Sunday, January 29, 2012

Teaching Everything

I have come to the conclusion that the best years of my teaching career were the ones where I taught a single curriculum middle school classroom. It was a Catholic school, and I taught every subject to my sixth graders from religion to social studies to English to math. Throw in art, music, and handwriting and we had a complete day. The only subject I didn’t teach was physical education. This allowed me to develop broad themes that inter-linked the subjects, and the day became a seamless exploration of learning. I loved every minute of it. Some subjects were challenging because I was not an expert; math and science were probably my weaker areas, but I enjoyed the opportunity to investigate and research these subjects in my preparation, and I found ample avenues where I could link them to what we were studying in history, social studies and literature.

Traditionally, those teachers pursuing an elementary credential studied all the subjects. They were the ones prepared for a self-contained classroom. Middle and high school teachers got the single subject credential and focused on a particular discipline in the humanities or sciences and spent their careers teaching that subject. Most teachers major in a single subject as undergraduates: an English major or a biology major, for example. Those who are best prepared for a multi-subject classroom are liberal studies or humanities majors, but those disciplines are often looked down upon for being too general, or because they cover large swaths of learning too diluted and not nearly academic enough.

It is time to change that way of thinking.

Teachers today come out of university not knowing enough. Sure they know theories; they know buzzwords like “educating the whole child,” “modalities of learning,” and “authentic assessment.” They know how to navigate legal issues, “value-added assessment,” “reduction in force notices.” Many of them, and their administrators, are particularly good at blaming others for failing classes or underperforming students. It is the parenting or the home life or the economic level of the students, but certainly not the school or the teacher.

There are many teachers who know quite a lot about their subjects. They know all the currently popular literature for the classroom. They can work the gadgets, computers, peripherals, and fancy overhead projectors to create mind-numbing PowerPoint lessons that amount to a slide show with words that the teacher then reads to the class. They can develop time-wasting group assignments—peer editing, reading circles, and class presentations—that never quite live up to their billing, but do shift the focus away from teacher directed learning. In fact, that last phrase has become unwelcome in the classroom: teacher-directed learning. Students should be allowed to learn at their own pace in a methodology that meets their preferred unique learning modality.

This is verbiage. We can use the vocabulary and adopt the latest fad but the fact is that from Socrates to the most successful teacher working today, education has always been about a smart, savvy teacher asking students questions and demanding that they find the answers. Teachers must be passionate about learning; they must be students themselves first, life long learners who have wide interests and see the connections upon which this world is built radiating out in every direction, to every corner of the universe.

In today’s classroom, granted, the lecturer is a dinosaur. And to give a nod to those modalities, lecturing a group of students is probably the least-effective way to reach into a skull and set fire to brain matter. With the internet, Google, and the ability to do distance research in some of the finest libraries of the world, the teacher lecturing the information is just wrong. The information is not as important as how to manage the information sources and facilitate the application of what has been learned. I tell my students that the answers are not nearly as important as the questions. The answers already exist—in books, on the internet, in journals and articles. But if one does not ask the question, or even know what to question, the answers will never be found. One needs a good magnet to find the needle in the haystack, but the needle is there. It is the question that leads us home.

Teachers need to possess a broad range of knowledge. History teachers must know the world’s religions; English teachers must know sociology; students of medicine must know how to be journalists (yes, we must also have a broad range of skills). There can be no more limits in the classroom, no boundaries, no isolated disciplines. The days of academic departments are over. The information age has blown out the walls of the classroom, and there is no turning back now.

Teaching a single curriculum middle school classroom worked best for me because I engineered lessons across the curriculum. We studied nothing in a vacuum. Our unit on Central America included literary works from Panama, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. We used artistic skills and modeling clay to make topographical maps of the region on a plywood platform in the back of the room. When we studied evolution, I chose some easier portions of Darwin for my students to read. Religion class meant reading the Bible, of course, but also introducing some basic philosophy, sometimes in more simplified terms.

In many cases, I let themes or even current events dictate how I approached a subject. For instance, one of the amusement parks near Los Angeles has a day where math students are invited in to compute the design specifications of roller coasters. It is a chance for students to apply the theories and equations they studied in the classroom to a real world scenario.

In short, I ask my students to be omnivores of knowledge, true consumers of learning. In a way, this did shift the teaching from focusing on me to learning from the world, and often the students absorbed as much as they could at their own speed. However, I modeled this “world as my classroom” learning method for my students. I wanted to learn, too, so I became the student leader in the field. And I did learn, as I was teaching, and that made every day a tremendous amount of fun.

Teaching is a way of life, not a profession. Learning is a way of life, not something done for a few brief years in school and then forsaken for making money. A teacher who sees the interconnections in the universe and explores them fully with students, without fear, without trepidation over looking like he or she doesn’t know something, that will be a teacher with a dynamic classroom.

Education reform is not about integrating more technology, raising test scores, or doing more with less. It all boils down to a return to loving learning, and inspiring students to seize the day and follow the questions, wherever they may lead. The rest will take care of itself.

Photo courtesy of St. Elisabeth School, Van Nuys, California


  1. Paul, wonderful article, beautifully crafted and spot on with some of your observations. Yes, frequently parent participation and socioeconomic conditions seriously affect what impact a teacher may have on his/her students these days. But there seems to be a dearth of dedicated teachers, such as you describe, in our classrooms today.
    You hearken back to a simpler time, when learning was the only priority for the teacher, and I remember well several instructors that I had in school who had a "seamless exploration of learning" approach to their teaching; I suspect it made better pupils of both the students and the teachers. And like you, I abhor all the buzzwords; teachers today seem to be hiding behind a wall of, as you put it, verbiage.
    One thing that struck as interesting: your comment about teaching evolution and religion simultaneously; I'm surprised that the admin people at the school, knowing it was a Catholic institution, allowed you to do so.
    Nice job, my friend.

  2. I have not had any problems teaching evolution while discussing the stories in Genesis. It seems Catholics take a less literal approach to the Old Testament while also recognizing intelligent design in creation. Actually, I find the discussion of human orgins one of the most interesting, and the classes where this comes up are enhanced when several faiths are represented. There are so many similarities among different religions regarding origins, including stories that repeat themselves with some variations in each belief system.

    Thank you for reading, John, and I always appreciate the comment. I also think I still owe you a response to a recent email. I will work on it. Take care.


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