What Makes a Good Teacher, Ctd.

I had hoped to do a little series on good teachers, but my memory is not helping me much. I will give 50% of the blame to a limited number of memorable (memorably good) teachers, and 50% to my brain fog.

I was thinking of this topic again today while listening to the senate confirmation hearing of Sonia Sotomayor, an activity I cannot recommend highly, but I have a hard time making it through the day without my public radio fix.

Sotomayor and Sen. Jeff Sessions were having a bizarre conversation in which Sotomayor would explain something, and then Sessions would completely misunderstand it and ask again. What it came down to was Sotomayor saying that she had been up front in talking about how a person’s background shapes the way they think. Though she backed away from this a bit during the hearing, she had argued in the past that a person really can’t escape the background in which he or she was formed — it may be judicially desirable, but not possible. Acknowledging this, Sotomayor argued, is a necessary step in trying to achieve any kind of objectivity.

Sessions kept saying, “I understand that but,” and then launching into another quotation from her which he took to mean “a person ought to judge according to his or her background.” It got to a farcical point, and I had to turn the radio off.

Their conversation reminded me of something I have talked about a few times before: this idea that there is an essential person underneath and distinct from the cultural, gendered, ethnic trappings. I don’t believe people are built that way, mentally or physically. Place, class, race, gender — they aren’t like plastic parts you stick on a potato head doll.

But that idea is hard for some people to wrap their heads around, in my experience.

Likewise, I found it difficult to get some of my students to engage with the possibility that language is not transparent. Like a person, an idea or concept isn’t constructed with discrete blocks of stable meaning neatly symbolized by a particular arrangement of letters or sounds. Even a merely formal analysis of language — putting aside reader response, author intent, choice of media — demonstrates that while you can highlight a word, phrase, or sound, it comes firmly enmeshed in the whole. This is not a great analogy but I think of the line from Marvin’s Room: “My feelings for you are like a big bowl of fishhooks. I can’t just pick up one at a time — I pick one up and they all come.”

To get around to answering Cher Mere’s question in the comments, one thing that sometimes worked to get students’ minds going in the right direction was discussing advertising. Very prosaic, I know, but for some it seemed to work. Talking about advertising opened students’ minds to the possibility that language works, language can be used strategically, language can be powerful in ways that the speaker never intended.

I did have students who clung very strongly to the idea of transparent communication: advertisements were just “information.” They had no effect on the viewer or reader beyond name recognition — they had no power to arouse desire without the viewer’s consent or knowledge. But money talks, and only the most stubborn holdouts could explain why companies would spend so much money on advertising, when they could leaflet every man, woman, and child in the US for much less money, if their purpose were merely to share information.

Recognizing that advertisements were a form of language that worked in non-transparent ways opened the door. Film worked as a means of introducing the concept too — for whatever reason many students felt more comfortable analyzing visual rather than verbal communication. I remember grading papers for a class on film noir, as a TA, and watching some students suddenly grasp the concept of analyzing a scene. True, many would go overboard, looking for earth-shattering significance in every detail, but the important thing was that their minds were now open to this way of thinking — and they liked it!

For homeschooling, I have simply filed this info away. I am not pushing analysis very hard. Considering that some very bright 16yos have to struggle with it for a time (*wink wink*), I don’t think it is fair to expect it from a 10yo. That said, I notice that some things seem to hold true: advertising is a ready (if not subtle or profound) way into discussing how language works. Kids seem to love to feel in on the secret: “A-ha! Look at that close-up, the use of slow motion, to make it look more appealing.” And visual communication can be a leveler: you (the adult) may know a lot more words and use them more effectively, but that doesn’t matter so much when looking at images.



Filed under Curriculum, Learning Styles, Our Philosophy (such as it is), Schoolday Doings, Why Homeschool?

5 responses to “What Makes a Good Teacher, Ctd.

  1. One thing I thank tv for is the experience in language analysis it provides for my dd. When she was quite little, I casually pointed out a couple of times the messages behind tv advertising, the languages they used, the tricks. Now she is a master at it. We also analyse poetry, story structure, etc (How To Read A Book is a wonderful resource for this) because I consider analysis to be high level learning – and also more fun than narration!

    But trying to get my teen students involved in analysis was so difficult, I gave up in the end. They’d just stare at me as if I’d asked them to describe their last holiday to Mars. Most of them had been to public school and I don’t think analysis work is done much there. 😦

    Your post was very interesting, but I will admit I didn’t understand it all, not being American, and also having a head cold 😉

  2. shaun

    You mean you’re not eagerly following our supreme court confirmation hearing of the first Latina justice? I’m sure there is a lot of shorthand in there that is impenetrable to many people, US native or otherwise.

  3. inneedofchocolate

    We’ve talked a bit about wordless language in terms of how stores display items in a way to encourage you to buy them even though other similar items may both cost less and last longer. And how candy/gum/sodas are placed at the checkout to drive parents insane/encourage you to grab them as you’re waiting in line.

    I’ve been thinking more recently about the importance of ethnic/cultural/socioeconomic background as my 5yo is learning to read. I’ve noticed how much harder it is for her to decipher words that she’s not familiar with or that refer to some facet of life she’s never been exposed to. I’ve thought of all the reports I’ve read of kids who don’t do well on standardized tests because their cultural background differs from the test writers and now I have a better sense of why this would be.

  4. I used to teach in a department of cultural studies and sociology. I taught a 2nd year course on gender and one of the things we did was analyse knowledge about the difference between sex and gender. I used an article by Emily Martin (an anthropologist) who had done an ethnography of a reproductive biology research lab. She explained clearly how our scientific understand of the basics of biological reproduction (the egg and the sperm) are already embedded in powerful cultural narratives about gender and heterosexuality.

    The interesting reaction I got from students was amazement that you could do this kind of analysis with scientific texts. They were fine with analyzing advertising and film, but the idea that you could use the same techniques to understand scientific narratives blew them away.

    That was an exciting moment as a teacher. And that lecture was often mentioned in the evaluations as the best one (yes, I asked them to tell me the best one and the one that most needed improvement).

    BTW, I paired the article with the opening credits from Look Who’s Talking. We talked about the use of music, colour, and voice-over … It’s pretty obvious.

    (the article is in Signs if you are interested)

  5. Thanks for responding.

    You might like this series – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Century_of_the_Self

    It is really interesting.

    Do you think that maybe those students in your class that thought advertisements were just information were S’s? S’s as in Sensing from the Myers Brigg Type Indictor.

    During the seminar I took on MBTI and business communications they did an exercise where they put people in a line (actually U shape) based on how high they scored on Sensing, then done the line to the other side where people scored highly on Intuiting. We split into groups of five and each group was given one pink packet of Sweet and Low.

    The S’s were asked what they were given and they said “A packet of artificial sweetener” or “one packet of sugar substitute” or maybe they made a list of bullet points “sweetener, pink, Sweet and Low, ” etc.

    On the Intuiting side (I was in the second highest scoring group) we answered in whole paragraphs about studies on cancer causing agents, the gender implications of the color pink, and the musical notes on the package. I said that it was a symbol that invited us to gather around the person holding it and brainstorm.

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