Monday, March 14, 2011

So. Teaching. How Hard Can That Be?

You've read a little about me and how I think. (And really, if you read all that, wow, I'm amazed.) Now on to the first order of teaching...


            What do we mean when we say, “instruction”? I will tell you this: There is no one right way to approach it, and anyone who thinks there is, is, to quote master teacher and my dear friend Mr. Lightcap, “a dam’ foo’.” But there are some nice, clear guidelines. Basically, a teacher introduces and explains a concept, models it, and then asks students to practice it, discuss it, and apply it in a new situation. Later, the teacher assesses the students’ mastery of the concept. That’s about it.
            No shit. That is the whole ball of wax. (Note to self: Look up "whole ball of wax" idiom.)
            So why is instruction so hard? Instruction, in theory, is just not difficult. Right?


How hard can instruction be?” you ask again. “Doesn’t a teacher know more than the students know?” Right. Sure. All she or he has to do is reveal that knowledge, have students take notes on it, and have them repeat this gain of knowledge in the form of a test. Tout simple!

A MODEL. Let us take this example: A Teacher is going to teach Students how to make inferences in order to understand character in a work of fiction.

SCENE: An English classroom
SKILL: Make inferences (character development)
STATE STANDARD: L. 10. 4 Students will make inferences and use text evidence to demonstrate understanding of character, setting, and plot events in a text.
OBJECTIVE: Students will understand how to make an inference and apply this knowledge to understand character development in a text.
MATERIALS: The novel Of Mice and Men, lecture notes, and the (secret) question: Why doesn’t Curley’s wife have a name?

VARIATION 1:  [ref. Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, v. 1, p. 79, with apologies]

[AT RISE: In this variation, the Teacher, with a Masters in English, uses literary theory as a way of approaching the text.]

TEACHER: In thinking about the novel, Of Mice and Men, which I am assuming you have read thoroughly and of whose characters, George, Lennie, Curley, and Slim, you have a complete understanding, or as complete as is possible given the parameters of the text and your understanding of 1930s California, today I am drawn to the work of Paul Ricoeur, French theorist, who discourses at length on what he calls “referential illusions.” For example, let us look at the case of Curley’s wife. Can we take into account of our reference, something that we might regard as extralinguistic, in the name of the strict immanence of literary language in relation to itself? In other words, when literary texts contain allegations concerning truth or appearance, Ricoeur’s poetics undertakes to consider as a simple meaning effect what it decides, by a methodological decree, to call a referential illusion. [cut to conclusion...] In short, and despite what may be, as Ricoeur says, a fallacy standing against the background of a horizon of the world that constitutes the world of the text, we explored referential outgrowths as we today made inferences about the character of Curley’s wife. Any questions?

STUDENTS: [cue stunned expressions, or snores, or bursts of tears, depending]

And . . . SCENE.


[AT RISE: Let us suppose students have read the novel Of Mice and Men, discussed main characters, and that this is the first time the class is approaching the character of Curley’s wife.]

TEACHER: Today we continue unpacking Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men. We have discussed George and Lennie, as well as Curley, and, briefly, Slim and Candy. What about Curley’s wife? You will notice she is the only female character in the novel who appears in scenes that allow the reader to really get to know her. Now, Steinbeck tackles many themes, including how women count for very little in the world as depicted in the novel. When women are mentioned by the male characters in a positive light, these women are either mothers, or mother-figures, or whores. Where does a woman like Curley’s wife stand? Let’s look at the novel. Now, on page....[cut to lecture conclusion:] As you can see, Curley’s wife is not really either kind of woman. She is a young wife, who has grown up with prejudices, as well as dreams of being a movie star, but has no real sense of what her role is on this ranch, and therefore in this novel, this story. The men in this world have no patience for that, and because she is also pretty and not available, they decide she is a whore. We make that inference. Any questions?

STUDENTS: Heh! She said “whore”!

And . . . SCENE.

A DISCUSSION OF VARIATIONS 1 AND 2:  Did you follow any of that? I have to tell you, even as I was recording, and although I cut to the chase in each instance, I lost myself.

