I just had what may have been the single best class of my college teaching career so far. There are times when it all just...works.
I work with future teachers, and one of my big goals is to always try and connect theory and practice--if I say it's "good teaching," they should be able to observe it in my own teaching practice. I recognize that I will never be able to do this perfectly. But sometimes it all just...works.
Today's lesson in my Middle School Curriculum and Instruction course was like that.
I brought in an actual writing sample from a real sixth grade student. The penmanship is awful and the spelling and grammar are atrocious. But the story this child has written is quite creative and actually has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. The protagonist is quite well-developed. There is real conflict, and several surprising twists that are fanciful, but make for a great story. There are also some troubling aspects: a scene of vandalism and robbery, and discussion of weapons. As the story unfolds, it seems quite clear that that author was putting himself in the tale (though certainly embellished in the robbery vignette and later with a visit from an NBA star.)
I began by putting the story on the document camera and--as we read it together--marking all the spelling, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization errors. There were a lot of them, usually several in every sentence. Ten minutes later, as we were in the middle of page two of the 8-page story, one of my students interrupted our reading to ask, "Can't we just read the whole story first and come back to mark it later?"
Which was just what I had hoped would happen.
Copies were already printed and ready; I quickly moved my students into their teams and had them read through the rest of the story. It took them almost 20 minutes to make out the remaining six-and-a-half pages of chicken scratch.
Afterward, I asked them what grade they would assign for this writing.
Oh, the debate! After ten minutes of conversation, we had pretty well agreed that the story was so good, handing the child back a paper bleeding red ink would crush his spirit. Certainly there were many areas of his writing that needed work to meet the standards of written English, but the wisdom of the group was that this child needed more than a "D+" on his paper.
Which was just what I had hoped would happen!
I then asked the magic question: "What does this child really need?"
Great discussion about the developmental needs of middle schoolers resulted. (I have the blessing of working with some really, really fantastic pre-service teachers!) We talked about academic needs, of course, but also social and emotional needs. I was hoping we were going to make the turn to talk about the spiritual needs of this child as well, but while we were still in the midst of our conversation, the door opened, and the professor for the next class to use the room stepped in. I looked at the clock in surprise: we were already five minutes past the official end-of-class time.
No one had looked at the clock, so engaged we were. Had my colleague not stepped in, I'm sure we could have continued for quite some time.
Teaching is a fearful thing. We make plans, we design activities, we create assessment vehicles...all in the hopes that our students will respond, will think, will learn. Can we ensure that they will learn? That is a hard question.
Today, it all just worked for us in my Middle School course. They learned. I learned along with them!
It might not come together that way again on Monday when next we meet. But I count it a privilege to have the opportunity to try, and try again, and miss the mark sometimes, and try yet again. And sometimes, by the grace of God, it all just works.