For the Love of Teaching

Brought to my attention by my colleague MaryRose Lovgren…this excerpt just in from a recent article entitled Good Teaching in Difficult Times: Demoralization in the Pursuit of Good Work submitted to the American Journal of Education by Doris Santoro.

…many teachers reap moral rewards when they develop responsive lessons that connect subject matter with their students. . . When that source of moral reward (e.g., designing lessons) is supplanted with, say, scripted curriculum, teachers lose access to a vehicle to moral rewards.

“Well, it’s ten acres,” said George. “Got a little win’mill. Got a little shack on it, an’ a chicken run. Got a kitchen, orchard, cherries, apples, peaches, ‘cots, nuts, got a few berries. They’s a place for alfalfa and plenty of water to flood it. They’s a pig pen-…Sure, we’d have a little house an’ a room to ourself. Little fat iron stove, an’ in the winter we’d keep a fire goin’ in it.” 

Student writing letterIf the above passage seems familiar, it’s from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I taught this novel to 9th and 10th graders at two different high schools. This specific part of the story focuses on George describing the dream home and property he and Lennie hope to own after shifting from farm to farm as migrant laborers. There were both literary standards and historical reading and analysis standards highly aligned to this excerpt, but neither were of any real interest to most 14-15 year olds. So I, like most teachers, endeavored to come up with a way to intrigue the average teen to consider the passage and the writing style and the context. “How would you describe your dream home?” I would ask them. “Was it as simple as George and Lennie’s?” Always, the answer was, “NO!” It was easy for us to understand that the dream of these farm laborers was fairly muted due to the harsh conditions of their own existence. Students were instructed to draw inferences from their own lives in direct relation to the location, features, and trappings of the dream home that they described. As an extension into the real of informational reading, we would look over Homes and Land real estate magazines to see how current realtors described properties as a means to get the interest of potential buyers.

The joy for me as a teacher was in devising a way to connect the classic literature piece and the literary style to the students’ own dreams and to the contemporary home advertisements that worked to solicit hundreds of thousands of dollars from a potential buyer in just 3-5 sentences. What was even more fun was challenging students to find a write-up of a current property listing and creating a better version of it using figurative language to sell a dream and submitting it to local realtors for consideration in their publication.

Creating scripted lessons for teachers to consider using on a day to day basis could be a wonderful resource. Creating sequences of links to related content on the great depression of the 1930’s and Steinbeck’s life along with online multiple choice questions would be helpful. But neither of these things should be confused as an adequate substitute for a strong, connected learning exchange. I certainly loved knowing of and having good, quality, interesting methods, activities, and materials at my disposal from other instructors. I also enjoyed devising my own activities and lessons, or minimally modifying those of other teachers specific to the needs of my students. But the discretion to make those modifications or just completely design new curriculum (as long as I could show the definitive connection to standards) connected with students’ lives and concerns and futures was paramount to my drive and joy and conviction as a teacher. Prescribing guiding materials and lessons to teachers is important, as long as they are imaginative and diverse (created by other exceptional teachers help with this) AND are seen as guides to the classroom activities and not dictated scripts to be followed judiciously. The Common Core State Standards are not designed to be the latter, so let’s make sure agencies and tools don’t erroneously translate them as such.