            You know why? Because what you just read was not instruction; it was talking. To borrow from Truman Capote’s assessment of Jack Kerouac “that’s not writing, it’s typing,” which I think I just paraphrased, I am asking, where’s the craft? You notice that “we” didn’t do anything: the Teacher did it ALL. There was no uncovering, no discovery, for either the students OR the teacher (I learned a great deal about the novel, and all texts, from my students as fellow readers). And in neither case was the instruction, so-called, directed toward the kids. What was missing in each?
Here are your instructional questions: 1) What are you teaching? 2) Why are you teaching it? 3) How will you know you’ve taught it? 4) How will you assess it?
These are, for many of us, dull questions.
What we want is passion! Get to the part where George kills Lennie!
Hope I didn’t spoil anything…
I think the most fun thing to do is just talk. Often, I encouraged just that, but I had to sneak in instruction, because kids are going to be tested.
There’s that word.
I hate standardized tests. HATE them. Do not believe in them, and yet…they ARE.
So. That’s acknowledged. (And for the record I absolutely believe in assessment. Tests push people to be better, but the tests have to measure real achievement. But I’ll talk about that later.)
Let’s look at what did not happen in Variations 1 and 2 as far as state standards and instructional purposes are involved.

First, there was no explanation of the skill of making inferences to develop characterization. Second, there was no modeling of how to use inferences to understand character, in life or in a text. Third, there was no teacher-guided practice to show how use the skill; and fourth, no specific opportunity for students to practice the skill. Finally, there was no assignment for students to apply their understanding of the skill on their own.

            Let’s examine a third scenario. NOTE: I am aware of the irony of pressing on to Variation 3 and not letting you, the Reader, make the above arguments about bad vs. good instruction on your own. Screw it. Books are lectures, and blogs are, too.


SCENE, etc.: [AT RISE: A Teacher is ready to perform an Instruction. As in Variation 2, let us suppose students have read the novel, discussed main characters, and that this is the first time the class is approaching the character of Curley’s wife.]

TEACHER (I’ll field this one): Take out your copy of Of Mice and Men and your notebooks, please.

[They do this as I take roll, sign absentee slips, which I record into the computer; hand out make-up work, etc.]

TEACHER: Now then.

[NOTE: 20 to 30% of the 35 kids in class will not have their books, or a notebook, or even a pen. They just won’t. I don’t know why, either. But you just have to go with it. Talk to them later, call home if it becomes a habit, refer it to Guidance if it’s failing them--all during your planning period. You note all this, extending a few personal invitations, such as, “David, take out your hypothetical notebook” or “Kapo, put your iPod away,” as you move to the board.]

TEACHER: We understand a great deal about characters from what they say, what they do, and what is said about them. Authors don’t have time to tell us everything, so they expect readers to fill in the gaps. The process of filling in those gaps is called making an inference. [Write this on the board.] When we infer something, we combine information we receive with information we already know, and fill in the rest with our own knowledge of events in a text, or our own understanding about life. For example, if I walk into the classroom slowly, blow my nose loudly, and talk in a raspy voice, what inference can you make about me?

[NOTE: Notice how I wrote out this whole paragraph of explanation without once acknowledging the Guidance Department aide who brought in a pass for Kendra, or the fact that Sergei just signed my tardy book, or that Ali is already asleep with this head on the desk because he’s fasting for Ramadan, or that Kerry is asking Marta, “What is Of Mice and Men? When did we get that?” Okay, remember we were talking about inferences?]

STUDENTS: [With luck they will say] You have a cold [not, “You are hung over”].

TEACHER: How did you infer that, or arrive at that inference?

STUDENTS: [In the interests of time, I will make the Students bright and articulate as needed.] You usually have a lot of energy, but today you look tired, and blowing your nose means it’s running, and a voice that’s raspy means you have a sore throat. So you have a cold.

TEACHER: How do you know it’s a cold?

LONE STUDENT: It could be allergies. Or a cold.

TEACHER: Yes, Lone Student, it could be allergies. Say you think it’s a cold. How do you know?

