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Archive for July, 2013

When does now matter?

When does now matter?

My 5-year-old son has homework. Since he’s going to have homework in first grade, it’s good to establish the habit now. That’s the theory, anyway.

(Of course, the only reason to have homework in first grade is the make sure he’s ready for second grade. And the only reason to have homework in second grade . . . )

Ambitious high school students tackle a rigorous academic program that will prepare them for college. And in college, they’ll take classes that will prepare them for the work world. That’s the theory, anyway.

After graduating, they’ll take boring entry-level jobs that they’re overqualified for in hopes that, soon, if they follow orders well and ingratiate themselves to the boss, it will position them for a great job. Soon, they’ll find themselves performing challenging tasks, effecting change that matters, and solving real problems.

Soon.

When does now matter?

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There’s a spoken word poem by a teacher named Taylor Mali that has been viewed by millions on YouTube. In the poem, Mali calls out a dinner guest who utters the old line, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” He explains that he’s not worried about how much money he makes because he makes something more important than money—he makes a difference.

Everyone loves this poem. Except me.

Mali’s poem reinforces the old notion that teachers and students are adversaries, and the teacher’s job is the push the students hard and—against all odds—to make them do things they don’t want to do. Contrary to what society tells us, my experience has taught me that attitude actually hinders student achievement.

I don’t believe in the teacher-as-hero narrative.

I once had a student who designed, purchased materials for, constructed, and mounted a theatre-style projection screen in my classroom. One former student built a professional-quality website for our student newspaper. Two students wrote a script and shot a 20-minute movie. I had a student solicit and audition acts, send out invitations, design the event program, and manage backstage at an all-school talent show. Each of these achievements were done without a single push from me. I didn’t “make” them do it. They were done because the individuals were inspired and wanted to do something extraordinary.

I have an even longer list of failed attempts at pushing students do something extraordinary. It always ended in an embarrassing mess. Always.

Eventually, I learned a profound lesson: the greatest teachers don’t push students or make them do things. The greatest teachers cultivate an environment that inspires, get out of the way, and provide support.

Get updates at https://twitter.com/stevemiranda.)

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