In one word: practicality.

Retracing my blog entries resulted in the sketch of a teacher who is preoccupied with practicality. My focus on practicality takes several forms—I worry about my own adequacy as a teacher, about what can realistically be done with 9th and 10th grade high school students, and about institutional constraints. Each reading is filtered through one of these varieties of the same concern—is it practical for me?

My concerns about my adequacy as a teacher come up when discussing the difficulty paper—I’m unsure that I would be able to teach my students how to notice when they are struggling, or should be struggling. I see myself wrestling with self doubt again when discussing a culturally critical approach to literature. I worry aloud in that post if I am doing my students a disservice if I have ideas about how to change our culture in my heart, even if I don’t tell students what to think. Reflecting on this—and having jumped through hoops on this issue many more times since I wrote that sentence—I think I’ll always wonder about that, and that it’s a good thing. If I am wary of impressing my own ideas rather than letting my students watch their own take shape, I will be more likely to maintain the type of classroom environment that I seek.

I notice that I don’t say “but what about the sort of kids I have?” in any of my blog posts, but as anyone who has heard me talk in class could see, it very clearly guides my thoughts. When I ask if an activity is practical, I’m really asking a lot of things: can I get away with this at my high school? Can I maintain discipline while we do this? Do I have the time or materials to do this with my growing student population? These concerns tie very closely into my concerns about what I can do given my particular institution. Institutional concerns in my posts range from concerns of content to more practical ones, like the amount of time considered acceptable to borrow a novel from the communal book room. I wrote about these concerns several weeks ago, and naturally I’m no more resolved or comfortable with them than I was then. It seems to me though that resolving institutional concerns is largely a matter of doing what a veteran teacher, now 45 years in, told me after a recent meeting on the fresh SOL scores: “We go, we nod and say we’ll do it. Then we go back to our rooms, wait a few weeks for them to forget, and we go back to doing what we know works.”

There has been a shift in my most recent post away from feeling frustrated or disheartened by issues of practicality to cheered by things I found in Blau that I found readily applicable. I felt that I had an answer to what has long been the question of smart but lazy students—“hey, doesn’t it mean whatever I think it means?” I also felt I could use Blau’s habits of successful readers with my students, as well as the general reminder that I need to let my students sink a little if they’re going to learn to swim. I mentioned in my writing that I felt I had some practices down, but that I needed to change some habits of mind, and I’ve seen this change in my teaching. I’m less afraid to stop teaching and to let the students puzzle things out for themselves with the help of my questions instead of my answers.

Somewhat amusingly, another theme is that I comment on my need for practicality several times in my blog entires as I go—I know it’s a topic I bring up a lot. What I had not noticed before is that I’m almost apologetic that I bring up this issue so often. After giving it some thought, I think I feel too similar to the “Well, what do they need to read a novel for if they can’t use it in their future job?” crowd when I ask for practicality. I realize consciously that these are very dissimilar approaches, but it’s a hard feeling to shake even now that I’ve brought it to the surface.

One thought on “In one word: practicality.

  1. afaye

    I really appreciate your practicality! Every time a classmate drops some in-practice knowledge it helps me ground our theories in the realities of education, which is a major reason I’m in this program. Personally, I never equated your honesty about real-world constraints from the job-skills only approach and your discomfort with even the possibility of aligning the two further proves their difference. Hopefully this helps shake a little of that hard feeling and I’m really grateful you shared it and all of your real-world, right-now experiences.

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