STUDENTS: We’ve all had a cold. Miss, um, O’Hah, you are so silly.

TEACHER: Okay, so you combined a lot of information: the behavior you are seeing, the behavior you usually see, and your knowledge of colds, or allergies, and what they are like. And making an inference like that happens pretty fast. No big deal. When we make inferences about characters in literature, we have to work a little harder, because this information is new, and also it is controlled by an author. For example, in the novel we are discussing, I think one of the most difficult characters to understand is Curley’s wife. Can someone tell me about Curley’s wife? Let’s start with a description by the narrator, or perhaps with something Curley’s wife says or something she does. Find a passage. We’ll start when someone has found something.

STUDENTS: (silent)

[This is the challenge. Number one, only about three kids will have read the novel, even though you began discussing it three days ago. I don’t care if you assigned the book a month ago, provided a study guide and gave class time to read it––and then as a bonus for completing the book, had Beyoncé, Justin Beiber, and a Jonas brother get up and dance naked while Taylor Swift sings the book live––sometimes only three students will have read it. Maybe eight, or sixteen. Maybe all but three will have read it. (Note: I always assigned novels a month before we were to discuss them. I think the only way to talk about a book, especially in high school, is when everyone has read the whole thing. Look, life doesn’t come with a study guide. And each day, I’d provide a little reading time in class. And the book is, like, only 103 pages long.) And for number two, the three kids, or sixteen kids, who did read it are afraid of being beaten up for talking about it. (Possibly I exaggerate.) So this is the point where a Teacher might say: “Guys, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here. For the record, I get paid whether you have read the novel or not.” Then you hand out a pop quiz. Who doesn’t love the five-question pop? So useful as a gauge, not to mention a delightful punishment via a “spoiler” question. Ahem. Then wait. Quiet is good. It lets people focus. If Teacher keeps talking, the students’ brains just train on techer-talk and shut down. (Beat.  Another beat.) For fun let’s say that kids who have read the novel speak up.]

STUDENTS: She’s a tramp/tart. [It’s universal terms like this that will get the unmotivated kids to perk up. I loved this novel for that.]

LONE STUDENT: No she is not either.

STUDENTS: Yeah, hunh!

TEACHER: Several students think Curley’s wife is a tramp, one says she is not. What is a tramp (or tart)?

STUDENTS: Um, you know.

TEACHER: Where did you get the term “tramp”/"tart"?

STUDENTS: Um, it’s what they men call her.

TEACHER: Where do they say this? What men say it? [Make them find the text. Let’s say someone finds it. We read the scene. Note the page number.] What do the men mean when they say “tramp”?

STUDENTS: She, uh, you know, has sex with the men.

TEACHER: How do you know that’s what they mean?

STUDENTS: Uh...they said it. She’s a tramp. So she’s a tramp.

TEACHER: Do they say, “I had sex with Curley’s wife?”

STUDENTS: Oh my gaw’ you did not just say…

TEACHER: Do they?

STUDENTS: Uh…no…not exactly.

TEACHER: So you are making an inference that she has sex with the men. That’s what readers do, make inferences [to create naughty bits where none exist]. How did you make that inference?

STUDENTS: Well, ...

[Here the Teacher reminds them to find text, with alert students pointing out again the passage where one of the men calls Curley’s wife a tart or tramp.]

TEACHER:  Do you see anywhere in the text where the men specifically define what they mean my “tramp”? No? So again, you are making an inference. That’s all you can do sometimes. So those are things said about her. Hold onto that. That is your prior knowledge. [Writing on the board: “Prior Knowledge: The men call Curley’s wife a tart,” etc.] Now: What does Curley’s wife do or say to prove the men’s accusation is correct? Show me some text.

STUDENTS: She comes on to the men.

TEACHER: Where to you see this in the text?

STUDENTS: When she comes in...

TEACHER: Read the passage. Anyone. Find the text.

LONE STUDENT: You won’t find nothin.’ She ain’t did nothin’ with none a them.

TEACHER: Let’s hang on to Lone Student’s viewpoint here. Lone Student says you won’t find any text. Thanks, Lone Student. We’ll work on your atrocious grammar another day.

