Avoid ickiness at all costs

This is my last guest post before Joanne returns. (Update: In addition, one of my satirical pieces appeared on The Cronk of Higher Education today.) I have enjoyed this guest-blogging stint and am grateful that Michael Lopez has been on such a roll.

If I were to give advice to a new teacher, it would be twofold: (a) avoid ickiness at all costs; and (b) do not be afraid of repetition.

Teachers often get told what to do and how to do it, but intelligent administrators realize that they won’t (and shouldn’t) follow directives to the letter. When deciding what to follow, what to adapt, and what to ignore, a teacher can safely put icky things in the last two piles. One can take an icky thing and make it less icky, or one can avoid it altogether. No teacher should have to descend into anything tacky or dumb. (Of course, what’s icky for one teacher may not be so for another.)

For me, “turn-and-talk” activities are often icky. I do recognize the exceptions. When learning a language, students can benefit from talking to the person next to them; the more practice they get, the better. When learning a poem, students working in pairs can take turns reciting. But the usual “turn-and-talk”—where the teacher poses a question and then has students talk to each other, right away—goes against my grain, because it makes for a room of chatter, and it often interferes with the thinking. Why turn and talk? Why not pause and think?

I have been in many situations where I had to turn and talk to my partner, and I found it silly. I would have been better off with a bit of space and quiet, and then a full-forum discussion later. Of course, not everyone shares my preferences—but teachers should have some room to be true to their own. There is usually a reason for them.

Yet there are teachers for whom such activities are not icky in the least. They conduct “turn-and-talk” activities as though they were drinking water. It is possible, also, that a teacher might find it offputting at the outset and then warm up to it, or vice versa. In any case, teachers should have some room to listen to their gut, especially when it is squirming and turning.

The second piece of advice seems unrelated, but actually it comes from the same principle. Do not be afraid of repetition, especially when it is repetition of something good. There are many kinds of repetition in the classroom: daily repetition of routines and of subject matter; the act of returning to ideas and works over time; and even drill. I find that my students get a lot out of reading a passage several times. The first time, it hasn’t yet sunk in; the second time, they are starting to find their way through it; and the third time, they can start to notice some of its subtleties. Return to it later, or even in a subsequent year, and they find even more.

Far from being boring, repetition can actually be exciting, as you start to anticipate things: a turn in the poem, a favorite phrase in a passage, or a difficult cluster of syllables. Young children enjoy hearing stories over and over; so, often, do older children and adults. I enjoy rereading books more than I enjoy reading them the first time. (That’s why I have difficulty reading large numbers of books, or part of the reason.)

What do the two pieces of advice have to do with each other? Both come from the principle that you can have exciting lessons (or thoughts) when you allow for a bit of calm—that there’s room for interesting things when you aren’t constantly pursuing novelty and change. Teachers often feel pressure to keep things exciting and active (and to be “innovative“), but this may crowd out some of the greater excitement (which by nature cannot be there all the time). By contrast, if you turn something around and around, day after day, you start to see its textures and patterns. I don’t mean that instruction should be entirely repetitive; of course it has to move in a direction. But the repetition helps it do so.

For whom is this advice intended? For me and for anyone who finds that it makes sense.