One of my favorite stories to tell when I was a classroom teacher was about my encounter with Hall of Fame baseball player Reggie Jackson.
In 1994, I was a sports writer assigned to cover a charity softball game featuring washed up ex-big leaguers and a few B-list celebrities. Reggie was my childhood hero growing up. I knew I had to interview him.
But when I approached him, I froze. I was incredibly nervous, and began babbling incoherently. Then, the unthinkable happened.
He started laughing at me.
I told this story to my beginning journalism students every semester. I would go into elaborate detail about all every aspect of the story to make it more entertaining, sometimes taking as long as 15 minutes to tell the whole thing. In the end, I would make the point of the story clear: always be prepared before you interview someone, and don’t be nervous.
One summer while reflecting on my curriculum, I asked myself some hard questions: why do I spend 15 minutes of class time telling that story? What do the students get from listening to it?
Well, I reasoned, they learn what’s like to be a reporter in the field. I tell the story in an entertaining way in order to build a relationship with them. I earn credibility from the students, who can feel confident that they’re being taught by an experienced journalist instead of someone who just read about journalism in a textbook.
It was all a bunch of crap. I told that story to feed my ego. I was wasting kids’ time.
Education researcher Alfie Kohn describes a similar revelation: “Almost a decade ago, in an interview for this magazine, I recalled my own experience in high school classrooms with some chagrin: ‘I prided myself on being an entertaining lecturer, very knowledgeable, funny, charismatic, and so on. It took me years to realize [that my] classroom was all about me, not about the kids. It was about teaching, not about learning.’”
This is an inherent danger to forcing kids into required classes. Teachers are people too, and we have feelings. When a kid has his head down on the desk, or when she never does the homework, or when he mutters, “This class sucks,” what teachers hear is, “You suck.” It’s only natural. So there is a built-in pressure to make the class “entertaining.”
We can’t change human sensitivities, but we can eliminate required classes. We can replace them with school environments in which students sign up for the classes they’re interested in. Teachers with students who are there out of curiosity about the material don’t have to worry about entertaining the disinterested kids. They can focus on the important work of teaching and learning.
(Join the discussion at www.facebook.com/reeducate. Get updates at www.twitter.com/reeducate.)