apologize if you've read this rant before, or if I cornered you at a cocktail party and forced it on you there, but it bears repeating. Content, people. Content. 

I love Twitter. I really do. I follow, and am followed by, lots of talented teachers who are overwhelmingly generous with their ideas and resources. Many of the strategies and materials I use every day come from my PLN, tech-speak for "Personal Learning Network." Consequently, if you are an educator, I will follow, create lists, and share the resources that really kick butt (here are my favorites). 

During my travels in the Twittersphere, I've noticed that many teachers are fans of pithy aphorisms and quotes, mantras that help them get through the day and remind them of why they suffer slings and arrows in order to teach. These affirmations run the gamut from clever and quotable, to the stuff of 1970s Scholastic book fair kitten posters; "Hang in there!" and "If you love your students, set them free" sentiments. 

This week, I was followed by a teacher whose profile description quotes Einstein: 

"I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn."

I am a fan, Einstein, and love the hair, but this quote is total crap. I'd love to be able to find context for it, because I have a feeling there's more to this story. Maybe it was taken out of context, totally fabricated, apocryphal; who knows. The sources, are, unfortunately, deceased. 

According to Wikipedia, the bottomless well [pit?] of open-source knowledge, this quote is unsourced, and therefore dubious. 
"[I'd keep this part of the quote in but it's unbearably boring, even to me]. No source is given, and none of the other books I saw gave a source either."

Sounds about right. 

Whatever. Let's say Einstein said it and that he meant it the way it reads. I can see how this sentiment would be attractive to teachers, because it implies that all we have to provide is an inviting atmosphere, a bubble of trust and creativity with comfy chairs to cradle students' tushies, and the rest will magically happen.

That's a nice, reassuring, Waldorf-ian sentiment and everything, but I'm not on board.

Hold on, Waldorf stalwarts, don't get your organic cotton panties in a twist. I am absolutely devoted to creating a trusting and supportive atmosphere for learning. But that should be square one, not the basis for an educational strategy. 

Sorry, Einstein, but I teach. I teach stuff. Content stuff. 

I teach at a Core Knowledge School, and the Core Knowledge curriculum is predicated on the crazy idea that we should actually be teaching our students content. I know. Nuts, right?

There are some great explanations of why content matters here, and there's a classic example about how a reading passage about baseball will be much more comprehensible to a kid who knows what a pitcher, shortstop, and outfielder are, but here's my elevator speech:

Remember when you were in high school or college, in that class where nothing seemed to stick? No matter how much you studied? For me, those classes were Ind0-Iranian Mythology and Greek and Roman Mythology. I was overworked (long, not particularly interesting story), exhausted, and frustrated by my inability to keep it all in my head. I did not have enough of a knowledge base to be able to link the stories of Hera's jealousy to Hercules' labors to what it might mean if Atlas shrugged. These stories are all linked, and knowing one story helps me remember another because the details of those stories form a sticky net, like a spider web. Once I have  accumulated enough threads of knowledge, my net is fine enough to catch the new fragments of knowledge that came drifting by. 

And that's when the magic begins. That's when connections across subjects begin to happen, when a reading of Great Expectations can evolve into a discussion of the Victorian Era, Frankenstein, Icarus, the tower of Babel, and Promethius unbound.*

That's how content works. My youngest son, Finnegan, is in third grade, at my Core Knowledge school. Three times a week, he leaves the comfort of his classroom and attends a bona fide history class. Not "social studies," but capitol-H History class. Content. History. Facts. 

This month, he's learning about the Vikings and Rome, Leif Erickson and Julius Caesar. When he gets to fifth grade and Dr. Freeberg's reading of The Odyssey, he will have a context for the journey of the hero, lust for power, and land, and exploration. This might evolve in to discussions of Napoleon, colonialism, and slavery. In sixth grade, when I finally get my pedagogical talons in him, his web will be sticky enough to hold on to Julius Caesar, the geography of the Roman Empire, the literal and figurative meaning of "alea iacta est" and the controversy surrounding the quote "Et tu, Brute?"

I don't mean to dismiss the importance of a warm, welcoming, and safe learning environment; I worry about my students' trust and safety every day, particularly in light of recent events. Students can't take in what teachers have to offer if they feel unsafe or unwelcome.** I do, however, mean to dismiss the empty platitudes conveyed by my colleague's choice of Twitter profile. 

I'm sure she means well, but America's educational system contains enough empty platitudes and kitten posters. It's time to fill our students with some real content, create some connections, and see what sticks. 

*Great Expectations is about a boy who is re-made as a gentleman by his benefactor, and that benefactor plays god when he takes over Pip's life and shapes his destiny. Dickens refers to Frankenstein and the themes Great Expectations shares when he writes, "The imaginary student pursued by the misshapen creature he had impiously made was not more wretched than I, pursued by the creature who had made me..." Icarus, like Dr. Frankenstein, was destroyed by his own desire to become god-like, and the people of Babel were rendered unintelligible by their desire to build a tower to heaven. Not much good comes to mortals who aspire to god-like status. Finally, Promethius was punished for tricking the gods and messing with their plans for us mortals, which brings us back around to the beginning, and the subtitle of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, The Modern Promethius. 

**There's a great discussion of this subject in Paul Tough's How Children Succeed.


  1. Love your blog. In this case I fear you are expressing things as "OR" when it should be "AND." Clear and relevant content AND effective facilitation of learning (and intrinsic motivation, activation of prior knowledge and many other factors) have been well-proven to impact the quality of student learning. So for example, CK focuses on content, but were it delivered clumsily then that content is less likely to be retained by your students. Conversely, adeptly delivered nonsense goes nowhere too. Glad you are out there delivering the right content, in the right way, every day. (Okay, maybe just on weekdays.)

  2. I agree with this post, except Waldorf is VERY content heavy. The teacher is in front of the room, pushing content from 1st grade on. (Kindergarten, on the other hand, might pass muster with your quote.)
    The quote sounds more Montessori, honestly. (There's content in the room, but you have to choose to find it yourself.)

  3. Reminds me of the old analogy, "I taught my dog to whistle." Yes, I asked him to read the chapter on whistling. I told him how to hold his lips, and even demonstrated so he could get it just right. Darn dog. He didn't learn a thing.

  4. "Waldorf-ian." I love that. Just the way it rolls off the lips.

    I shall be seeking opportunities to use that in a sentence this evening.