Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"A Letter to Teachers"

I almost never write in books. It’s an old habit, dating back to my college days when I realized I could sell my used texts for more money if I hadn’t written in them.

On Sunday, I picked up Vito Perrone’s A Letter to Teachers, another old favorite. When I first picked it up – over five years ago, now – I was so struck by what he was saying that I grabbed a red pen and began to underline, check, highlight, add exclamation points, and dog-ear the pages. It was fun to find myself as captivated by some of his ideas this past weekend as I was the first time I read them.

Here are a couple that jumped out at me:

It is also important when thinking about the content of our teaching, the questions we raise, the experiences we provide, the materials we select to read and reflect upon, that schools are not the only learning environments in children and young people’s lives. They are exposed to, even bombarded by, television, films, radio, newspapers, magazines, fast food restaurants, and billboards. And they hear conversations in the streets and in their homes.

In relation to many of these visual and auditory sources of information, teachers can help by providing their students with appropriate lenses and tools through which to understand their surroundings more fully, to assist them in separating the substances from the discordant noises and surface images. This means, of course, that they don’t close the curriculum to the world that their students listen to and look at every day outside school. It is helpful for teachers to know as much as they can about the neighborhoods their students come from, what the encounter in the streets, what the sounds and smells are, what is watched on television and what popular music is.

Question: How much of a correlation is there between the curricula of our religious schools – and the lives that our students and families lead? Do we talk about “real” situations – do we provide the opportunity to grapple with “real” issues? How much do we know about our students’ “other lives” – their homes, their secular schools, their sports activities, the books they read, the games they play, the music they listen to? Without a point of connection between our classes and what they’re living, what we teach becomes (in many ways) irrelevant.

As a principle, it is usually more productive within every area of learning to teach less more deeply than to teach more as a matter of coverage.

That comment actually earned a “YES” with 2 check marks in the margin.

“There’s never enough time,” we wail, “so I have to get in as much material as I can.” Our curricula are often too ambitious, filled with so much that there’s scarcely time to breath. Perhaps if we truly believed what we often espouse about life-long learning, we’d be able to stop and explore with our students. Deeper instead of wider.

Thanks, Vito.

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