Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Passionate Teacher?

I have been thinking about next year, about my new position as Literacy and English Coordinator in a new P to 12 school (we will only be up to Year 9 next year and up to Year 12 in 2012) and what I have learned at my previous job so that I don’t have to make the same mistakes – it’s good to make new ones, I always think. I have been reading a book by Robert L Fried called The Passionate Teacher and it has really got me thinking. He talks about the Game of School and how many students and teachers are prepared to play it. In a chapter called “The greatest obstacle we face” he says: ‘The particular offence of playing the Game of School lies in the disengagement of our intellect and our feelings from tasks that deserve to be taken seriously: tasks like writing, reading, thinking, planning, listening, researching, analyzing, performing, applying, evaluating. We do harm when we reduce these acts of intellect, creativity and judgment to rote exercises, perfunctory deeds or meaningless gestures.’ Often this is what we see at the senior levels of secondary schools.

Wendy Drexler in a podcast of the It’s Elementary show on CCK08 mentions that senior students are often prepared to sit back and be passive in the classroom – and that fits in with my own experience at previous schools – making learning less exciting, less real. It could be the nature of the assessment and indeed the purpose of the assessment at this level – to rank the students in order to grant university places to the most “suitable” students for the courses (if indeed this is what it is for – whether it is an effective way of deciding who gets into which course is another matter entirely.) But the fact that some senior students are so adept at playing the Game of School is due to their having learnt it so well in previous years. There is a lot to think about here. Clearly it is not just a problem of the individual teacher or the individual classroom. But I think it is my responsibility in my classrooms not to perpetuate the Game of School.

As Fried says: ‘The Game of School is very pervasive, and its rituals are deeply entrenched in the actions and expectations of students and teachers. But it is not immutable. It can and must be changed.’ He suggests that we can “stimulate the students’ imaginations and mental energy”, “do ourselves what we ask the students to do”, and “a teacher who anticipates creativity and hidden talents in the students will greet the class quite differently to one who looks for deficits and defects”. All the way through the book so far (I haven’t finished it yet) the author is answering the readers’ objections – I know schools are busy and there is content to be got through etc – and I feel the same thinking this through myself in this post – but there isn’t enough time, but the students are resistant – and yet…

One of the ways to meet students where they are at and to treat them as partners in the learning enterprise is to use social networking tools and technology such as interactive whiteboards. A lot of the technology seems to be very appropriate for primary or junior secondary. Many say that it is because of the high stakes testing (here in Victoria we have the VCE exams which are quite stressful for both students and teachers) but if it is about the effectiveness of the learning and we are saying that engaged students learn better shouldn’t we be using these methods to engage students when it matters the most, not going back to the older transmission based modes of teaching in the senior years? Andrew Douch is using technology in an engaging way with his Biology podcast, but I don’t know many senior students who are creating their own podcasts to learn despite teaching others and constructing their own knowledge being perhaps the ‘best’ way to learn. I would love to hear about some being created. IWBs seem to be used in most senior classes, in my experience, as presentation tools, whether it is the student presenting or the teacher. I would love to know about interactive uses of IWBs especially for senior History, English and Literature classes. Please drop me a comment if you know of any.

It is clearly not only the technology or tools that will help us overcome the playing of the Game of School. It is definitely about relationships and respect, and many different types of teaching styles can result in authentic engagement of both students and teacher in the development of learning for life. I must say that I am looking forward to the challenges ahead. In a few days I will be meeting the other English teacher at the new school and I will know more precisely what I will be doing next year. Wish me luck.


  1. I'm with you, Jo! I believe effective learning and teaching is all about passion. Passion beats brains every time! Good luck with the new school...what a great time to reflect on past practices and mistakes!

  2. I couldn't agree more! We need passionate teachers at all levels of education. And those teachers need to work to engage students. It isn't an easy job, but I also don't think it is impossible.

    Good luck in the new job. Your new school is lucky to have you!

  3. I think the only way we can change the attitudes of students who expect the traditional "Game of School" is to believe that they can learn differently. If we believe it, they'll believe it. Please keep us posted, and best to you in your new teaching adventure.

  4. You mentioned that this type of disengagement is predominant at the secondary level, and I know from experience how pervasive it is. However, I have noticed in my first year of student teaching a surprising amount of disengagement at the elementary level. In one fifth grade class, many projects are approached in a way that feels like everyone is just going through the motions. Even an interesting project, like researching American presidents, has become a mad dash for facts, and finishing faster is valued more highly among students than authentic, lasting learning.

    Is there any information available about what teachers can do in primary and intermediate grades to prevent this from happening?

  5. I keep thinking of the phrase, "so mad I can't think straight." If strong emotion distorts our ability to think, then wouldn't strong passion distort our ability to learn?

    I can imagine that passion might lend itself to persistent engagement. But what evidence is there that passion per se leads to better teaching or learning than a simple persistent and non-emotional examination of a phenomenon?

  6. That's a funny line about mistakes...Someone once told me that if something is worth doing, it's worth doing badly.

    Good luck with the job.

  7. I love the combination of passion and teaching.

    When creativity and communication are the focus, the web and social media will rocket the connection between teachers and students. It's the tool of the future for certain, and it will be interesting to see what happens next.

  8. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  9. You may like to share Blitto's students' podcasts - http://web.mac.com/blitto/Blittos_Stuff/My_Students_Podcasts/My_Students_Podcasts.html

    A great example of senior school students constructing resources to enhance their own learning. Love the fact that they make their podcasts available for others to use too!

    Best wishes for your new job :)

  10. Anonymous10:38 am

    It is so difficult to break the students out of the game of school. I've created a class around digital photography and blogging only to be met with students who want only to fill-in-the-blanks.

  11. Wow how true what you say is! I am a teacher and I am feeling like I am not meeting the needs of my students. I use the computer, internet, blogs, and programs all the time, but yet I don't give my students nearly as much of an opportunity to use them. It is hard to get other people on board, because we do have so much material to get through. But I do really think I could do much more with the "material we need to get through" if I had the resources to teach it in a different way...

  12. Hi, Jo! Your new school sounds wonderful! I'm so glad that you are thinking about learning being messy... so often, we want lessons to be wrapped up in tidy packages. That's easier, but not always better!

  13. E. Laturell8:52 am

    Hi! After reading your commentary on this book I think I will go out and get it. It sounds very interesting. I am a third grade teacher and am currently getting my Masters in Technology in the classroom. I agree that we need to engage students in a different way in order to break the cycle of the "game of school". Technology can definitely be used to change students attitudes about learning by creating new and exciting ways of doing the same old thing. Thanks for your insight.