Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Attitude of Gratitude #11: A Most Important Lesson

I read the gratitude blog challenge this morning over a cup of coffee. I have a new morning routine, thanks to the folks at TeachThought. I get up a little bit earlier, get myself together as usual but also reserve a twenty minute chunk of time to eyeball the prompt and read other Reflective Teachers' posts for inspiration. This sets the tone for my day, and more often than not, the blog questions require lots of marination time. 

But today's question, "What is the most important lesson you want to teach your students?" required much less noodling. The first thing that popped into my mind was I want them to be problem solvers, to have the kind of reasoning skills to help them face the array of problems they will (and already!) encounter. And now, before going to bed, I'll pick up the thread I began following this morning, book ending my day with reflection. 

As an English teacher, I want students to figure out how to best express themselves in written form, using the conceptual knowledge of rhetoric and composition to guide their decision making process. This problem solving isn't about memorization, which has surprised most of the scholars in my class. Many enter my classes believing that success in English is a matter of mastering rote, mechanistic formulas, sans an authentic voice.


That's not the kind of scholarship I hope to nurture.

I work hard to imagine, devise, and create meaningful learning experiences that compel student to go beyond demonstrating they can define writing concepts. I want them to apply concepts to solve problems that real writers face. So my writing prompts, when I'm at my best, don't ask students to compose the standard five paragraph essay, those decontextualized writing situations that exist nowhere else but in a classroom. 

So the structure or shape of the assignments students complete have less to do with a formula. Instead, I hope that what they've written demonstrates they've attempted to solve problems the way real writers do, by thinking through the lens of our discipline, and by asking the kinds of questions real writers struggle with as they compose. Who is my audience? What is my purpose? What moves do I need to make to appeal to y readers' hearts and minds? What must I do to appear credible? And how do I maintain my voice throughout the process of crafting my composition? 

I hope that those kinds of questions find a home in students brains, becoming habits of the mind they can hone and practice long after they leave our classroom. 

Yet these questions don't necessarily have a right or wrong answer or a black-and-white solution. Solutions fall along a range between unreasonable and highly reasonable approaches. Lots of contingencies will condition their choices. And whatever approach selected should be just that: deliberately selected. 

I'm not avoiding the idea of a "correct" or "right" answer. Accuracy is an important intellectual standard. But accuracy is only one of many standards, including clarity, relevance, significance, depth, and breadth (I'm basically rehearsing the intellectual standards promoted the Critical Thinking Community, one my major teaching inspirations I wrote about earlier). Indeed, how can we even judge if something is accurate if the expression isn't  sufficiently clear? And an accurate statement, if irrelevant to the issue at hand, isn't good reasoning. 

I'm getting a little bit ranty here. So let me end by saying I want students to leave my class with sets of questions to help them approach the dilemmas they will (and currently!) face, problems we all encounter. Hooray for problem-solvers!