We’ve lately gotten a number of reminders (directives?) that classroom teaching needs to be student centered. A significant portion of each class should be dedicated to having students “actively engage with the material.” Of course, this begs the question of what actively engaging with the material really means. It has even been suggested that the teacher not actively speak to the class for more than 10 minutes in the entire period. Now, understand that I generally agree with this sentiment; student centered classrooms clearly increase student learning, but I come back to the concept of balance.
This is sticking with me today, in large part, because I am currently teaching the Arthur Miller classic drama, Death of a Salesman with my juniors. Even though these are upper level students, they are not proficient at reading drama–especially an advance level drama such as this that incorporates flashback scenes and the like. I know, with relative certainty, that if I simply assigned this to students to read on their own and then come to class ready to engage with the material, the large majority of them would be hopelessly lost. Instead, I am using the time honored tradition of reading the play together as a class where students (and myself) choose parts to read aloud. This is arguably not an engaging strategy as many students simply sit and listen. In fact, many school leaders would probably say, I am doing my students a disservice by using this methodology.
But as a thoughtful teacher, I think through how I will present material to my students, and the benefits of this method are clear:
- Students have a shared understanding of the text. We stop to discuss specific lines and scenes as we read them. I hearken back to early in the play and make connections that they would not have made on their own. After all, this is their first read; I’ve read the play a million times and recite large sections of it.
- Drama is meant to be seen and heard. While students aren’t actors, I urge them to read with emotion, and I read my parts with necessary expressiveness.
- It’s generally an efficient method. Time is always an issue in schools. This ensures that the class accomplishes what it needs to in an appropriate amount of time.
- I don’t have to worry about students not completing the assigned reading
- While I don’t have precise data, students seem to like this method. At the end of the semester, I always ask them what their favorite text was. The drama that we read together is one of the most common answers.
- Again, I have no specific data, but students routinely tell me that they feel they have a better understanding of the drama we read in class than the material they read on their own. These are developing readers; attacking the text together as a class helps them understand it on a deeper level.
I’m not necessarily saying this is the best method, but I think we need to remember, that in education, situations vary greatly. There are times, in any discipline where this type of teaching may be an appropriate (or even the best?) option. We are constantly encouraged to be thoughtful and reflective of our practice. Sometimes that thought and reflection lead to lessons in which the teacher speaks for the majority of the class or some students simply listen and take it all in. In our rush to change the way we do everything, we need to remember that sometimes, the old method works reliably. Let’s pushed for student driven learning; let’s not throw everything out the window. Let’s help one another find a healthy balance.