[The other Students invariably pick a passage, again, where one of the men calls Curley’s wife a tramp or a tart.]

TEACHER: Now show me a scene where we actually see Curley’s wife do, or hear her say, something to prove she is, in fact, a tramp or tart. [Writing on the board: “Evidence in the Text: ____.]

[This is much more difficult. You know why? Because, as Lone Student so bravely pointed out, Steinbeck does not show Curley’s wife coming on to anyone, not really, let alone having sex. And as an ignorant newcomer to the ranch and abused young wife, she’s avoiding her asshole of a husband. (Steinbeck does show Curley being an asshole, so there’s plenty of text evidence for that.) But the students will find the passage with Slim, where he says, “Hey, good lookin’,” or they will jump to the scene in the barn with Lennie. Let’s do that one.]

STUDENTS: She, uh, wants sex with Lennie. [snickers, or if you prefer, nervous titters]

TEACHER: What words tell you she is looking for sex?

[Note: This is the kind of classroom conversation that conservative parents do not want to know about. But let me offer them this: “Conservative Parents, unlike you, I was not afraid of these conversations, and I could use this novel to teach your kids a lot about the misinformation in gossip, the dangers of prejudice, the rampant problem of misogyny in the world, and the universal theme of having a dream for our lives. Oh, you use the Bible? That is one racy book. So we should be on the same page.”]

STUDENTS: [shuffling through the scene on the pages; they can’t find any actual proof of sex-seeking, but are sure that when Curley’s wife offers Lennie a chance to touch her hair, she is a slut whore. You will amend this to “tramp” or "tart."] She’s a slut.

TEACHER: [Writing on the board, “Inferences.”] You are making an inference. You are taking information you have from the novel, in this case Curley’s wife’s actions, and combining it with previous information in the novel, that is, what the men say about her, and your own knowledge, however limited, of “seduction,” to make an inference about Curley’s wife. [Allow students to take notes on this.] Is your inference correct?


LONE STUDENT: You guys are stupid. [Time to signal some sort of affirmation so Lone Student doesn’t think he or she is crazy.]

TEACHER: Lone Student, let’s see if you are correct. Let’s read the whole scene. Let’s read what the narrator says and what Curley’s wife says for herself.

[You have Lone Student read Curley’s wife’s monologue, another student reading the narrator. In this way, together you will analyze the events that lead up to Lennie killing her. Then you will read aloud Steinbeck’s narrator telling us how pretty and young a free of meanness Curley’s wife looks now that she is dead.]

TEACHER: What inference can you make about Curley’s wife’s character from this scene? Who is she?

LONE STUDENT: She ain’t know what she was gettin’ into marryin’ that man Curley. She hate her life. She racist as hell [leaping back in (undiscussed) time to the scene with Crooks], but she ain’t did nothin’! That’s what I said!

STUDENTS: But she...

[This can be a good discussion. Students may go all over the place: The “she’s a slut” camp always has willfully ignorant diehards, never to be swayed, like little Sean Hannitys, or Tea Partiers. Oh, well. Then you drop the bomb.]

TEACHER: What is Curley’s wife’s name?

STUDENTS:’s, uh, does she have a name? [They flip all over the book. Even Lone Student, who really did read carefully, may look perplexed. I love making this a test question, and am astounded how many kids still manage to guess, “Agnes” or something. I don’t care how thoroughly you cover this, some few kids will not get it, possibly for years, and you can’t change that.] I can’t find it.

TEACHER: She doesn’t have a name. She’s “Curley’s wife.” Why doesn’t Curley’s wife have a name? Do you think Nobel-prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck forgot to give her one? Make an inference.

