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Teachers help students think

By Kay McSpadden
Special to the Observer

If you thought a teacher’s task was to answer students’ questions, that’s not true. Or at least, it is only true sometimes. Let me illustrate by sharing three questions my students asked me this week.

The first question comes from my Advanced Placement class. Some of the brightest and most motivated seniors, they have opted to take a college level class instead of sliding through their last year of high school.

Much of the time our Socratic discussions consist of my asking questions and then shooting holes in any weak arguments the students offer. Thoughtless, off-the-cuff, shoot-from-the-hip comments disappear. Over the course of the year through the crucible of debate and discussion, my students learn the value of thinking before they speak, of backing up what they say with more than mere opinion, of listening to each other and evaluating what they hear.

As we make our way through the first major unit, my students struggle to define truth. We talk about absolute and relative truth, about perceptions and opinions and facts. I use a favorite sleight of hand and ask about the color of the wall.

“White!” they insist.

“Are you sure?” I say, giving them a chance to recant. But no one does.

Until I turn the lights off.

“That wall is black,” I say, and I can hear the wheels in their brains whirling.

We spend the next few minutes defining color and then going a step further to discuss the physics of light wavelengths and how human eyes are constructed and how the brain makes sense of what the eye sees.

Still, by the end of class, they aren’t sure what the color of the wall is.

“Just tell us!” Danny said. “Give us your opinion!”

At some point every year, some student asks this question. What should I think?

Role is not to indoctrinate

It’s one question I refuse to answer. My task as a teacher is not to indoctrinate my students or to make them comfortable; it’s to help them learn how to think logically and rationally…and for themselves.

The second question this week comes from my juniors in American literature. Although the class is designated a college prep class, most of the students have other goals for after high school. One boy wants to be a truck driver like most of the men in his family. A girl taking ROTC hopes to join the service. Several students are in vocational programs – nursing, culinary arts, auto-mechanics, building construction.

This week we’ve been reading some of the founding documents of the United States – Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, Patrick Henry’s Speech to the Virginia Convention, Thomas Jefferson’s The Declaration of Independence. They aren’t particularly easy for 16-year-olds who don’t particularly like to read. My students and I have read them slowly and closely, learning the vocabulary, making sure every phrase is translated into modern English, the meaning clear.

So far the students have been willing participants, even though they complain that they are reading and writing more than they bargained for.

Then one day a girl in the back of the room asks the question.

“Why are we doing history in an English class?”

I sputter something about the literary merits of the nonfiction documents we are reading, about the connections between disciplines, the integrated way they need to see the world.

My students’ eyes glaze over. That’s a question that deserves a serious and a funny answer.

“Actually,” I say, “how many of you are in American history class this semester?”

Almost all of them raise their hands.

“Have you started learning about the American Revolution yet?”

They tell me that it’s on the schedule for next week.

“The reason we are reading history in here,” I say, “is so you will look like a genius when your history teacher gets to this stuff.”

The last question comes from my creative writing class, most of them freshmen, though of all abilities and interest levels. They ask what is probably the most common question every teacher hears at some time in her career.

As I hand out the rubric for the short story writing assignment, someone pipes up, “Do we have to do this?”

That’s a question I always answer.

“Of course not,” I say. “You have a choice. Do it or don’t do it. It’s up to you.”

A few smiles break out. One boy starts to put away his notebook.

I hasten to add, “But be aware – there are consequences to whatever you choose.”

The boy pulls his notebook back out and opens it, looking around. The smilers have already moved on, their fingers dragging their pencils across the landscape of notebook paper, searching for answers in their own imaginations.

Guest columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of “Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching.” Write her at kmcspadden@comporium.net.
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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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