Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why I Loved (Non-Standardized) Teaching: Stefanie's Astute Observation

I'VE BEEN BITCHING too much lately about strange legislation coming out of Columbus, the work of the Ohio General Assembly. So I think I'll do a few posts on why I always loved teaching.

One of the great joys of a life spent in the classroom—at least in a pre-standardized world—is the chance to get kids excited and lead them in a direction (or even follow) that neither they nor you expected to go.

Standardized education anyone?
Try testing this.
Every year, when the time came to look at Native American cultures, I liked to start with a quick discussion of what we called the “TV Indian” stereotype, the idea that all Indians lived the same way. To make the point clear, students listed features of the “TV Indian” lifestyle.

Answers always looked something like this:

Skin clothes
Painted faces
Bow and arrows
Ride horses
Hunt buffalo
Talk funny, say "How," and "Ugh."

I explained that Native American civilizations varied. For example, some natives relied on corn, beans and squash as dietary staples. “How come no one ever does movies about farming Indians?” I'd ask.

“Because it would be boring,” the kids agreed.

I liked to break into a soulful rendition of “Old McDonald Had a Farm” and ask students to sing along. No one ever did.

AS PART OF THE UNIT, I always showed a series of slides that I created, including one of a woman with a strange-looking elongated skull (see above). Students gasped when the image filled the screen and I explained that standards of beauty vary. Tribes along the Pacific coast, for example, often used a board-like device to reshape babies’ heads.

The higher forehead was considered attractive.

I liked to ask the kids if they could think of any modern American cultural practices that the natives might have found ridiculous. In one class, a girl named Stefanie King raised her hand a moment, thought better of it, and lowered it again. I called on her anyway. She hesitated, looked down from the high dive, and took the plunge. “Mr. Viall,” she said, “their customs seem dumb to us but it’s no different than American women who pay for boob jobs.”

When the roar of laughter subsided, and after I stopped doubling over myself, I replied, “That’s why I like having you in class, Stefanie. You always know how to think.”

IT'S NOT STANDARDIZED EDUCATION, of course, but in those days, a teacher could still use his best professional judgment.

Emily Cavell, one of my star students,
drew this picture of the TV Indian stereotype.

1 comment:

  1. And I LOVED my Loveland education waaaaay back in the 80's because we were expected to think for ourselves and there was seldom an incorrect answer (unless it had to do with exact dates). To this day I use tools learned in your class as well as other awesome Loveland teachers when I teach my own child about history, art, math etc. If I can use what I learned 20+ years later and remember (for example) an essay I wrote on Samuel Sewell- then it was true learning as opposed to short-lived memorization that one might use for the sake of a standardized test. You (and other teachers) didn't just teach us the facts. You taught us how to learn and think for ourselves.