A real incident in the life of an intelligent, but poverty-identified high school student: "Moore, YOUR SHIRTTAIL IS OUT!" shouts the assistant principal. Moore tucks it in, and says calmly, "I tucked it in."
The assistant principal, gripping a heavy wooden paddle, furiously orders Moore "Bend over!" Followed by four resounding WHACKS! What did Moore learn from this "lesson"? He tells us that the assistant principal "had no idea how profoundly he had changed my life." To demonstrate the change, Moore follows with an academic example from a class on Shakespeare. "The teacher had just handed back to me my twenty-page paper on Hamlet with a giant red '0' on top of it. That was my grade: Nothing. Zip. I stood up. 'You cannot treat me this way,' I said to him politely. 'And I am officially dropping out of this class.' Anybody want to join me?' "
The paper had not been marked by the teacher, known for his hostility toward Moore, except for the "0," which is like the four WHACKS! Moore uses these two incidents as effective in turning him into a rebel against teachers who were not teaching as much as they were punishing. And these incidents were the basis for his becoming a successful teacher mainly in print and films.
This essay is an attempt to get at what teaching and education should be and isn't. Michael Moore, in effect, became his own teacher in a way that all students should. Instead of being passive recipients sitting still, students should be in the center of learning, actively reaching for knowledge and understanding. Unfortunately education is usually sold as a way to "make it," - get a "good" job, make enough money to be monetarily secure and physically comfortable, the emphasis on knowledge tested by tests that become a grade for both teachers and students.
A guide to center the student both as a vital presence in a classroom, and outside as well, in the varied experiences of life, is "Literacy and Empowerment: The Meaning Makers," by Patrick L. Courts. It is impossible to do justice to a book in a brief essay, even more because the book succeeds in its intention as summed up in its title. First, though, one must consider what education is today in most schools.
Knowledge is important, yes. And testing the student to prove that knowledge, yes. The knowledge, however, is mainly dictated by the texts and the teachers. And the testing is mainly an attempt to demonstrate the student's knowledge of knowledge, as in multiple choice exams. What is largely missing, however, is the student's understanding. Understanding comes largely from a desire to experience meaning, to feel that meaning, which is created by the student, in other words, an experience melding fact and feeling. But how can the student "prove" such understanding? Not by picking out "answers" in an objective exam like the very popular multiple choice, but by writing out the understanding. And this is where one must turn to the text by Professor Courts.
The student, in a sense, must become his own teacher. Jotting down immediate responses to the work being studied. For instance, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, there is a line that questions the value of life: "To be, or not to be," followed by a lengthy argument concluding with the judgment for being, for life. The student may take sides, not only in terms of the play, but in terms of the views of the student. The jotting, then, should become more serious than just a yes or no, and become itself a response that may challenge the writer to develop further with a why?
Applied to the character of Hamlet himself, and/or to the character of the student. This is where the student becomes his own teacher, by going into a dialogue with the issues in one's life and in the play. Comparison and contrast. Depending on time and interest, the student may actually be centered in the midst of the family's varied views; or be speculating on the psychology of depression leading to suicide. Such written responses should be of value - certainly more meaningful than objective testing - across the entire curriculum, in the sciences as well as in the arts.
And, of value in the experiences of life outside the classroom. Professor Courts insists that education is taking place all the time. Talking, for instance, as with Mr. Moore's experience in the "real" world that led him to a major decision about his life's work. Reading about Mr. Moore's life in this instance, is not unlike reading the daily news, possibly firing the reader to written responses, to teaching/learning. Professor Courts sums this up, with life as a totality of education: "To think, to synthesize bodies of information, to experience the creative and dynamic relationship among ideas, indeed, to create those relationships for themselves."
An historical example of this mind movement from an experience - the most terrible war, then and now - to a creative act is in the extraordinary piece, so brief, so moving, so unexpected, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. President Lincoln jotted down several versions of the Address, allowing himself to judge, to change, to feel, yes, to put into words, a humbling passion, first of "we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we cannot hallow - this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract." Concluding with an elevating passion: "we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
And now, from an unknown, a teacher, quite relevant, quite simple, and sentimental, summing up his meaning of education: "No student has ever thanked me for helping him or her to achieve good standardized test scores. Instead, students say I made learning fun, or taught them to love learning."
And, lastly, from Professor Courts, on why writing responses are so important: "I do not know what I mean until I articulate my own internal text," because "Language, the possibility of making meaning, is the essence of being human."
George Sebouhian is a Fredonia resident.