Finding and developing our students' interests increases their engagement in learning.
By Matthew Roach, English Department Chair
From the Peddie Chronicle Spring/Summer 2018 issue
Last summer, when I was not playing basketball or watching “Game of Thrones,” I had the opportunity to read intentionally and widely, with Peddie in mind.
One particularly intriguing book I encountered was Colson Whitehead’s “The Intuitionist,” a deft racial allegory centered on the Department of Elevator Inspectors in a fictionalized future New York.
When the novel opens, there’s a debate between two schools of thought in elevator inspection:
On the one hand are the Empiricists, trained in graphs, measurements and numbers, who seek to know and define each detail of an elevator before making a judgment on its safety. On the other hand, there are the Intuitionists, who can determine safety through “listening” to the elevator and getting a holistic sense of it. Somehow, Intuitionists are right 10 percent more of the time.
While the novel ultimately complicates this debate by showing that its very premise is a facade and distraction from the systemic oppression of the city, this initial controversy got me thinking about teaching.
Often, Peddie faculty must be empiricists. We need to check the forms, get our Commercial Drivers Licenses and complete training modules. We need to use data to market our efforts and be mindful of our expenses and revenues.
"We need to get to know our students as full people -- find out their interests, go to their concerts and plays, share with them readings and books about the things they love."
The classroom itself routinely demands empiricism. We use Canvas and Gradebook, and we have emergency drills. Our courses feature scope and sequence, rubrics and a certain number of graded assessments per term. We need to work hard and be on top of all of it.
But here’s the thing:
This empirical work, while essential, is not what makes Peddie teaching distinctive, and not the core of our culture, or our mission. The true value of a Peddie education is in our intuitionism and our humanity.
It is not enough for us to be experts in our fields.
As my friend John Austin, the head of King’s Academy in Jordan, recently wrote:
“Learning happens between a student and a teacher in a relationship that is dynamic, creative and supportive. This has been true since the time of Socrates (Plato’s teacher), and it remains true today.”
For this kind of learning, then, it is not enough for us to be empiricists who are experts in our fields of study.
We need to be, as Austin wrote, “gifted at communicating the joy and pleasure of disciplined, rigorous inquiry.” We need to “delight in the energy, potential and playfulness of young people between the ages of 14-19 (and know how to direct those energies) and we need to see these formative years as an opportunity for inspiration and transformation.”
We need to get to know our students as full people — find out their interests, go to their games and concerts and plays, share with them readings and books about the things they love. One pleasure of teaching English, in particular, is that there is great writing about just about everything, from robots to basketball to fantasy. And any superb literary text can be taught in ways that connect directly with students’ passions and deep questions. Finding and developing these interests is the key to excellent teaching.
As Peddie’s Assistant Head for Student Life Pete McClellan ’90 opines, “Students learn best from teachers who know them well.”
It is no coincidence that in recalling his most formative influences, George Saunders — a writer that our English department loves to teach — has written about relationships built on teacherly intuition.
Saunders recalled making a comment in Mr. Lindbloom’s high school geology class, and then being pulled aside, personally, by his teacher, and asked to write more about it.
“I handed the essay over on Friday. Mr. Lindbloom pulled me aside on Monday. To thank me. That afternoon, [my English teacher] Ms. Williams told me that she read it, too, and thought it was good, really interesting, I should keep it up, keep writing things down as they came to me.”
"Students learn best from teachers who know them well."
--Pete McClellan '90, assistant head for student life
Saunders’ story seems simple. A teacher takes extra time to encourage and support a child, and make him feel important, talented and smart. After this conversation, the child feels like his words and his intellect matter.
These apparently simple gestures require attention, craft and intuition. We need to pick the right book, make the proper connection and have the perfect tone when we talk to our students. We need to cultivate an intellectual but unthreatening atmosphere, one of friendly, unanxious expectation.
And, crucially, we must listen to our students. We must establish trust and credibility, without demanding either.
This work becomes even more crucial when students feel out of place or when they appear disinterested in school, as Saunders did.
Saunders wrote, “It all could have been different for me and would have been, if not for whatever it is that makes an older person — busy person, tired person, finite person — turn toward a young person and say, in whatever way is needed: ‘Of course you can. Why not? Give it a try.’”
Saunders goes on: “Mr. Lindbloom and Ms. Williams married a few years later, taught in that same school another 30 years and only recently retired. I do the math of that sometimes: how many kids, over the course of those years, got the benefit of their loving attention? How many people are incrementally more thoughtful, curious, and open — how many people think slightly better of themselves and their abilities, are more capable of change, love, generosity, rebound — because of these two examples of that precious race, the true teacher?”
In so many ways, our courses, curriculum and class planning can help us in the pursuit of both empirical and intuitive excellence in the classroom. Our courses are works of creative art from Peddie teachers, and they reflect careful consideration, excitement and curiosity. We challenge our students and give them options for fresh, innovative courses, assignments and class discussions—all while building traditional skills of reading, writing and discourse.
Indeed, our Peddie classes support this kind of relational, intuitive teaching on a structural level. They ask core questions about society and life. We seek to draw out connections and debates, and challenge students’ assumptions and ideas.
It is no coincidence that George Saunders’ intellectual breakthrough came after his teacher stepped away from a traditional, rote lesson plan to ask core questions:
“Every Friday he gave his class over to free discussion. Why are we here? Why does evil so often win? How should we live? Those things that you know: how do you know them? Are you sure about them?”
For those of us who teach in the humanities, these same questions are embedded in the texts we teach. Every day at Peddie features these kinds of conversations.
“Why are we here?” We might join Hamlet in pondering the question.
“Why does evil so often win?” We wonder while discussing Iago, or Tom Buchanan.
“How should we live?” We consider through Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah.”
“Those things that you know: how do you know them?” We question while reading Italo Calvino and Zadie Smith.
“Are you sure about them?” We unlearn and rethink with Vanessa Hua, Claudia Rankine and Toni Morrison.
These sorts of core questions can lead students to a deeper understanding of themselves and others. Students who are thus engaged have intellectual breakthroughs that form the basis of transformative learning.
The beauty of this learning and this approach is that, through intuitional and relational teaching, we can achieve greater empirical results. Our students will write more effectively if they care about their essay topics, and are curious about them. They will learn more when they know, respect and appreciate their teachers, and feel respected and valued in return.
It is crucial, then, that we continue to build our courses, and our school, with relational teaching in mind. When students share ideas, opinions or personal stories — whether they seem to be important or trivial — we will be ready to read them, hear them and respond to them with empathy and humanity.
Through this kind of teaching and learning, our students will see few limits, and many opportunities, for their minds and their lives. This is the essence of our mission and the real value of a Peddie education.