Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Fine arts and phys ed vs. "academic" classes

During these summer months, I've been practicing martial arts.  I studied in a dojo for four years, so I have a pretty solid basic set, but I haven't been to the dojo in almost four years, so my skills were not what they could have been.  Besides, since that was the last time I had any regular exercise, I was powerful out of shape.  So I've been practicing the basic skills, and trying to make my form as good as I know it should be.  After today's exercise, a story from one of my high school classes bubbled up to the forefront of my mind. 

In a conversation about band class, Tara* said, "I don't want to do concerts.  I just want to play my instrument."  This confused me at the time, but since that wasn't the topic of conversation, I didn't explore it too deeply.  But it stayed with me, and now, 6 months later, I've been chewing on it.  If you don't want to play in a concert, don't you just want to practice your instrument?  Can't you do that on your own?

Then the parallels between my situation and Tara's occurred to me.  If I never get into a real fight, if I never even test for another belt level, am I really practicing martial arts?  If I'm not really, I don't know, "doing" kobudo, why practice?  The answer came back, "I like doing it, and I need the exercise."  In other words, the practice is worth doing on its own merits.  If Tara felt the same way about band class, what would be my issue with that?  Come to that, did I think of my high school band or choir classes as practice sessions for our thrice-annual concerts?

And then I thought about the way Tara behaved in my class.  Did she engage whole-heartedly in my classroom activities? Well, most of them, with varying levels of enthusiasm.  Now that I think about it, though, I can tell which activities were worth doing on their own merits and which ones were just "practices for the concert" by the way Tara acted towards them.  I used to think that the class sessions that Tara and her classmates would get worked up about were the "fun" ones, the ones that involved cutting out shapes from paper or playing with toys ("utilizing manipulatives," in teacherspeke.)  But now I think students worked harder and better on the activities that were worth doing on their own merit. 

In contrast, they blew off the activities whose only value were as practices for other activities.  You can tell these kinds of activities because, in response to the question, "Why do we have to do this?", the best answer you can come up with is, "You'll need to know it later."

I don't excuse the students' lack of personal responsibility, and in lieu of a more detailed examination of the specific activities, I stand by the value of the activities I gave my students.  (I give my students practice activities I think will help them learn Spanish.  I don't use "time filler" activities.)

So, I want to start looking at my daily practice activities.  I've already sort of ranked them according to utility--if they're not a certain level of good pedagogy, I don't use them (or I change them so they are good pedagogy).  Now I need to start ranking them according to "inherent worthwhileness."  (There's got to be a better word for that.)  One of my main struggles as a good teacher is student motivation, and I've done a lot of research to increase my skills in this area.  Could it really be as simple as imagining myself as a 16-year-old, looking at the activity, and say, "Is this worth doing?"  If the answer is "yes," then we're good.  If the answer is "if I want to be able to do X, then yes," then the answer is "no."

*This isn't her name, although it's close.  If you're reading this, Tara**, you know who you are.  You should also know that I really do remember.  Credit where credit's due, while maintaining students' privacy.

**Still not her real name.

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