Thursday, September 8, 2011

Learning the Words

I had this math teacher in college –actually he was a math education teacher – who was very strange. Most of the subject matter courses were designed to have you finish the semester with a 4-inch binder full of lesson plans that you could use in the classroom. This was a practical and reasonable way to teach teaching. My professor though, let’s call him Professor Big Picture, well, he taught his philosophy. He quoted Maria Montessori and said that school wasn’t for educating, but rather, for social conditioning: teaching kids to raise their hands, walk in a straight line, only go to the bathroom when an adult gave you permission.

Most of his students complained about this course, because we didn’t leave with our normal stack of lessons. Instead, we spent the entire semester on one project: teaching a young child to add, subject, multiply and divide fractions (I watched in amazement as he taught a six year old using math manipulatives how to multiply 3/8 times 1/2.) He insisted that the way we taught math in schools wasn’t about real learning, but about memorization of algorithms, or rules. His educational philosophy was based on a simple truth: kids know everything, except the words.

This was a lot for some people to really grasp. I loved this course and loved the way Professor Big Picture taught it. He was old and strange and made jokes about how kids have no idea what they are saying when they Pledge Allegiance or sing about “purple mountains” and “amber waves of grain.” When I think back now, his ideas about education were pretty revolutionary, especially for a bunch of college students in the Mon Valley.

But think about it: what if we are born knowing everything but the words? What does that mean for educators? For starters, it means everyone has the capacity to learn; we just need to make sure we are speaking their language. With math, perhaps the language can be specific or more limited, because there are correct answers. In the humanities, things are more subjective. But I think Professor Big Picture’s philosophy applies here too.

Let me tell you a little story.

I first got involved in a literary community as an editor. Rather, I started calling myself an editor. I didn’t know much about literary publishing at the time. I just knew I had friends who were writing some really amazing stories and poems and I thought they deserved to be shared with the world. I did harbor doubts about my role as an editor though. What makes me think I can decide what is good and what isn’t? I wasn’t a published writer. Actually, I was writing some pretty awful poetry at the time. But I was surrounded by people who were writing really awesome poetry and I knew it. Turns out, I was in exactly the right place.

Today I watched this video that animates a brief talk by Ira Glass about people who do creative work (embedded below). He posits that all creative people begin in the same place. We have an inner sense of what is inherently good in the work we admire. However, the gap between what we love and what we create ourselves is BIG. But what is inherent at the start is our taste.  We know what we like; we just can’t quite imitate it yet. Some of us try. Glass says that a lot of people quit before they get through this process of closing the gap. But successful creative people spend a long time – years – working to close the gap between what we know is good, and what we are creating. The only way to close that gap is to create more and more work.

This video made me feel much better about my path into the literary world. It turns out I knew what I was doing when I first started as an editor. The work we selected for the first issue of Weave is still the same quality, though my tastes may have fluctuated as I grew. What I’ve gotten better at is articulating why a piece of writing works. I’ve learned the language of craft. I’ve learned the words and I’ve applied this knowledge to my own writing. I still have a lot of words to learn. I always will.

Parents will often complain about the ‘terrible twos’ phase of childhood. Having worked with kids this age, I’ve witnessed the frustration that is inherent in learning to speak. Talk to an 18 month-old sometime. They know what you are saying. Seriously. They can understand you. They just literally can’t form their own words yet. They have been listening to the words since before birth. They want to communicate. Parents remind children to ‘use their words’ well after they learn to speak. When a young child can’t articulate, it’s incredibly frustrating, thus resulting in lots of tantrums and timeouts. But I can relate. When I get upset about something, I find it harder to explain myself. And yet, when I find the right words – those perfect words that clearly explain how I feel, what I want, what I need – well, that’s an amazing feeling.

So maybe Professor Big Picture was right, and not just about learning math, but learning anything. We all know things, inherently. This collective knowledge is the human condition. We just need the words.

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