Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sounding like a Beginner


I took up the cello a few weeks ago.  All I can do so far (even though I spent years playing the violin) is to pull the bow slowly across the strings, one at a time.  I've put a few fingers down, but the sound automatically changes to something less round and deep once I do. I have to stop, return to the open G or D string until I remember just the right amount of pressure the bow needs from my arm, while remembering to keep my arm straight as I move toward the tip. I sound like a beginner, and I hate it.

I'm pretty sure that these lessons are helping me as an English teacher. That feeling of being a beginner reminds me that I often ask my students to feel like that. I teach high school, so I'm not teaching new readers or writers, but when these skills don't come easily to a student, I'm asking them--when I say, now try a poem, now try lines written in iambic pentameter--to put themselves in a vulnerable spot.

Want to be a better teacher? Learn something completely new. Try to practice in front of someone else--whether it's belly dance, or basketball, or baking a souffle.  Stick with it until you feel frustrated and want to quit.

Then imagine that student who doesn't write a journal entry when everyone else is scribbling away, or think of the one who keeps forgetting the formulas you've gone over a zillion times. Think of the student who doesn't want to share her drawing or who struggles with spelling.

I think it's easy to get impatient with our students, especially if they are timid about subjects and skills we love and can do readily. We're in our element in the classroom, but our students aren't necessarily.   It may not be enough to say, I know this is hard for you. Go out on a limb yourself, take up something that is really hard for you, maybe something you're scared of learning.

Even better, ask a student who struggles in your class to help you learn something that she's good at--like play a song on the guitar, say some phrases in another language, or ride a skateboard. Sharing your vulnerability may allow your student the courage to make mistakes in your class. Then learning is more likely.

 I think we may sometimes forget, it's not always laziness or a lack of motivation that keeps a student from working, it might just be the fear of looking or sounding like a beginner.