579. Notable Exceptions

About twenty minutes after I e-mailed my essay on lecture to the people on my e-mailing list, I got quite a bit of feedback from one of my friends, Bruce Pollack-Johnson, a teacher who works with older learners. He has strong feelings about lecturing. He had two important things to say: that lecture is not the only technique used with older learners, and that when it is used, it can still be done in a way that gets learners to participate.
Right away, I thought of teachers I had after elementary school who either relied less on lecture or lectured in ways that involved us. Mr. Samuels was my history teacher in eleventh grade, and I remember him well. I remember that he once staged a fight between Bob Boska and me. He secretly told us to start an argument in class, then to go out into the hall and start sounding as if we were throwing punches. He told the class to write down what they thought was happening, and he joined us in the hall as they wrote. He was teaching us about the way the reporting of news and the writing of history depends on the perspective of the writer. Mr. Samuels often got us thinking. At the end of the year, he lost his job.
In college, there was Dr. Lear. He taught a course in Russian literature (in translation). He let us know, on the first day of class, that we were all going to get A in the course, and he asked us to do what we thought we ought to do to earn it. Though we talked a lot about that policy in the dorms, we never mentioned grades again in class. We talked about the writings of Pushkin, Lermontov, and many other Russian authors. Dr. Lear led us in discussions, involved us in projects, directed us in plays, and sometimes gave lectures – fascinating lectures that quickly led to discussions. Everyone in the class did get A, and I think everyone deserved it. So did Dr. Lear. At the end of the year, he lost his job.
The two years I taught high school, I tried to be like Mr. Samuels and Dr. Lear. I once taught a course entitled “Critical Approaches to Television.” We analyzed the content of various programs – treated TV as we treated literature. We ended the course with a trial. Television had been accused of creating and perpetuating
violence in the United States. We heard expert testimony from McLuhan, Spock, Mead, and others (all played by pupils). The trial was covered by the journalism class next door. The jury wrote that television was not guilty of creating violence, but was guilty of perpetuating it. I don’t think my teaching was as effective as Mr. Samuels’ or Dr. Lear’s, but still, at the end of those two years, I don’t think I would have been allowed to keep my job if I’d wanted to.
All of this happened more than twenty-five years ago. I think and hope things have changed. Bruce Pollack-Johnson’s e-mail feedback reminds me that my image of teachers beyond elementary school is based on a stereotype, and that there are and always have been notable exceptions to that stereotype. It sounds as if Bruce is one of the exceptions. And maybe things have progressed; maybe what used to be the exception is now closer to being the rule. I hope so.

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