The last week of a delightful sabbatical has arrived, and I find the seemingly unrelated books I read and discussions I partook in have led me to a common place: hospitality. I entered the spheres of Paradise with Dante in The Divine Comedy, longed for Home with Odysseus, and learned to love my fellow man better with Jayber Crow. The True, Good, and Beautiful hospitably extended an open hand to me, and I now long to extend this invitation to my own students.
Like a good student, I sought help, asking other Classical educators for their insights on inviting students into the love of learning. Here’s what they said.
Of the students who most resist learning (or appear to), two kinds stand out: those who seemingly beg for attention, even negative attention, as they distract the class with humor and the reserved and quieter students that do not speak unless asked directly. I discussed with fellow teachers how to engage these two kinds of students. Is it appropriate to draw those students in and require them to participate to the extent of the other more voluble students?
Andrew noted this is complex and rarely a behavioral problem; these situations often involve issues a teacher isn’t entitled to know about the student. He reminded that there are those who don’t eat and sleep well, don’t trust authorities, or don’t feel comfortable sharing their ideas, and consequently don’t perform well. He advised, “…these students shouldn’t be asked to change their behavior beyond a certain narrow frame of expectations. If there are rules, demand that they obey them. If there are unspoken expectations, either speak them or get rid of them. Don’t speak them out of frustration but simply as matters of fact presented matter of factly. Even better, communicate them when someone who usually doesn’t act on them does: GeneBob gives a good insight into a text. Stop and make eye contact and sincerely but not hyperbolically say, ‘That was insightful. I hadn’t seen things that way.’ Then pause for a moment and say, ‘I appreciate your thoughts.’ Their personalities and dispositions won’t change, but they’ll know their thoughts are welcome…I think the key point I’m looking for is to say that it is fine for students to give you superficial answers and that you should give them permission to do so. The best way to do so and then to cooperate with them is to ask them superficial questions that they are confident they can answer, then help them assemble thoughts that lead to deeper insights. Keep in mind that they are young and have not yet learned how to think all that well. It isn’t obvious to them how to do so, so your primary role is to model it for them and then gradually teach them how to imitate you… One thing teachers do a lot is call on a student for an answer to a question and then go on to the next student with the next question as though the last one never happened. After you ask JimmySam what kind of weapon Brutus used to stab Caesar and he says a knife, sit on it for a count of three before rushing to the next question. During that count, I recommend eye contact and a slow, grave nod with a warm smile hidden in it.”
Kristin echoed this with a rather profound exhortation when she proposed, “The interior lid of a person is mysterious, and we only gain access through invitation, never force.”
Cheryl made the distinction between the way different students participate; some students are outward/quick processors and others, inward/slow processors. She mentioned that many students are content to listen for fear of saying something stupid and challenged us as teachers to not label these students “shy” or “shallow thinkers” when some are just quiet, not verbose. She wisely reminded “timing is not the measure of the worth of their thought or their humanity. But neither is depth!”
Carol proffered the necessity of trust for many students. She contributed that many students would rather sit back and listen before talking; trust must be established in some students before vulnerability in sharing is offered.
Sometimes we need to hospitably allow students to be silent. Cheryl wisely offered, “A lot of rhetoric happens during the “thinking” part. Just because a student doesn’t “express” their thinking doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t…perhaps our modern classical renewal has emphasized more debate (expression of the rhetoric) from our children than is necessary.”
LaQueta maintained, “My quiet students often surprise me with some remarkable insights toward the end of the school year when they all of a sudden become comfortable enough to share. A lot is stewing in their hearts before they are willing to reveal it to a group.” These thoughts couldn’t have boiled up to the surface sooner, the conditions simply weren’t present.
But what if they aren’t afraid to speak, and simply aren’t thinking deeply? Camille questioned, “…how do we make [our students] thirsty?! This is why Mr. Hicks said, ‘It is the mark of an ineffective teacher to answer a question that hasn’t been asked.’ It’s my greatest struggle as a teacher! What can we do to provoke them, intellectually, to ask questions?”
Felicity suggested, “God is infinitely patient with us when we try to follow him because from the beginning, he wanted to partner with man. [We] could then explain to them that [we] want to partner with them in learning and promise them great patience if they try to participate.”
Confirming that, Nancy offered, “At the beginning of the spring semester, we spent some time in class defining goodness, truth, and beauty. In the first few weeks, I started asking them what was good, true, and beautiful about such things as last weekend, the rain, bees, etc. Then I started asking them about literary passages and readings on history. By the end of the semester, everyone’s hand was going up to share. Of course, at first, responses were focused on something like, ‘What was good about the weekend was playing video games.’ I would accept answers non-judgmentally at first. Then I would begin to ask why. Without passing judgment, again, by the end of the semester, even the youngest elementary students were contributing very insightful comments.”
LaQueta wisely reminded us of a quote by Charlotte Mason, which states: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” As classical teachers, we work hard to educate the whole child, and yet it can be hard to set the right atmosphere where all can learn.
This wonderful forum reminded me that I had taken upon my shoulders a responsibility not mine to bear: to awaken souls I was only asked to Shepherd. I am also reminded that I, too, am a student and that, as teachers, we must depend on the Spirit to provoke and awaken souls…to depend on His work to flow through us; to obey what He calls us to do and learn and lead second.
Common to all the books I read this summer was a character in exile on a journey toward Home. In our classrooms, we will undeniably find a variety of young pilgrims at all different stages on this same Journey with us. It is not our duty as teachers to determine where they are on the path, nor is it our duty to tell them where they should be on that path; it is our duty, rather, to provide a taste of the coming hospitality by being a trustworthy guide along the path that continues to point each and every student toward Home.