My days are so changeable; I’m so changeable. Earlier this week a housemate was turning off our water at nights due to a leak in the pipe through the kitchen wall. The controller for the water is located at the front of the house, outside the gate that is locked with a stiff, rusty lock one has to arm wrestle open. The way the gate is designed, you have to reach through the gate to unlock it if you’re in the house. I’m the first one up on school days. Tuesday morning, the lock key refused to turn the final millimeter. Now, it’s one thing to have some anonymous entity turn off the water; it’s another when the water could be on if only a stupid fucking lock would work properly—don’t ask me why we all refuse to buy a new one—and I had what could only be called a tantrum, at 515am. I rattled the gate violently, vowed to throw that lock into oblivion, slammed our front door, and knocked over some liquor bottles that are stacked immediately beside the door (no idea why). I was an absolutely furious baby dinosaur. Brushing my teeth, I waited for housemates to storm from their rooms and yell, What the hell is going on? and then upbraid me for being rude. No one did. No one even mentioned my baby fit, at least not to me.
Despite this disastrous beginning, it turned into a good day, because I got to be a Good Teacher. A Holy Grail of teaching seems to be a book called The First Days of School. When I was researching teaching how-tos, that book was frequently cited as a touchstone for setting up a classroom to avoid behavior problems. The small house has a copy and I flipped through its pages before the school year started. Many teachers share their personal stories and the one I remember is a man who said his style of teaching involved his students doing all the work. At the end of the day his fellow teachers would be exhausted, while he was refreshed and calm (I envision him skipping down the hall, La la la) because his students knew procedures, took charge of their activities like knowledge-nibbling beavers, and he merely guided them along this river of self-learning. Oh gawd. If I’m gone for a minute to retrieve forgotten supplies from the teachers’ room, the 7th and 8th graders immediately abandon all educational tasks for gossip, mirror worship, and wrestling. My science lessons too often consist of me lecturing for the period and attempting to generate some discussion, some Socratic back and forth. It’s like wrestling hogs on a slip-and-slide. Use your brains, dammit! After class I slink away to the next class. Sometimes, though, I’m a Good Teacher, and while I might not have a posh yacht upon which to steer my students, I make do with a leaky raft.
I have a science textbook for this term. Let me tell you that my lesson planning is hours shorter. My school nights sometimes end at 6pm rather than 9. The book has science application ideas, and I just love the whole darn thing. I can wax poetic about it…. Here, let me do just that:
Oh dearest text of mine
that maketh the science so clear
let me clutch you to my heart
you are to me so dear.
Let us never part
would have a complete frikkin’ nervous breakdown I was so close to the edge I tell you and I do not deny my need for you and if you leave me ever I will find a bridge surely there are bridges here and throw myself from it.
And, no, that is not hyperbolic. I have never loved a book with such desperation.
Anyway, we’re studying light this term. The application idea was to envision what a red, green, and blue beach ball would look like through filters of those same colors. I had magenta and green filters. The students had markers. They drew their beach balls and passed around the filters. I took a break from talking for what I had anticipated would be ten minutes. My confidence quailed a bit when this turned into two classes—had I taught the concept so poorly? I self-consoled—whether my lectures were clear or not, application is always different from reception, from regurgitation of notes. None of them whined and gave up, and most of them, the ones that w/could, diligently tried and understood with a little individual attention. Then, Friday, we played with pigment, putting strips of paper marked with a black dot in a glass of water to see what colors of ink the marker companies used to make black (Crayola uses magenta and blue/cyan, FYI). More science in action. These classes were so relaxing, not because I was working less, but because this is what science is about, this playing with the world. I felt competent, like real learning might be happening. Like my students would do more than just memorize answers to the quiz questions. I was a Good Teacher.
The educational culture here, and to a lesser degree in the US, promotes regurgitation. Teachers lecture and students take notes, memorize, and recite on exam day. Students work for the grade, not understanding, which is completely normal and was a key factor in my educational drive when I was in school, although if I didn’t understand, I couldn’t memorize, which, BTW, some people find rather annoying. Over winter break I posed this question to /r/teachers (ever my resource), “How do I teach my students to think?” because once the students are done writing, they immediately turn off their brains. They can’t follow instructions or put 1 and 1 together to make 2. If it’s not already in the box, they won’t find it on their own. This drives me bonkers because science is boring without thinking and discussion. As is reading and speaking and anything, really. Learning English is more difficult and slower. One teacher suggested riddles, so that’s what the 7th graders do during double hour science on Tuesdays. They like it because it delays science, but I hope I’m sneaking in some critical thinking. As I write this, I don’t know why I don’t do this with the older grades. I will.
A common discussion among the volunteers is cultural differences in educational styles. The volunteers, most of us from the US and Europe, strive for dynamic classrooms with hands-on activities, peer interaction, discussion. My TEFL crash course was crammed with activity ideas. Note-taking and lecture is unavoidable, but it is never the primary approach. Depending on their grade level, the students receive this style of education about 2 or 3 classes per day. The remaining classes, lead by the Honduran teachers, are heavily lecture and notes, with the exceptions of P.E., home economics, and art. So our style is the anomaly of the day, and most of the students don’t quite understand how to manage their relative freedom when the activity is to discuss their winter breaks using the past tense, or piece together without significant assistance (spoon feeding) that if the apple reflects red light but the green filter transmits only green, that the red light will not go through the green filter, or that if Crayola keeps making more crayon colors, it probably means their brand is popular. But I try and I’ll keep trying because I see no point to teaching otherwise. I do wish, however, that the culture, and the US culture as well, was more open to inquiry, to playing around with ideas to find out how and why things work, and didn’t worry so much when the student’s grade falls below 100. Grades don’t equal learning, but that is a difficult idea to accept when grades also equal better schools, a road out of here, and parents feeling they’re getting what they pay for.
Science saved this week and while I won’t say 7th grade was a laugh, I will say it didn’t upset or depress me as much as it often does. I didn’t cry and beat the bathroom wall with my palms as I did last week. Also, our water was fixed.
But the gate lock is still pointless.