[With luck, and time enough to drop some hints in the forms of anvils, the kids will infer that women don’t count for much in the world of this novel, that the only way they can make themselves known, or seen, is to look pretty, or act like a “tart.” If they can’t make that leap, in the interests of doing other work during the school year, you may have to offer less-effective lecture notes based on your own inferences; whenever possible, combine things your students have said and repeat them in the form of a summary: That women are only whores in this world (the whore has a name), or mothers (the aunt who raised Lennie has a name) (reference these scenes). And that this girl, who is probably only about 17 years old, 18 tops (the term “jailbait” causes one to make another inference), if you make a few more inferences, really has no business here. For all her flaws, Steinbeck is still her champion. That said, one may ask, taking a leap from the novel to life as we know it (i.e. “Theme”): Is there really anything wrong with a girl wanting a little compliment for her looks? Does desiring attention always mean a girl wants sex? Why not friendship or company? Why do we make that leap?]

[And now the bell rings. And you haven’t had time to assign the homework, which is to use this knowledge about making inferences to sketch two other characters in the book, Candy and Crooks. So you assign it really fast. Or maybe your class is sharp, and you have 20 minutes left, which is what you hope you have, so the kids can do the inference writing in class, and share it with a partner.]

AND . . . SCENE.

[The next day...]

TEACHER: Let’s reread the section where Candy, Crooks, Lennie, and Curley’s wife are all in Crooks’s room....

[And in this way you move on, in future classes, to the analytical part of learning, to discuss Steinbeck’s themes, including how the outcasts of society become outcasts, and what this says about us as a society.]

            And that is why instruction is hard. And why it is so important. Look how much the young readers missed in their first reading. Even the best readers cannot grab it all without practice, without discussion.

I know some teachers who would disagree with my approach, because I pushed an agenda driven by state standards. I know some teachers think that my method is absolutely a violation of what learning should be. Some of the most inspirational, truly great teachers I knew would merely nod when kids talked, and never breathed a word about their own interpretations, theories, or experience with a text. I think that is probably the ideal way to go--to let the readers have their own experience. But I am not that person, was not that teacher, though I certainly encouraged free talking. I loved talking about literature, too, and I decided I would use myself as a model of engaged reading, and I taught to the standards. As I say, there is no ONE way to teach “correctly.” You have to teach honestly, your own way, doing the best you can.

            Now what about the kids who seem lost?

            Even with discussion, developmentally, some kids may not fare well in seminars like this, not in their whole freshman year, or sophomore year. But as the high school touring show continues, after all these experiences have had time to sink in--as they get more rehearsal, take the show on the road to junior year and senior year--they start to THINK, they DO it. They GET IT. MAYBE NOT TODAY, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of their lives. THAT IS WHY IT IS OK NOT TO GET IT ALL NOW.

            I put in all caps the phrases and sentences in the paragraph above by way of explaining why “standardized” testing just isn’t going to work, really. This is not as large a subject leap as it might seem--Instruction to Assessment. Think about how long a learning process takes. The whole standardized testing process is set up to fail students, mainly because it is designed to test teachers, to "catch" them not teaching the standards. And I hope the above examples help demonstrate that such a test can’t possibly assess how well teachers are doing their jobs. Expectations, instruction, practice, assessment--do it all, and do it well, and not all kids are going to be ready on the established “level”. And I can’t say it enough: “There is nothing wrong with that.” Everyone is where they are, and the role of teachers is to push them a little farther.

See you another day! In the meantime, why not reread Of Mice and Men?


  1. For the record, I always thought it was cool when an English teacher talked us through the text and forced us to reach our own conclusions. Students may have griped by senior year that even reading comic books was dangerous because we'd see symbolism in everything, but damned if it didn't help in college and make me a better writer.

  2. Excellent summary of the real difficulty of teaching anything, particularly literature. (I wonder how many Congresspersons would consider Steinbeck subversive.) Also, the best explanation I've read of why standardized tests are evil.

    Let me tell you about my brief, ignominious career as a substitute teacher someday.

    You might want to read this about how public employees, particularly teachers, have become the new "welfare queens."

    John (David) Baldwin

  3. Lisa, this was a joy to read! I never had the pleasure of being in your class but now I feel like I have been. It's wonderful to see your passion for education.


    1. Hi, Scott! Somehow I just saw this comment. Thanks so much for reading these things--I would have LOVED having you as a student. XO