Making It Real

No matter our age, September’s arrival suggests beginning again. Our years of schooling tab it as the true new year; for me, a teacher, the effect is stronger still – I begin again with new groups of students.

All of this has me asking myself this perennial question: What does it take to teach and learn well? And as this question pools again at the start of my 40th year of teaching, I return to Thoreau’s question in the early going of Walden:

Which would be most advanced at the end of a month, – the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this, – or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the mean while and had received a Rogers’ penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?

Thoreau’s opinion is clear – real experience, hands-on work, trumps lecture and passive reception, and he would find many currently teaching who agree. Experiential education gains more converts each year. At my school a long history of devotion to the arts leads us in that direction – just as an artist makes art, so too a student makes learning. The challenge often lies in finding and fitting experience into the uniform time-boxes that form a school’s schedule. How can I make our work real rather than received, I wonder.

Here’s one attempt from this time last year:

9/4/11: The e-mails arrived last evening and this morning: Next Monday’s assignment includes the intentionally vague request that each student make a map of Thoreau’s essay Walking; in class, this request passed without comment and everyone shuffled off to the next class. “What do you mean, want?” chorused the four e-mails. “Okay,” I wrote back, “I’ll outline (vaguely, still) what sort of visual representation a map might offer, but I want your take, not mine.”

Shuffle shuffle, Monday arrives and they do too. We talk over passages; we speculate, we formulate ideas in small groups, we go outside and consider the act of walking, it locomotion. The class period comes to an end. “So,” I say with the sort of teacher-cheeriness that makes students roll their eyes, “will your maps get me from here to there?” And amid a rustling of paper, I collect their maps. Most are flat single sheets, a few are rolled, and one weighs nearly a pound. I sit in the now-empty classroom and prepare to be guided. The many drawings offer good distillation of Thoreau’s essay and a number of its key points; as I read and scan on, I am happy to be in their territory. I unfurl the heavy scroll and along its meandering ink lines and amid its drawings, I find the sources of its weight – glued to the map are twigs, pine needles, a stone and, where the paper was once wet, it wrinkles. The map uses a “tawny grammar,” a wild expression, and near the end it says, “Go see for yourself.”

I’m out the door in under a minute.

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