"There is no one way"

Thursday, April 29, 2010

I was the worst student in the class

I am back at school after a year away from teaching. During that time, I was a student three times.

I took a painting class -- four hours a day, every weekday, for a whole month at the Arts Students League of New York -- wonderfully relaxing and energizing. I took a Web design class at the Fashion Institute of Technology, which allowed me to modernize my Web sites somewhat, though they still look rather basic.

The third class was the most challenging -- a five-week, four-days-a-week, four-hours-a-day acting class, geared mostly to theater professionals. I was the oldest and fattest participant, and of course the only math teacher. It was certainly the most difficult thing I attempted in my year off. I suspect the main reason I took the class was to try to recapture some of the fun I had in my twenties and thirties, when I led political street theater groups, participated in hundreds of street performances, had ensemble parts in various mainstream student and amateur productions, and did a little playwriting.

Reconnecting with that world was indeed fun and interesting, but in the end the main significance of the experience for me was that I was the worst student in the class. An interesting place to be, for a teacher.

Every morning, we had two hours of a rigorous training in Suzuki theater, an approach to acting that is much like a martial art. This was beyond difficult for me: I had neither the flexibility, nor the strength, nor the coordination to make my body do what was expected of it. Moreover, in the midst of these complex, demanding, and exhausting moves, we were supposed to manage our breathing so as to be able to burst into a monologue at full volume at any time. Even though I had memorized the monologues, I never even once succeeded in getting through one of those when called upon to speak. It appears all my brain power was going into the physical challenges, and none was left for the speaking...

Nevertheless, I did not get discouraged. I kept giving it my best effort, and, in fact, enjoying it. Which begs the question: what is it that kept me going? The answers could inform my teaching.

The main ingredient was probably the support from my classmates, who never made me feel I didn't belong. Several went out of their way to encourage me. Lesson: pay attention to the interactions among students, and never tolerate teasing and bullying. How to foster a supportive atmosphere among the students is not obvious, but it does not hurt to address this question explicitly at some point with every group of kids.

The teachers (a rotating team) were very clear about what we should aim for, and provided much feedback to the class as a whole, and to each of us individually. Lesson: it helps to have explicit standards for students to strive for -- much better than to leave them guessing about their learning goals.

The teachers' feedback to us was factual, and praise was never phony or condescending. As a result, when I received compliments from them, I knew I deserved them, and consequently was really boosted by them. Lesson: be honest in assessing student performance.

The teachers frequently reminded us to set our own personal goals within each exercise. Executing these moves correctly was difficult for everyone, and in any case, as soon as a majority approached that, the goalposts were moved, and additional complexities were added. What that meant was that there was always more to reach for, and that each student was in charge of their own learning within that framework. Lesson: aim for a "no threshold, no ceiling" classroom, where everyone can participate, everyone can move forward, and no one is ever done learning.

The program was varied enough that different students had opportunities to shine in different ways. The afternoon class consisted of structured, abstract improvs during which we were to develop our intuition for the physicality of acting, and our awareness of the ingredients that go into it. That was much more accessible to me, and allowed me to use some of my strengths as a performer. Lesson: give students different, complementary ways into the material you are teaching.

This is not to say the course was without its flaws. For one thing, there were too many injuries (three in our group, and the one person I talked to who had taken this training before also had hurt herself.) Still, in combination, these teaching techniques were powerful. Even when one of the teachers lapsed into bizarre and bitter attacks on his (absent) colleagues and (present) students, he was not able to undermine the self-confidence we had gained in the course of the program. 

Of course, there are difference between adolescents and adults, so these lessons are not 100% applicable to teaching high school. Still, they're worth thinking about as I return to the classroom.



  1. Thank you, Henri, for this post. I don't even have a math classroom right now, but you have me excited and thinking how this applies to raising my kids, tutoring students, and teaching yoga.

    1. Happy it's been helpful! Yes, of course what I learned was not about math, at least not directly.