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The Teacher is the Conductor and the Students are the Orchestra

My mother has been a high school history teacher for the DOE for over 25 years. During the first month on the job in 1982 at Seward Park High School in the Lower East Side, her chairman came in to her class to watch her teach. Afterwards, the first thing he said to my Mom was, “Who the heck taught you how to teach, cookie?’ He continued to say that she wrote so much on every chalkboard available to her that he thought she was going to take off her shoes and write on the soles as well. He said, “You’re doing everything for them. You have to work the classroom like you are the conductor of the orchestra and the students are the performers.” Richard H. Haswell would agree with this metaphor. He says that an “authentic learning situation” is “where the student is doing the most work…Long ago Comenius put it best: the more the teacher teaches, the less the student learns.” (Haswell 604). I agree with Haswell that to be successful in writing one must be self-critical and be able to problem solve on their own. I liked his Category of Errors method because it forced his students to practice revision, almost training them. I’d like to know if any teachers in our class use a similar method.

Nancy Sommers believes teacher’s comments on student papers are mechanical, vague and lack substance. In doing so, the students become distracted by the comments and thus they detract from the original goal of the paper only to appease their teacher’s comments. The question is if the students are learning anything from this practice. I agree with Sommers in that they are not. The only thing they’re learning here is how to copy something down. She also says that comments can be interchanged from essay to essay on various topics because they were extremely general in depth.

Peter Elbow in “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing” believes that “Students need the experience of writing a great deal and getting minimal and low stakes response because they tend to associate writing with criticism and high stakes” (Elbow 11). I’ve had an interesting experience with this. Before this semester, the last time I sat in a classroom was in 2008, my senior year of undergrad. As a first-time grad student, it was an adjustment to have classes that weren’t as structured as I was use to concerning grading. I have become accustomed to receiving no grades on my papers thus far. The short assignments have definitely kept me ingratiated in the course work. It also builds self-discipline and encourages personal responsibility to do well for you.

In Elbow’s “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment”, he downplays assigning grades and praises the processes of evaluation and “liking” which is “the act of expressing one’s judgment of a performance or person by pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of different features or dimensions”(Elbow 188). It’s common sense that if you like your job you will most likely do well and want to do well in your job. The same relation can be applied to writing. Elbow says, “It’s not improvement that leads to liking, but rather liking that leads to improvement” (Elbow 201). Essentially, if you don’t like something or don’t care about something why would you want to improve it? Therefore, it’s imperative for the teacher to at least try to “like” their student’s papers and for the student to feel the same about their writing.

All of the articles this week centered on two points: students will learn more about writing and become better writers by being good self-critical thinkers and that positive evaluation by the teacher will benefit the student’s writing more than general and cliché comments. The authors feel that less weight should be placed on a student’s academic status and more on their ability to thoroughly revise and judge their work. I thought it was interesting when Elbow said in the future maybe high school or college athletes would sue their schools for making them ineligible in their sport due to poor grades. This hasn’t happened yet and recently in this month’s college basketball championship tournament it cost Syracuse University wins due to their star basketball player being ineligible because of his poor grades. He won’t sue and neither will the next player because at the end of the day grades continue to hold the most weight according to school and university standards.

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5 Responses

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  1. Rachel Duso says

    Your last paragraph really gets to me because grades are supposed to hold more weight than anything but i find that regular education students don’t seem to care about their grade; not all of them but some of them. The special education students that i work with are obsessed with their grades because school is harder for them. Their learning disabilities make school and everyday life more of a challenge and the things they work hard for mean that much more to them.

  2. Guadalupe Bueno says

    First of all, the metaphor you mentioned is insightful. If one views student writers as performers and ourselves as conductors, we are submerging ourselves with new eyes into the core of teaching and what it really means. It is no doubt then, that if others do the work for you , minimal or no learning would be achieved. The essays enlightened the issue of commenting which made me think of a” fact “among adolescents, this possibly being that their belief in invincibility hinders them away from reading or even following the teachers’ comments. Furthermore, Haswell’s advice sheds some light, because his method opens up for the pivotal conversation between teacher and student during writing assignments which leaves the student to perform and the teacher command with some reserve.

  3. Dana Choit says

    Also love the music metaphor and your mom’s first day story!

    Similarly, on my first day of student teaching, my cooperating teacher took notes on what I was doing and one of the main things she told me was that I was trying too hard to help the students, and I needed to make them do more of the work. I really liked Haswell’s idea of providing marks for students to understand that errors are present- but they needed to be the one to find them, and that the students in turn would be more focused on the overall ideas of their writing that needed to be improved or expanded. It would be interesting to try it out and see if the students do actually being more focused on the “big ideas” or they just revert to correcting whatever is commented on and then on searching for the marked mechanical errors.

    In terms of the grading emphasis, I think that grading should take into account the efforts and work of a student, so that even if they perform poorly they may be given some leeway for trying. (kind of going back to our conversation a number of weeks ago on society’s view of Math and English- that’s pretty much what got me through HS Math! I showed up every day, did my homework and tried really hard- not sure if it warranted my personal grade of like 80..but so what if I basically failed every test…)

  4. Christopher Grimm says

    I agree with Rachel, Guadalupe and Dana with various points of your post, Travis.

    First, from the bottom to the top. Rachel’s comment about the last paragraph is insightful, because it resonates with me, as well. Grades SHOULD be the final word on academic performance (cue Peter Elbow supporters attacking me in “3, 2, 1…”), however “ranking” based an incomplete. These athletes might use college as a stepping stone to advance their sports careers, but the academic basis for universities remains. If they cannot make the grade, the MINIMUM passing grade, then they should not play.

    Guadalupe and Dana enjoyed the orchestra metaphor. I did, as well. Carrying the music trend along, there has to be a harmony within classrooms. Those of us who have taught can feel the “dissonant” notes of a lesson when something–or someone–is just not working out or fitting in. Like a mismatched note in a song, an asynchronous element can be disastrous. I like this administrator’s philosophy.

    However much I like your mom’s administrator’s philosophy, I disagree with his approach. How horrifying for your mother to suffer through such a harsh criticism of her job in her first month; “Who the heck taught you how to teach, cookie?” Today, this AP would be fired for sexual harassment for such a nickname (although I, myself, am known to utilize such colorful language); this condescending verbiage should never be used in a professional setting.

    Despite this rough start, I’m betting your mom got better, Travis, right? I mean, she’s been teaching for over 25 years. She must have had to learn to conduct beautiful musical pieces, or risk getting a better musical director. (Metaphor continued) We all learn from our mistakes, at least that’s the point of education. No one starts out a virtuoso; we all learn to play our instruments at different speeds. Here’s to all of us learning the rhythm, just like your mom!

  5. johnjparente says

    I too enjoy Haswell’s assertion that the more we teach the less they learn. I think this is why the change in pacing, mini-lesson, workshop models (Aim: Task: Mini: Model: Work Time: Close:) and all other little nuances cam about. They dissected our 41 minute periods and tortured a confession out of every pathetic minute in middle school, i dunno about you guys…

    Also, I need to vent: My Dad stood over my shoulder and made every piece of writing I submitted -right into my first year of undergrad- perfect. A career grammar guy and former subject of merciless yard stick-wielding nuns, he could not help himself. He picked me apart and kept me up all night until my work was worded correctly and all my thoughts were organized. So, if I seem weird about my writing style, I apologize, but at least now you know why. I was graded harshly by a few teachers, but most could find very little wrong with the work I handed in. It is kind of crazy to look back on it actually.

    I grade papers like a tool, I admit it. I don’t know any better. I think I’m learning something in this course. I know I will improve.