Saturday, September 24, 2011

It has been said that 'All writing is rewriting'. 

I'd like to apply that to teaching: 'All teaching is reteaching' - and sometimes, reteaching and reteaching again. 

My writing students, right now, are confused. I watched them leave the classroom on Tuesday, nodding as if they understood the answers but with a glazed, fixed expression that always indicates uncertainty. Adding to the general air of confusion were their questions: halting, random questions that had little to do with the topic asked, questions that I'd hoped they would know the answers to by the end of class. Clearly, they didn't know the answers. 

All this confusion is my fault. It is my responsibility as a teacher to clearly communicate the skills I want my students to learn, and if they do not clearly grasp these skills, I have made an error. I wager that this error is not limited to me, that I am not the only teacher ever to have confused my students. Which is what brings me to the conclusion that 'All teaching is reteaching.'

We teachers confuse our students. It's part of being a human teacher. (Even Christ's students were confused, but I suspect that was more their spiritual ignorance than the Master Teacher's incompetence, so we'll leave that out of the picture). In our teaching mind we bear an image of the truth or concept or skill we want students to grasp, we create activities and lectures to communicate that skill, and then in the hubbub of words that accompanies those lectures the gist of the skill or the concept is lost, and students are confused. T.S. Eliot complained that as a poet 'It [was] impossible to say just what I mean' and we teachers read him and say Amen, brother

If you are a teacher, you know what I'm talking about, you know how often you have to reteach, and you know (like I do) that 'All teaching is reteaching'.  Instead of belaboring the point, let me move on to its logical conclusion: the attitude that accompanies the belief that all teaching is indeed reteaching. 

Reteaching is about humility. 

My very first semester teaching, I confused students continually. Papers turned in were wildly different than what I'd expected, and I did not give out a single 'A' that semester. I complained to friends about a perceived lack of ability in the students and for weeks reassured myself that each lesson had been quite clear about my expectations on the paper. My lesson weren't clear at all, but at that point I hadn't the humility to admit that I was failing as a teacher. 

It takes humility to admit we made an error, that we are not the Best Teacher Ever since Jesus and Socrates. (humility, of course, that I don't have in abundance). But once admitted, we teachers can get back to helping our students improve as writers or mathematicians or geologists or whatever - as long as they are improving, and not falling deeper into a pit of confusion that we ourselves are digging.

Reteaching is about communication. 

I sat at the table this afternoon carefully wording and rewording the assignment guidelines for my students' next papers. Eventually, I ran the guidelines past my cousin, who is still in college. She listened carefully, then said this:  'That sentence would be really clear for you, but your students are not going to understand it at all'. I had to reword it. 

John 1 tells us that 'the Word was God', a name that suggests He was the clear, flawless communication of God to humanity. And this communication of God 'became flesh and dwelt among us', became a 'thing in the real world' - simple enough for flesh-and-blood humans to understand. It is tempting for us teachers, having spent years of training in our field, to soar upwards towards the esoteric and intangible, but this is not biblical communication. What we reteachers must work on (even the first time) is making our subject - however esoteric - a thing in the real world that every student can grasp. 

More can be said, I'm sure, in favour of reteaching. For me, however, these two attitudes are crucial: the attitude of humility and desire to change, the willingness to refine and hone my communication until it is no longer abstract but real to students. 

Now, I'm off to live in the real world myself - and then to do some reteaching next week. Here are a few photos, as always, to finish off with:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Travel is broadening, they say: An American traveler coming home has a brand-new laundry list of things that she misses about the country she visited, things that she could find in Europe that are unheard of Stateside. For me this list includes things like fresh bread and good chocolate, reliable public transportation, and street musicians. But the opposite can also be true: Returning to America, I've discovered a few new delights here, unavailable to me during six months in the Czech Republic. 

Here is my list.

I love having windows with screens on them. My flat in Prague had beautiful old windows, made with panes of bubbled glass and wood painted white. But there were no screens. Come summer, the flat got hot, we opened the windows (there's also no A/C in the Czech Republic), and we let the flies in--huge, monster flies that the locals called 'Meateaters'. I took to hunting them down with a red folder, perched on my bed and lashing out at the flies as they zoomed past me through the air. Every morning, I faced the same dilemma: cool down the apartment and deal with the flies, or fry in a fly-free apartment. Now, I fling open my windows to air out my apartment in a cool breeze and I still have no flies. So terrified.

I love having seedless grapes. Grapes count as one of my favourite fruits. Ever. I learned in the Czech Republic that they were particularly delicious frozen. But the default grape in Prague had seeds in it - big, huge seeds that gave the grape a bitter taste if you accidentally bit into them; it was almost impossible not to bite into the humongous seed on accident. I took to cutting the seeds out of the grape with a little knife and adding them to salads. Here the default grape is seedless. I buy them in huge packages from Hy-Vee, wash them (or sometimes not), and eat them with delight. 

