Read here Ira Socol’s moving tribute to a great teacher, Alan Shapiro:
I met Alan as a 14-year-old ready to drop out of school. Angry, bitter, completely frustrated by any connection between my life, my learning style, and a miserable urban junior high school. In that year alone I’d be thrown out of three classrooms “permanently,” including very luckily, my English class within the first week of school. I landed among the “academic losers” in Mr. Shapiro’s room, in a class grouping other teachers literally called “dumb English.”
To make that classroom work, Alan did everything today’s “reformers” refuse to do. He abandoned not just testing, but grades – allowing the room to choose a grade we’d all get for the whole year. He abandoned teacher-centric instruction, often sitting silently, waiting for us to begin. He abandoned traditional discipline, letting us sit or not sit wherever we chose. He abandoned traditional delivery – when we read novels he also showed us the films, played audio readings, or read to us as a group. He abandoned traditional student work. There was no homework, and students responded to what was going on in class any way they chose to.
At the end of that year this group of “losers” collected over 150 pages of stories and poems we had written into a book we proudly shared, and I, suddenly, wanted to write.
Teaching like this is exhausting. Not because there’s anything inherently tiring about it – it’s actually quite enjoyable, even exhilarating if you’re ok with open-ended sociability. But because it’s draining to be constantly swimming against the current of orthodox practice and expectation. Clearly Alan was a bit of a curmudgeon, as is Ira. That actually helps a lot.
It’s also not clear that this is the right way to teach for all folks and purposes any more than the system it remediates. It could be that much of what works about it is just the shock of changing the game, along with the placebo effect of intense human attention. I sometimes tease my students that if all my colleagues began teaching interactively as I do, I would have to start lecturing. I’m only half joking.