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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Passionate Learning: School Authority Versus Teaching Excellence (2004)

By Kirsten Anderberg
I have had some exceptional teachers in my life: exceptionally good, and exceptionally bad. What makes a good or bad teacher? Bad teachers tend to stick to stiff class textbooks, and their recommended discussion prompts, insensitive to individual class composition, as it changes semester after semester. These teachers tend to lean on authoritarian rule, when challenged by students for better content. Often these teachers seem to prefer incoherent textbooks, further securing their power over the classroom, rather than working with the students for maximized learning. Certainly some of these bad teachers are lazy and/or just overworked and low-paid. But many of them simply do not know what a good teacher looks like. I had a teacher who once said if you ask a teacher something, and you cannot figure out what they said in their answer, it is quite possible that they themselves do not know the answer, that is why their answer to you was fuzzy. I have had some bad teachers who taught me how to fight for higher educational standards, and I have had some exceptional teachers who have only heightened my thirst and hunger for knowledge and education.
Probably the most brilliant teacher I ever had was Mr. Ramirez, a man partly responsible for the School Within A School (SWAS) system in Los Angeles, Ca. in the 1970’s. He taught me a lot about active learning, participatory education, assimilated knowledge, and alternative teaching styles. Mr. Ramirez did not care about oppressive rules for the sake of rules. SWAS, under his direction, had couches instead of desks in the classrooms, we could drink or eat in class, we could play music in class, we could be HUMAN as we learned, instead of being treated like jail inmates. SWAS students had permanent hall passes, which disabled the school’s guards and fences, empowering us as people, and SWAS kids did not have mandatory attendance. Yet I would make sure to be at Mr. Ramirez’s 8:30 am SWAS psychology class every day, then would cut the next two regular school classes that did have mandatory attendance, after his. His classes were popular, as he seemed to have a passion for teaching and learning, and seemed to be learning alongside us, as a human, not as an authority figure. Mr. Ramirez’s psychology class was PACKED with information I have used my whole life. One class we all took the Benet IQ test. The next day we took the “Black IQ test,” and I’ll be damned if the African-American students did not kick the asses of the Caucasian students, teaching me about standardized test biases. (Later, in college, I would learn women outscored men on the original Benet IQ test too, so they had to retemper it so men scored more equally with women). Another time Mr. Ramirez took us on a field trip to a funeral home and morgue, and I have never forgotten the casket display room with those long windows that were blacked out with thick curtains. We also went to the state mental hospital, which was sobering and still haunts me, as I have seen nothing like it, in person, since. He took us to a vocational school for alter-abled adults, he took us to a school for the blind.
One of the most interesting things we did in Mr. Ramirez’s psychology class was an experiment in leadership and follower behavior. Part of the class was separated from the rest, and kept in the hall. Their instructions were, when let back into the classroom, to observe, and try to figure out who was the assigned leader of each group. Those inside the classroom were separated into four groups, each with an assigned leader (that you could not identify out loud), and were instructed to make a paper airplane to race at the end of class. It was amazing how some who were assigned leaders failed and others took over…and how follower and leader mentality played out in a small microcosm like making a paper airplane for a race over an hour class period. Another class meeting, he had us bring a potato to class, then we put on blind folds, and passed the potatoes around trying to find our potato by touch alone. One class he had us split into pairs, then had us just look at one another, without saying anything, or laughing, etc. It was incredibly hard and educational, teaching me a lot about self-consciousness. Mr. Ramirez taught us to think outside the box, with heightened sensory awareness, and he kept us thinking, always.
In college, I had a problem with English 102. The stories the instructor had us reading were all male-centered, and the women always died or went nuts in the end. It was truly annoying. Finally, after many, many stories where women drowned themselves, shot themselves, peeled wallpaper in insanity, etc., I finally requested SOME material where women were not always victims, and the men always heroes or saviors to the women. The teacher met with me privately, and said he did not know of such material! So he was a bad teacher, yet he was open to discussion, so he had potential. We agreed that I do part of his job for him, for credit, masked as Independent Study. So I paid tuition, to research, read and review, women-centered and women-empowering literature, for this teacher to use in his classes in the future. I got college credit for it. So he was a mediocre teacher, once he let me go into Independent Study. But maybe once he had a wider breadth of material, he will be a good teacher. I had a good music appreciation teacher, in that he kept bringing the classic art of the adjacent musical history periods into class, for us to look at as we listened to the music, and that was an added bonus we got from his teaching technique. I also had a political science teacher who had studied Chernobyl extensively, so everything in his class had a nuke angle. I learned about the native reindeer-dependent populations, much like America’s American Indian population, that were devastated by Chernobyl’s fallout. He brought in a Geiger-counter and showed us how wine from Europe during that period was more radioactive than average wine, etc. His unique nuclear expertise kept the political science classes he taught fresh and interesting.
One of the most life-changing classes I ever took was Women’s History. Somehow, I had never heard about the Japanese-American Internment in all my years of schooling, until I was 27 years old in college. I was stunned that this happened in places I grew up, in Washington State, yet I knew nothing of it as a kid. Somehow, I also never could keep all the male warring straight in history. It just seemed like most of history was men warring with men over land and resources and it was all a stupid blur to me. I enjoyed studying political history, such as the civil rights movement, but as soon as we hit the parts with war, I tuned out. I have the same disinterest in violence in entertainment, which is why I really do not like movies very often. Not until I read the diaries of WOMEN in history, did I begin to identify with anything in wars. In college level women’s history, I read the diaries of women who were sold into the American slavery system, and those diaries broke my damned heart, showing me the evils of capitalism at its worst. I also read diaries of women from plantations who had been rich, who were now picking through killing fields for bullets, with frozen fingers, to sell the metal for scraps of food during the Civil War. I began to be able to distinguish wars from one another once I knew what women did in them! I could finally tell the difference between the Revolution and the Civil War, once I studied it via women’s diaries. All those years studying it in history text books did not make a mark on me, but finally reading about history through women’s eyes, gave me a perspective that I could relate to, and I began to have an interest in history I never had before. Before it was about rote memory of what men did. Once I studied history via Women’s History, I found that history is much deeper and more interesting than just wars, men, and rote date recitation.
Good teachers have a wealth of interesting, unusual, and understandable material to share with their students, thus their consideration as an expert, as a teacher. Their classes do not stall for lack of substance or coherence. Good teachers, like good entertainers or good writers, present a DIFFERENT angle. They offer material students cannot find readily elsewhere. They get students thinking. A bad teacher just hands the student the obvious. And asks for nothing more than recitation and factual regurgitation. Good teachers go beyond memorization, taking mere memorization for granted, and instead demand ANALYSIS of facts learned (aka the “Socratic” method). Good teachers engage students in critique, and application, of materials studied. Gandhi said he wanted to appeal not just to the mind, but to the heart and the mind. Teachers should aim for the same. To actively engage a student with rich material, while facilitating creative participation, is a gift good teachers can give a student for life. I feel the greatest gift I received from my parents was a passion for learning. I think I lucked out, as I have had really good experiences with education. I was suspended, and expelled, for anti-authoritarian run-ins in high school, that revolved around dress codes, mandatory attendance, etc. and had nothing to do with my education. But I still snuck a bunch of learning in there. Or as Mark Twain said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

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