Teaching’s Other Greatest Reward

“Texts are not the curriculum,” I was told during Pro-D by an administrator, the Director of Curriculum and Innovation. The session had been arranged to introduce a revised K–12 curriculum and was billed as a great unfolding at the onset of the 21st century. “Texts are a resource for implementing lessons and practising skills,” she concluded. By this, I took her to mean that notation, for example, is a resource for students to finger piano keys or pluck guitar strings, which is something music teachers might accept. I took her to mean that landscape is fodder for brushstrokes and blending, something art teachers might accept. I took her to mean that a poet’s intimate, inspired reveries, shared in careful verse, is raw material for students who are learning to analyse and write, which I grant English teachers might accept. I took her to mean that I should consider her remark a resource and that this issue was now settled, which some teachers in earshot seemed to accept. To this day, I wonder whether a musician, or a painter, or a poet might accept her remark, but in that moment, I let it go.

I suppose I should be more forthcoming: I used to joke with parents, on Meet the Teacher Night, that I could be teaching my coursework just as well using texts like Curious George and a recipe book. That I decided to use Shakespeare, or Sandra Cisneros, or Thomas King, and that I would in fact be asking students literally to stare out the window as part of a textual analysis exercise—all just as arbitrary—illustrated the point: I built my course around some particular themes that reflected me and what I believed important about life. This, in turn, was meant to illustrate to students, and now parents, how bias plays a noteworthy if subtly influential role in our lives and our learning.

My larger points were twofold: firstly, no, texts are not the curriculum per se and, secondly, our Department’s approach to English Language Arts (ELA) focused more on skill development, less on content consumption. For us, anyway, the revised curriculum was reaffirming. What I merely assumed in all this—and presumed that parents assumed it, too—was that our Department’s approach was commensurate with the school’s expectations, and the Ministry’s, as well as with our province’s educational history and the general ELA approach found in classrooms across North America, for which I had some albeit minimal evidence by which to make the claim. As a secondary ELA teacher, I chose my texts on the basis that they helped expedite my curricular responsibilities. I suppose it would be fair to say that, for me, texts were a resource for implementing lessons and practising skills.

What was it, then, that niggled me about the Director’s comment at the Pro-D session? Did it have to do with decision-making, as in who gets to decide what to teach, and how, and why? Would that make it about autonomy, some territorial drawing of lines in professional sand? Was it more my own personal confrontation, realising that musicians and painters and poets deserve better than to be considered lesson fodder? I had never approached my lessons so clinically or instrumentally before—had I? Maybe I was having my attention drawn into really considering curriculum, taking the time to puzzle out what that word means, and implies, and represents. And if I never really had puzzled it out, what kind of experience was I creating for my students? I’ve always felt that I have done right by my students, but even so… how much better, still, to be done?

Months later, I sat at a table doing prep work next to a colleague, and a third sat down to join us. Eventually, as the conversation turned from incidents to editorials, the third teacher spread her hands wide and concluded, “But ultimately education is all about relationships.” In the next split-second moment, I was confronted by the entirety of my teaching philosophy, nearly a clarion call except I had nowhere to stand and run, so I just remained in my seat, quietly agreeing and chuckling at the truth of it all. We all did. That was my final year before returning as a student to a doctoral program. These days, I search and select texts to read so I can write texts of my own about particular themes that reflect me and what I believe important about curriculum, and teaching, and education.

I should say I no longer wonder why the Director’s remark that day, about texts, didn’t set me to thinking about curriculum, not like my colleagues did, sitting and chatting around that table.

… of Robbie Burns Day

The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley…”

In observance of Robbie Burns Day and, thereby, of John Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice And Men, I highlight this thoughtful character study of Curley’s wife, by Leighton Meester for The Huffington Post, based upon her own stage portrayal of that character.

Perhaps above all I appreciate Meester’s nuanced intuition about the audiences who judge Curley’s wife which, beyond their relationships to the characters in the story, might suggest something about their own – our own – blind spots and hypocrisies. How often we live with daily nonchalance, oblivious to the interiority of those we encounter, and of those beyond. How much we rely on our affirmed belief of our selves.

