I am an English teacher, but I spend my days drawing triangles and circles: sometimes imperfect ones, but identifiably, these basic geometric shapes.
Once, during college, I created a unit on utopian literature for a hypothetical 12th grade class. I assembled a glorious reading list that chronicled the history of the topic, covered all the major writers, and led my fantasy students to explore related issues in depth. The list was long and comprehensive. But that’s all it was.
My professor wrote a single sentence at the bottom: What will the students do?
I hadn’t a clue. I think they were supposed to learn through osmosis. I wanted them to fall in love, as I had, with the texts and the ideas, but I had no sense of how I would orchestrate that love affair. I just supposed that they would open their books and read—and tumble head over heels into an embrace of what I thought was quite wonderful.
It was another teacher who taught me about the triangle. You start with a clear idea of what it is the students should learn, determine the instructional methods that will best lead them to grasp those objectives, and then assess their learning. Objective, Instruction, Assessment. You don’t test what you didn’t teach, and you don’t teach what you won’t test. A triangle is stable just because there are three points. Introduce a fourth—say, content that is irrelevant or a test question over something you didn’t teach—and you destroy the integrity of your lesson. It’s a simple concept, and though it is second nature to me now, I still keep that triangle foremost in my mind every single day—whether it’s a lesson, a unit, a semester plan, or even a whole course that I’m putting together.
In the beginning, my objectives were limited, even superficial—or they were too grand. It takes time to analyze content and pick out the important concepts. Over time, I learned to identify the gaps in some students’ learning and figured out how to remediate those students while I was accelerating others. I learned to anticipate what every student would need to understand big ideas and then to sequence my instruction accordingly.
I learned strategies that reach students disposed to every learning style, that accommodate exceptionalities, that differentiate for ability, that touch every level of learning–or at least I try to do all this. A smorgasbord of instructional strategies exists, and I still try new ones and invent others as much and as often as my ingenuity, stamina, and the available resources allow.
Finally, I learned to write assessments that match the objectives precisely and to select appropriate methods for assessment. The standardized format—multiple choice—usually isn’t the best way to test depth of knowledge or critical thinking. Essays work often, but not always. Some situations call for performance tests. Choosing the right assessment tool is a learned skill, too.
Crafting the perfect triangle has been the work of a lifetime.
And that’s only the half of it. A student can learn from a teacher who is technically skilled, but a student loves learning when the teacher loves the student, too. The geometry of a successful classroom includes a circle that, like the arms of parents around their children, makes the students feel important and secure, a circle that opens them up to learning.
I have to be ingenious, though. Some students resist being included in the classroom circle. Was the poet Edwin Markham thinking about a reluctant learner when he wrote this: “Love and I had the wit to win/We drew a circle that took him in”?
That’s what I do all day—entice students into the circle. And that’s where the art of teaching lies.
Some would say mine is the task of Sisyphus. True, I start over every single day. Always something technical could be improved, some interaction with a student could have been better. I reflect each night: If I would just…whatever it is…I’d have it!
But. Rolling the rock was a punishment for Sisyphus; for me, it’s a privilege. Sisyphus started over every day resigned, perhaps resentful; I begin each day with hope—because every day, every year that I teach, something wonderful happens: Kids fall in love with learning.
Some people think teaching is easy. You just stand in front of the class, tell them to open the book, and boom: Love happens.
No, you start with a triangle…