Reviving the Dead by Killing the Sage

Reflection is quite a process that starkly resembles standing in front of a full-length mirror under a spotlight. Every wrinkle, blemish, and unsightly hair becomes grossly apparent.  While there are certainly highlights (like the way a single tendril of hair curls in a perfect spiral), the ugly truth always seems a lot more pronounced and hard to ignore.  My most recent blemish feels like an oxymoron.  I’m a Deaf woman who apparently does not like silence.  This is even more astounding if you know me.  I’m the wall flower that hovers in the corners with my arms and legs crossed, the body language of a defensive, private persona.  I even laugh silently.

So, where does this fear of silence come from?  I get stage fright when standing and presenting/speaking in front of a crowd (including  students).  In order to feel comfortable, there has to be an exchange.  I like collaboration because it allows me to bounce my ideas off “quietly”.  In other words, I prefer doubles tennis to randomly smacking a ball against the wall with a racquet.  How on earth I became a teacher who must stand in front of classroom full of mildly disinterested high school students is an enigma.

A big buzzword going around educational circles, and one I wholeheartedly advocate, is Inquiry Based Learning.  I love the idea of students “discovering” learning and finding their own way around things that adults have determined our students “MUST” learn.  Without getting into a debate about overly narrowed standards, I want to focus on the belief that questioning is the most important part of learning.  So, I ask my students questions all the time.  The problem is, often, they don’t answer.  Worse yet, the ultimate paradox, I often attempt to answer my own questions.  When I catch myself doing this, I immediately respond “well, that’s just one idea, you don’t have to use it.”  Well, guess what?  They use it, verbatim, on responses to test questions, in parroted responses when I try to get them to follow with another possible answer, or when turning to talk with a partner.  They regurgitate.  It’s a horrible feeling as a teacher to watch a class full of students upchucking the proverbial hairball, MY hairball.

BUT, I have begun to hit upon why I do this.  I fear silence.  I fear that maybe students don’t understand the material; maybe they need an idea or an example to get them started; maybe they lack experience with the topic; maybe my principal will come in and find students unengaged.   However, I’ve also come to the conclusion that my students don’t answer because they smell my fear.  They know that if they just stay quiet long enough, I’ll help them out with an answer.

So, dear friends, what is a teacher like me to do?  My Answer (see, I can’t help myself!): Shut up.  I don’t have to be the sage on the stage.  I don’t have to have all of the answers, and I need to stop spending so much time asking questions that I can easily answer on my own.  I need to expand critical thinking skills by getting students to explore ideas.  I want to develop an environment where there are no wrong answers, but rather valid or invalid premises.  I’ve begun giving my students questions and letting them know that there are no right or wrong answers to these questions.  Instead, I expect them to support/justify their answer with evidence.  A funny thing happens, students start answering.  At first, their answers are clipped and look more like questions (wanting so badly to be the student that gets the answer right).  Then, you start to see wheels turning and students come up with some pretty neat ideas.

Yet some days it is really hard to sit back and wait for students to discover learning.  The truth is, I’m waiting for them to discover MY way of learning–I have to remind myself that this mentality is one that assumes that what I know and teach is the “right” way to do things.  We don’t want students to blindly accept what teachers tell them or what textbooks state.  So I’m going to try to kill the sage and instead help my students to become sages of their own.