Blau and Finding the “Right” Meaning A Defense of the Learning Tool Everyone Loves to Hate

Characteristics of Effective Teachers (or, “What’s the point of English class, anyway?”)

February 17th, 2008 vkochis

I had never thought about it much, really – my purpose in life as an English teacher. That is I never realized that I needed to think about it until I found myself at the optometrist for an annual eye exam. In a darkened room, perched uncomfortably in a metal and leather space-chair with a phoroptor pressed against my face, I concentrated on figuring out just which lens was clearer…one or two? As he switched attachments and fiddled with the settings, the doctor casually inquired exactly what it was I did for a living.

“I’m a high school English teacher,” I said, squinting slightly at the squiggly black lines on the opposite wall.

“An English teacher, eh?” came the reply. “Can I ask you a question?”

Still attempting to decipher the stubborn hieroglyphics, I absentmindedly answered, “Sure.”

“What exactly is the point of English class?” he began, and I felt my neck stiffen. “I mean really, why did I need to learn about the themes and symbolism in Moby Dick when it had absolutely nothing to do with what I’m doing now?”

Now this is a question one would not normally expect from a grown man. A teenager, yes – but an adult with an advanced degree? Several responses flooded my mind, including some choice words which will not be repeated. But I thought better of myself and answered, “Well, it’s not just about recognizing a theme or a symbol and being able to spit it back out. It’s about developing critical thinking skills and learning how to express yourself in both oral and written language.”

I don’t remember what he said in response, or what happened during the rest of the appointment, but I do remember that moment as the beginning of something much greater than a new prescription for my contact lenses. I suddenly realized that my efforts in the classroom were integral to my student’s lives. That even though a large number of them would never go into a literary field, they would need to analyze, evaluate and, most importantly, express themselves clearly and professionally. I had to ask myself – were my lessons and assignments preparing my students for life outside the classroom walls? I wasn’t sure. This epiphany led me to apply for the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s Summer Institute and, upon completion of the program, a completely new way of looking at the teaching of writing and literature.

I had all but forgotten about this moment until I started reading Blau’s Literature Workshop. He reiterates my realization at the eye doctor when he notes that

“in teaching the operations of mind that are fundamental to the study of literature, we are also teaching and providing students with regular practice in a process of evidentiary reasoning that is the basis for effective intellectual work in any academic field or profession they might enter, and that also defines critical thinking in every enterprise of business, civic, or private life” (53).

Blau (and Wilner as well, as I will discuss momentarily) understands what behaviors lie at the heart of effective teaching. What I would like to do, therefore, is highlight the habits of effective teachers as indicated by Blau and Wilner.

1. An effective teacher recognizes the importance of communities of learning and applies such pedagogical thought in the classroom. Blau reminds us that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it, begging the question – what does this mean for our students? Just as teachers benefit from programs like the Writing Project where teachers teach and learn from one another, students benefit from an environment in which they are teaching and learning from another as well. I began using a classroom blog in the Spring of 2005 with one of my freshman English classes. The assignment required once a week posts on topics of interest from the reading. After posting, the students were expected to comment on one another’s posts, cultivating a dialogue about the topic at hand. My intent was to provide as little guidance here as necessary, though I must admit I was a tad concerned about the end product. I needn’t have worried, however – the students crafted some of the most thoughtful, engaging discussions of literature I had seen since entering the classroom five years earlier. This explosion of critical thought spilled over into the classroom: textual discussions were more vibrant; quiet students who previously said little suddenly came alive with brilliant insights. My students recognized this as well. As one of them posted at the end of the year:

“[P]osting on the blog…has allowed us to have some really interesting and analytical discussions. We were able to start conversations and carry them back and forth from the internet to the class. I appreciated the chance to not only voice my own thoughts and opinions but to hear everyone else’s, including those of you outside [our class].”

2. An effective teacher identifies and supports the balance between guided practice and cautious revelation of background information. As Blau indicates in the Mora workshop (and as we have discovered during class discussion regarding critical theory), there is a fine line between providing too much and just enough historical context for a literary text. Professor Sample’s handout on “The Flea” showed us the benefit of thoughtfully placing a text within its environmental framework. But we also discovered that knowing too much (or too little, as Blau discusses in Chapter 4) about a text’s or author’s background can lock students into a particular interpretation that may or may not be appropriate. An effective teacher, then, determines how much information is suitable for the situation, providing the most favorable conditions for the development of true critical thinking in the explication of a text.

3. An effective teacher not only crafts instruction based on his or her own academic knowledge, but considers the perceptions and prior knowledge of the students as well when designing appropriate lesson plans. I found Blau’s ability to consider the implications of particular teaching practices highly enlightening. I never would have considered, for instance, that skipping over difficult lines might indicate to a group of students that they are “too stupid” to figure them out on their own (27). He also appreciates the vast body of cultural knowledge (or in some cases, lack thereof) a student might bring to a text and how this would affect individual readings. Wilner, too, exhibits this ability, and I was inspired by her willingness to revamp an already developed curriculum in order to help her students work through a knee-jerk response. By embracing activities that were neither part of her original curriculum nor traditionally used in a collegiate setting, Wilner helped her students craft critical responses that dug beneath the surface of their novitiate interpretations.

4. An effective teacher uses writing about literature as a means to foster critical thinking. Relevant writing assignments allow students to explore their own processes for making meaning. An effective teacher guides students in code-switching and the development of an individual voice tailored to the needs of the writing environment. In addition, an effective teacher emphasizes critical thinking skills necessary for constructing suitable analytical content over archaic and unnecessary “rules” for writing such as the avoidance of first person and “to be” verbs.

Effective teachers, then, create communities of learning in which student and teacher are partners in the construction and expression of thoughtful, relevant meaning. They understand their role in preparing students for life as thinkers and seekers of knowledge and, like Blau and Wilner, teach confidently in the face of questions like, “What’s the point of English class, anyway?”

-Ginny

Entry Filed under: Week 5

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ENGL 610:002 // Spring 2008

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