I love being in the same timezone (or at least almost the same timezone) as my family and friends. In Czech, I had to schedule calls. Can we talk this week? No? Well, I can't talk in the middle of the week. Maybe in ten days from now? That doesn't work either?!? Hmph. My family were perhaps the only people I talked to regularly; my friends sort of fell by the wayside until I returned half a year later to catch up with people.  Nor was scheduling the only difficulty; because international calling is so expensive, I relied entirely on the Internet, which led to further difficulties. Personal conversations happened on Facebook in the middle of board games, and Interviews took place on Gmail chat when Skype went down. It is so nice to pick up my phone, dial a preprogrammed number, and talk to someone. It's even nicer to control where and when these conversations happen, without hooking myself up to the computer. 

I love having English-language books and movies readily available. In the Czech Republic, I read Howl's Moving Castle three or four times and the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series once (and some of them twice) simply because they were the only English-language books around. Halfway through my time in Europe, I realized it was possible to pick the foreigners out of a crowd because they were the ones carrying Kindles: I met up with an American missionary on one of my trips, and although I'd never seen her before, I knew it must be here because she was standing among a bunch of Europeans reading off a Kindle. Now, I can be as anti-Kindle as I wish. In the two months since I've returned, I've finished Wives and Daughters and Godric (both excellent fiction books), as well as Introverts in the Church (an excellent non-fiction books) and a few more books I'd read before. It's like my own literary land of milk and honey. 

My next blog will be more thought-provoking, probably a review of Introverts in the Church (or the review will come in the post after next). But having shared with you so many of the things I love about European life, I wanted to pass along a few things that I love about American life. 

I'm also including a few photos from my sister's wedding here. If I practiced on you, thanks so much! The wedding was both super-stressful and super-fun to do, and although the photos aren't professional quality, I'm happy enough considering this is my first shot. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

More than two months have passed since I returned Stateside, two bittersweet months filled on the one hand with family time (including a wedding, but not mine!) and an exciting new job but culture shock on the other as I adjust back into American society.

As I restart my blog from this side of the pond, I want to pretend that I am a foreigner in the States - a stranger in a strange land, if you will, and comment on the cultural idiosyncrasies of our people as if I were not one of them. I intend to explore also the day-to-day faith that transcends geographical boundaries as I talk through my own everyday life.

And so, to begin:

Shortly before I came back Stateside, someone (I cannot remember who) remarked how isolated Americans could be. I thought it was a strange remark at the time: Isolated? Really? Americans are famous - perhaps infamous - for being the most egregious people on the planet. Even on my plane ride home, I met a host of strangers: three separate men helped me with my bags as I navigated the airports with 100 pounds of luggage, I held a short conversation with the Detroit help desk lady, and the people behind me for check-in joked with me. How in the world such friendly people be considered isolated?

And then I started settling in.

It is still strange to me to walk through the neighborhood and see huge swatches of green yard in front of people's houses, to see whole buildings empty except for two or three of four people in a family. It is strange to me to take my personal car everywhere, to see no one on the ride to work but myself. In the Czech Republic, I lived in a flat with twenty other families; I had a permanent roommate or two. More than that, I saw a hundred people on my way to work in a crowded Metro every morning. I saw another hundred on the way back. 

However isolated are homes and commutes are, we Americans still have a reputation for friendliness - one that we've earned. However little we mingle with strangers, we are particularly good at hand-picking the communities we do mingle with. We pick our church, go to work, join a sports team, and then we overlook the people who are not part of these communities, simply because in American society there is no need to see them; they're not up against our shoulder in a packed tram.  

This can have unfortunate consequences.

My first church visit in my new city was overwhelming. I walked into a sea of strangers, all grouped about in threes or fours and chatting with excitement. It was several awkward minutes before someone (someone I'd met previously) noticed me and welcomed me to the service. Immediately after the service, the groups reformed, and I, left outside, made a beeline for the bathroom. Shortly afterwards, I left.

I am not telling this story to make you feel sorry for me. Part of the problem was me: I hate visiting new churches and do not do well meeting new people. But I think my experience does indicate that Americans, however super-social with people they know and have selected to communicate with, do not do so well with those who are strangers or who unexpectedly show up in their day-to-day life. We are out of practice. 

I cannot change American culture, just as I could not change things I disliked about European culture (What did I dislike? Let me think about that for a while.) But I can change me. I know me: Personally, I prefer spending time alone, dislike meeting new people, and limit my social interactions. This is important on the one hand, because that's how I relax after a busy week. But it can be dangerous if indulged too much. 

If I learned nothing else in Prague, I learned this: We cannot change people by being brilliant. We change people by loving them, by spending time with them. C.S. Lewis wrote of such love as part of our imitation of God, an imitation valuable precisely because it is so difficult:

Our imitation of God in this life - that is, our willed imitation as distinct from any of the likenesses which He has impressed upon our natures and states - must be an imitation of God incarnate: our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions (the Four Loves).

This is my goal.