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Teaching as Creation

July 29, 2011

(Not sure what you’re reading? Feel free to get some context before continuing)

Teaching is my favorite form of artistic creation, on par with the more traditional forms of art such as painting, poetry, or musical composition. These artists start with a blank canvas, an empty page, or dead air – we start with an open mind. We leave our impressions on our students with the lessons we conduct and the structure of our classroom – we carve out a space for learning and growth and, in the process, plant the seeds of knowledge, confidence, and leadership in our students. We are the true masters of Inception.

Maybe that’s a bit romantic, but I approach teaching with the same passion and anticipation that an inspired artist approaches their particular vacuum. The best artists are the ones who (in my opinion) pay attention to even the smallest details in their form – each sentence in a Nabokov short story, each scene and piece of dialogue in a Stanley Kubric film. No action is taken without considering how it will augment the overall tone and effect of the piece. Every tiny, subtle detail is important and connected to the larger theme.

My art form is teaching and I want to be a damn good artist. As I prepare for my first year, I’m considering all of the details building up to this construction that will be the culture of my classroom. Things like the connected structure of a unit, the presentation of individual lessons, behavior management plans, weights and measures in my grading system, physical arrangement of the classroom, even the precise wording of questions to be asked in my classroom. They are the tools with which I will create my masterpieces.

This is still sort of romantic, but part of this belief is grounded in the very real experience of classroom observation – spending a semester in someone else’s class and determining what made them exceptional and what made them subpar. “Why are the desks arranged this way?”, “Why is your room decorated this way?”, “Why are your assignments weighted this way?”, “Why did you phrase this question this way?”, “Why do you dress this way?” – the Nabokov’s and the Kubric’s had an answer to every question; every aspect of the classroom was a choice they were aware of and each considered how it augments the overall tone and and effect of their classroom. The less effective teachers hadn’t considered some (or all)  of these questions – ‘This is how it was when I moved in’, ‘This is how everyone else does it’, ‘I don’t remember what I said’.

The way I analyze a classroom as an observer is the same way I analyze a theme in a Kubric film or close read a Nabokov story. The great works of art will stand up to such scrutiny. A closer look into the lesser ones will reveal inconsistencies and a lack of foresight. I want my classroom to be more like a Kubric classic than a Michael Bay blockbuster. Which means I need to see every aspect of my classroom as a choice – an opportunity – and be able to answer as many of my own questions as possible.

I’ve been coming up with a list of questions that I intend to answer to help shape what I want the culture of my classroom to be, which in turn will help me make decisions about the small (but important) questions of every new teacher. This post is already a little long and the list is incomplete, so I will save that as something to add in the next few days.

However, one audience I hope to reach is that of preservice teachers, so to them I address this question: when you go into a classroom and observe another teacher, what do you look for? What are the details that tell you how effective a teacher is at creating a classroom truly designed for learning?

Thanks for reading

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