If confronting ourselves is art’s great authenticity, then Meester’s perception is spot-on: in Curley’s wife, Steinbeck subverts our conceit – whether he intended to or not. Indeed, the best-laid schemes…

Play’s the Thing…

I used to say to my students, “Find the overlap between our English coursework and, say, Trigonometry, or the link from persuasive writing to PhysEd. Where does Hamlet end and organic chemistry begin? Find that one out… there’s genius in that.” The courses my Department offered were called “English” and, helmed by some teachers, they were more traditional, as one might expect. The most common feedback I received from students, though, was how unlike English our coursework seemed to them. I took those remarks as a measure of success: my aim was to prepare young people, soon enough entering the world as older people, to be responsible… to families, communities, careers, and so forth. For me, that’s the purpose of school and its teachers.

What’s prompted me to reflect was reading Science, Order, and Creativity, by David Bohm and F. David Peat – specifically, such remarks as “the appropriate relationship between thought and experience… [in which] creative new perceptions take place when needed” (p. 49). That distinction between thought and experience reminded me of another distinction, this between dialogue and conversation. And again I was prompted to recall my English courses – what we had, I’d say, were definitely conversations, scratching new surfaces and digging into things with fluid spontaneity, as compared to the “my turn / your turn” protocol of dialogue, which might dig one trench but deeper and deeper. Where dialogue strikes me as instrumental, a means to an end, conversation is an end in itself, without start or finish but continual – that is, until the bell rings. We notoriously lived beyond the rigour of scheduling in some of my courses.

Those conversations were hard to let go. And what exactly were we after? “The creative person does not strictly know what he or she is looking for,” say Bohm and Peat. “The whole activity [is] play itself,” and no better description of teaching (at least, my teaching) have I ever read. Who knew I was so creative? Not me although I did have fun. So who knew teaching was just so much play? “The play’s the thing / wherein I’ll catch the conscience of–” well, anybody, really. I should clarify that I respected my colleagues and our Departmental philosophy as well as my professional obligation to Ministry curricula. At the same time, I relied on my own interests and concerns to guide our coursework, by day and by year. The result was a mixture of reading, discussion, writing, and presenting about topics as disparate as literature, film, fine art, civics, politics, economics, philosophy, etymology, all manner of topics – yes, even science and math – all bundled together in a process of classical rhetoric. Eventually, I developed a suitably disparate canon of texts, too, that flowed meaningfully from English 9 through 12. And I relied on students’ differences to alter and adjust the flavour however they might. I loved teaching for how creative it allowed me to be, and for how much creativity it provoked in my students. “Let come what comes,” Laertes tells Claudius – brazen, even foolhardy. Genius, perhaps?

Bohm and Peat seem to suggest that genius is not creativity per se so much as the effect of having challenged some assumptions, and maybe that’s mere semantic distinction. Either way, I like the notion. Later, reading Allen Repko, I found myself nodding likewise at what he calls “boundary crossing” (p. 22). There it was, this discovery of common threads in disparate disciplines, this crossing of amorphous boundaries, what my students have heard me call “genius” although I might now redefine that trait as “ingenuity.” Accompanying “boundary crossing” is a reaching across disciplines, with intent, what Repko calls “bridge building.” This, I think, I would call visionary. Discovery and vision, both what I would forever consider, as a teacher, to be meaningful developments of the learning process.

Repko also points out the origin of the word, “discipline,” deriving from the Romans and their need to “relate education to specific economic, political, and ecclesiastical ends” (p. 32). How delightfully Roman! I thought, reading that. Such instrumentalism, “the logic of utility.”[1] Finis at its finest: How long, O Lord! Will their legacy never end? But I trust in teaching and my unfailing students.

I enjoyed sixteen years teaching Secondary English to brilliant students. In that time, we developed a philosophy, addressed the BIG Questions, and fed our curiosity. But my planning process was seldom more than make-it-up-as-we-go. “We could never get away with this in Math,” I used to say to them, “although if you do find a way, I’d love to hear about it.”

[1] Phelan, A. (2009). A new thing in an old world? Instrumentalism, teacher education, and responsibility. In Riches, Caroline & Benson, Fiona J. (Eds.) Engaging in Conversation about Ideas in Teacher Education, (105-114). New York, NY: Peter Lang.