Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Off Script

Yesterday, I did one of my stock shticks for class. It's a routine about why we study grammar, and after thirty-some years of doing it, I have it honed to a fine science. It works for me, hits all the marks I want it to hit, and also adds something to the atmosphere and tone of the class. I know from years of results that it helps me do my job and helps set my students up for success.

And yet, in all the years I've had student teachers, I have never had an urge to write the shtick out as a script and tell my student teacher to read it to the class.

First of all, I couldn't. I have done the shtick probably around 150 times. I have never done it exactly the same way twice. On any given day, my tone, pace, detail choice, emphasis, and delivery will vary to match the mood and composition of the class. For this class it might come out a little sillier. For that class, a little more grittily detailed. I am responsive to my audience, because that's the point of a performance.

Abbot and Costello did "Who's on First?" a gazillion times. It was always a little bit different. The greatest jazz musicians played the same standards over and over, and yet never the exact same way twice. Even Glenn Miller, a bandleader who was notoriously exact and demanding, always reserved the right to vary the number of getting-quieter repeats at the end of "In the Mood." Grateful Dead fans have vast collections of different performances of the same songs, because they're not exactly alike.

Even films, immutable and locked in one performance forever, are records of moments of improvisation and invention. The script didn't tell Han Solo to reply, "I know."

The "reform" notion that teachers are just deliverers of content and that teaching will be improved if we can just give them a script and make them stick to it is one of the dumbest ideas to come out of the reform movement. It is an attempt to reduce teachers to robots. And it assumes that the audience doesn't matter at all, that the teacher should not respond or react to them, but simply barrel on while they take it in. Scripting imagines the classroom as a Disneyland ride in which the animatronic figures are not only on the banks of the Small World river, but riding in the boat as well.

I have met so-called teachers who love the script, love that they can just open the book, follow the directions, and not have to engage their brains. I do not respect these "teachers." Not only are they not teaching, but they are setting a terrible example for the students. Is that what we want from our students-- follow the directions, don't deviate, don't think or express unauthorized thoughts?

And I have limited love for Khan Academy and its ilk. I see a value in easily-accessed demonstrations of technical points. But if I stood in front of my class every period and presented exactly the same lesson while ignoring the class's reaction (do they look engaged? excited? confused? bored? lost?), and if every time a student asked me to clarify something, I just repeated the exact same explanation over and over again, nobody would call me a visionary. They would call me a crappy teacher, and they'd be right.

Scripts do not produce excellence. I can sing from the same sheet music that Frank Sinatra used, but I will not equal his performance. I can read lines from the same script that Johnny Depp used in Pirates of the Caribbean, but nobody will think I'm Captain Jack Sparrow. I can buy a Jackson Pollock paint-by-numbers kit, but nobody will want to hang my product in a museum.

Teaching is a relationship between students and teachers. In most respects it is completely unlike any other human relationship, but it shares one important characteristic. In any relationship, both people have to show up. They have to be present. You cannot engage someone else if you are disengaged yourself, and you cannot yourself be engaged if you are simply parroting the words that somebody else has given you to say.

I recognize that one some educational issues there is room for smart, well-intentioned people to have honest differences of opinion. I do not recognize that on this issue. If you like scripting, if you welcome scripting, if you don't want to enter a classroom without a script, you have no business being in the teaching profession.

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