What I Learned About Teaching from a Tobacco Survey

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photo by lanier67 on flickr

A few weeks ago I was asked to complete a survey on what makes people quit smoking.  As an ex-smoker, I was willing to take the time, but as I moved through the survey I began to feel an unspoken agenda.  I was repeatedly being asked if smokers would quit if they were told that smoking is bad for them – should ads portray the damage that smoking does?  I could almost hear a plaintive voice asking:  “Shouldn’t preaching work??”

Believe me, smokers know that smoking is bad for them.  Every time they try to take a deep breath, every time they catch a cold that settles firmly in their lungs, every time they admit that they are constantly thinking about the where and when of the next smoke, smokers know in their hearts that they are being controlled by a killer.

But for most of us, knowing we should quit isn’t enough.  I smoked for twenty-five years, and for every one of those years I knew I shouldn’t.  I would cough and hack and catch colds that took months to get over, but my fear of trying to fight the addiction was greater than my desire to be healthy.  What finally motivated me to quit was a deep anger that my life was so deeply controlled by an increasingly expensive product that brought profit to the tobacco industry and nothing but addiction, sickness, and ultimately death to me.

From the specifics of tobacco addiction my thoughts moved on to thinking in larger terms about motivation, and that train of thought led me directly to the well-worn track of “How do we get students to do what we want them to do?”  The laments from professors are ongoing and vociferous – we must improve students’  reading, writing, decision making, and critical thinking.  We must somehow convince our students to come to class, do the work, and THINK.

Yes, all very well and good, but simply telling students they need to come to class, they need to study, they need to THINK is not enough.  Why should we expect them to be better at all this than most of us, who clearly have a hard time making positive changes in our lives?   We watch trashy TV that demeans the human condition and the human spirit, we eat too much, drink too much, smoke too much, yell too much, hate too much.

So.  Instead of repeatedly telling students that learning is good for them, I am going to shut up about that and become much more aggressive about  finding ways to make both the process of learning and the results of that process more immediately rewarding.  I keep thinking about how much fun it is to learn something new when we want that knowledge, and I wonder how to tap into (or perhaps re-awaken) that natural eagerness and curiosity.

I had thought that I had the answer, that the many active learning techniques I had implemented were enough.  My basic reading class last fall taught me different.  I pulled out all the stops, had them up and moving and exploring and talking and creating, and half of them still couldn’t be bothered to come to class (hmm, sensing a crisply edge of burnout still lurking in my heart.)

Henceforth, I am going to focus my planning on helping students discover the value of reading difficult material and the experience of becoming successful at doing so.  I am not going to preach any more – the “No More Preaching Project” starts here.

There are three kinds of …


Don't pee on an electric fence!

Who knew there was an international symbol for this?

“There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.” ~ Will Rogers.

A friend shared this on Facebook, and it got me thinking.  Just change “men” to “students” and you have my classroom in a nutshell.  I may have a student or two who learns by reading, but those who read to get their information don’t usually end up in developmental English classes in college.

There are a few students who get it through lecture and demonstration, which are passive teaching methods.  Only one person is actively engaged during a lecture – the lecturer.  But most of my students are doers – athletes, dancers, musicians, scientists, artists – and they need to pee on that electric fence themselves before the concept becomes real.  The impact on their academic success strengthens this analogy – hence their placement in remedial college English.

My challenge is to find ways to use those strengths to help them understand the abstract skills of academic reading and writing.  One can’t always pee on the fence, you know?

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com

and we’ll have fun, fun, fun …

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Creativity, experimentation and play are not traditionally a part of developmental education, at least at the college level.  There is a deeply held belief among many educators that having fun while learning will somehow diminish the importance of both the teaching effort and the content itself.  This attitude, unfortunately, has been particularly hard on developmental students.  They are students least likely to suddenly begin to succeed with the traditional, worksheet-based methodology that has failed them so far.

Often course assignments in developmental classes focus on routine and uninspiring tasks that have not engaged our already detached students, while the exciting learning is happening in honors and advanced courses.  Surely we can provide struggling students with similarly creative, exciting learning experiences.  Let us enhance and energize approaches to presenting developmental reading and writing courses so we create classes that encourage, excite and actually teach the up-til-now disengaged students.  One of our goals should be to interest that well-known student in the back of the classroom who is half asleep, leaning against the wall.

Brain research does not support a stern approach to education.  We learn by playing, by wanting to imitate others who are doing what we want to do (Smith 10).  Fun engages the emotions, and when the emotions are engaged, true learning, as opposed to learning for the test, is more likely to occur (Nunan 74). The most successful learning experiences will be “sociable, pattern based, sensory, emotionally non-threatening, energetic, choice based, relevant to the students’ own world, and meaning based” (Benjamin 65)  Whew.  I will be referring back to that list a lot as I develop my plans for teaching our lowest level readers this fall.

I gained insight into the impact of that list through the “reading autobiographies” I have had my speed reading students write for years.  Consistently, students write that they loved to read when they were young children, but somewhere between 6th and 9th grades they began to dislike reading, and many of them mourned the loss of the joy they had felt as young readers.  Apparently, our educational system has been remarkably good at destroying the joy of a child in discovery, and we must make a conscious effort to restore the act of finding joy (en-joy-ment??) in learning.

I agree that we need to get back to the basics.  As Philip Pullman says: “the most valuable attitude we can help children adopt – the one that, among other things, helps them to write and read with most fluency and effectiveness and enjoyment – I can best characterize by the word playful” (Pullman n.pag.)

If our goal is to help our students read and write with fluency and effectiveness and enjoyment, and we are more in our hearts than just the language police, then we must move beyond the comfort and simplicity of traditional methods of teaching.  We must learn to teach in the ways our students learn, remembering that our students are not us, and that if they are in remedial classes they most probably do not learn as we learned.  We must have faith in ourselves and our students, that if we work our own way through the complexities of our subject in order to be able to explain the material simply and clearly and if we teach them in the ways they can learn, they will learn.

Sorry about all the citations – I think it’s a defensive reaction because I’ve encountered so much opposition to this position.  “See, it’s not just me who thinks this way.  Lots of credible professionals do too!”

Works cited:

Benjamin, Amy and Tom Oliva.  Engaging Grammar: Practical Grammar for Real Classrooms.  Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 2007.

Nunan, Susan Losses.  “Forgiving Ourselves and Forging Ahead: Teaching Grammar in a New Millenium.”  English Journal March 2005: 70-75.

Pullman, Philip.  “It’s Time English Teachers Got Back to Basics – Less Grammar, More Play.”  The Guardian.  Web.  19 April 2009.

Smith, Frank.  The Book of Learning and Forgetting.  New York: Teachers College Press, 1998.

©HeyTeach101 and toreadtowrite.com 2011