—Elwood P. Dowd
(played by Jimmy Stewart)
I think that the same thing might be said of a classroom. Like the bar patrons described by Elwood Dowd in Harvey, teachers and students alike enter classrooms along with “the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do, their hopes, their regrets, their loves and their hates—all very large.” Whether recent or long since past, we bring our entire wealth of experiences into the classroom in the form of our own personal and social narratives and identities. Our narratives and identities are complex and inconsistent; their different facets amplified or subdued depending on contexts, conditions, and times, but always present.
Without a doubt, who I am is reflected in what and how I teach. The content, the organization of the course, the skills, and dispositions are very much a reflection of what I think is important for students to take forward with them. Being an independent school teacher, I am afforded fairly broad latitude in the design of the courses that I teach, even more latitude in how I teach them. In this way, my curriculum and how I teach are (or can be) inordinately subject to my personal history, values, assumptions, etc. Who I am and what and how I teach are inextricably linked. As Elizabeth E. Heilman says, “…teaching involves both professional and personal experiences, and it makes reference to the past as we reflect on present challenges and keep in mind our future hopes and expectations” (p. 136). And, because who I am is subject to change, so is what and how I teach. “In time, through time, with each hermeneutical act, new insights are achieved, meanings of past events are shifted, and our sense of ourselves is revised” (Barone & Blumenfeld-Jones, p. 139). Making the risky assumption that I become a better person with age, my curriculum and teaching are likely to follow suit.
While there are many examples, in the interest of time and space, I’ll include one example of how my personal history and feelings of powerlessness affect my curriculum and teaching. College preparation is a significant part of my school’s purpose, and one purpose I attempt to pursue in my classroom. This goal, while also an objective of the school, is very important to me because of my own personal experiences. While I established a solid educational foundation at my Catholic elementary school, my public schooling in middle and high school left a lot to be desired. Because I excelled at meeting low expectations and was able to earn high scores on assignments, district and state exams, I felt like I must have been well prepared to continue to succeed at the college level. During my first semester of college, I realized just how ill-prepared I was for college-level work and how powerless I felt to do anything about it. It took me almost all four years to develop the skills and habits to be successful in college. Since then, one of my teaching goals has been to prepare my students for the rigors of college-level work. My curriculum and teaching both focus on this idea.
In addition to my personal history, values, assumptions, etc., like “Jessica” in Elizabeth E. Heilman’s article, my curriculum and teaching are also influenced by a number of external factors. As Heilman says, “In some ways, we each feel like we are unique creations and unique individuals. We are. An yet our identities are also shaped from cultural stories and in accord with social types, roles, and patterns” (p. 135). Among the many external factors, pressures, and influences that impact my curriculum and teaching are moral stories, and administrative pressure.
According to Barone & Blumenfeld-Jones, “…moral stories encourage us to engage more authentically in the process of creating our own values, revealing the presence and consequences of the inherited script, and how we might position ourselves in relation to it. They help us to define ourselves as responsible social beings” (p. 145). They go on to say, “Moral stories…include daily anecdotes we tell to ourselves and to each other, as well as historical and fictional literature” (Barone & Blumenfeld-Jones, p. 145). One example of the impact of moral stories on my teaching comes from Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Early in the book, Mortenson’s future mission to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan begins when he witnesses the conditions under which many students learn in the village of Korphe. In contrast to the material resources available to my students, the children of Korphe at that point in the story have almost literally nothing. I have read that section of the book to my students each year since reading it for the first time. I do so in part of an effort that I imagine is aligned with Giroux’s idea that “…pedagogy should be rooted in the practice of ethical and political formation of both the self and the social order” (p. 48). By contrasting their educational contexts with those of the children of Korphe, I try to “…treat students as critical agents; make knowledge problematic; utilize critical and affirming dialogue; and make the case for struggling for a qualitatively better world for all people” (Giroux, p. 49).
Administrative pressure also shapes some of what and how I teach in my classroom. Heilman discusses “five aspects of school climate that can hav a negative impact on social relations and can discourage important social goals of meaningful learning, democratic cooperation and critical thinking” identified by Catherine Cornleth (p. 140). In that list of five aspects, to varying degrees my school climate is bureaucratic, conservative, and competitive. Along with those aspects of the school climate come administrative concerns that create pressure on teachers’ classroom authority. For example, this year the four teachers in our History Department who teach the 9th grade courses are working to transition from two semester-long courses, one in Government and one in Economics, to one year-long course called Global Civics. In our efforts to make this transition, we are trying to make the course more consistent across sections. And, while we, the teachers, are looking at the development as a two-year process in which we experiment with curriculum and teaching within a basic course outline that we developed last Spring during the first year, then reflect on what worked and identify and implementing areas in which we can be consistent (without developing “management pedagogies” (Giroux, p. 47)) during the second year; our administrators are currently pressuring us to be unreasonably consistent in this first year, almost explicitly asking for “…the narrowing of curricula choices to a back-to-basics format and the introduction of lock-step, time-on-task pedagogies [which] operate from the theoretically erroneous assumption that all students can learn from the same materials, classroom instructional techniques and modes of evaluation” (Giroux, p. 47). And, in the same breath, the administration encourages “differentiated instruction,” illustrating with every statement that their understanding of what that means is far distant from the actual theories and preferred practices of it.
In the end, as I’ve said, I don’t bring anything small, nor do I bring any small variety of experiences into the classroom. And, just like Jessica, I perceive my classroom as “full.” Cutting through the noise and figuring the best way to achieve what is best for my students is no small challenge either. Yet, I press on, engage, fight, stand down, concede, negotiate, and more in order to try to find and apply those elusive “best practices” in a sea of influences.