While preparing myself to talk to a group of new teachers at the College of Staten Island, I was reminded of a story that Dr. Gattegno once told about shaving. Every day he shaved, but each time he did so, he started from a different spot on his face. He said that he did this in order not to miss an opportunity to discover something new, about shaving, about himself, or about something completely unknown or unexpected.
This story came to mind because, after I heard it, I tried an experiment that has continued to influence my development as a teacher. The basis of my experiment was the thought that if Dr. Gattegno could be open to the idea of learning something new from an ordinary experience like shaving, surely something could be gained from meeting my classes, every day, as if I were doing so for the first time.
In my experiment, I focused on one particular class, trying to find something new. I acknowledged that I knew the title of the course, some things about the subject matter, the students’ names, and at least one way of presenting the material, but there were many things I didn’t know, and these were things I could think of as “new.” For example, I didn’t know whether what I had prepared for the class would work because I didn’t know what the students would be like on any given day. Nor would I know the answers to such questions as:
- Would they have read the assigned pages?
- Would they have done the written work before class?
- Would they have understood the assignments?
- Would they be willing to speak in class when called upon?
- Would they be as interested as on the previous day?
- Would they recall the previous day’s work?
- Would they understand today’s lesson?
- Would they be attentive to the teacher, their classmates, to themselves and their own learning?
The effect of thinking about such questions, of reflecting upon what I didn’t and perhaps couldn’t know, was to put me more in touch with my students than I had ever been before, and also to provide me with a way of approaching teaching that I continue to follow.
I recognized that a useful way to prepare myself for a class would be to ask not only, “What do I have to teach?” but also, “What do I have to learn” about the students and their ways of learning? What helps them to proceed in their learning, and what stands in their way? Some answers I could get by asking them directly, and some required close observation of the students engaged in learning activities which they could do before my eyes. Other answers required a more accurate understanding of what the course work truly required.
So, I began questioning what I had to learn from myself as a learner. I started to do the assignments I gave to my students, and, more importantly, I learned to analyze what each assignment required of me in order to feel that I had mastered the work, or had done the best possible job. What I learned about my own learning began to guide what I would do with my students.
As a reading teacher, most of my attention was focused upon the process of reading and what activities were required of me in order to develop an interpretation which accounted for the text. Because I was so often very familiar with the subject matter, it was difficult to analyze what I had to do to comprehend the material. So I learned to invent stumbling blocks, such as rewriting the material so it would be understandable to someone less familiar with it, or creating an assignment I’d never done before with the material and then doing it. In this way, I could not only analyze what I had done as a reader, but also I could make “old” material new.
When I wanted to learn more about the way I learned something unfamiliar, I began working with colleagues in my own department. I agreed to read their material and they mine. We first did this in an informal way and then more systematically in workshops. Eventually, I conducted workshops for colleagues outside of my own department. We analyzed the demands of reading that were common to all disciplines, such as developing and sustaining interest in the material; keeping an open mind; hypothesizing and seeking evidence to confirm or disprove hypotheses; holding a dialogue with the text; questioning the material and ourselves while proceeding; and recalling or constructing mental images appropriate to the reading. We also worked to analyze those demands which were specific to each discipline.
Together we recognized that some of the difficulties we experienced in learning, our students also had. What we invented to help ourselves we could offer to our students. For example, when we recognized that we had difficulty remembering or holding on to unfamiliar subject matter over time, thus finding it hard to return to it, we decided to start our sessions by writing one thing we remembered from the previous lesson. Once we wrote one thing, it triggered another. We found this technique helped us recall more and more. Sometimes we shared these writings, and as others spoke, we could see that we had actually held on to more than we originally thought. Occasionally we analyzed why we recalled what we did. Later on, we brought this experience to the classroom by having our students take the first five minutes of class to write at least one thing they had retained from the last class. As this became routine, students grew to expect this writing and began taking responsibility for maintaining the continuity of the course for themselves, rather than seeing each class session as a separate entity, totally unconnected from the rest, which the teacher would magically tie up!
When, in a biology lesson, we recognized that we had difficulty understanding the workings of the heart or the kidneys because we couldn’t visualize what we were reading and had difficulty with the scientific terminology, we found it most useful to work first from a three-dimensional model, listing in our own words whatever we could observe, and then together generating questions about the workings of the organ. This changed our relation to the readings. We became familiar with the appearance of the organs being described. We were more curious about their workings, and we also appreciated the scientific terminology which was more precise than our pedestrian descriptions. The biology teacher used the same approach with his students. He involved them first in their own explorations and then had them do the readings, rather than requiring them to first read and memorize scientific terms as the basis for making observations. They too became more interested and prepared to read science.
As we became more aware of our learning processes, we also recognized the value not only of creating techniques which would help students to learn the subject matter in our disciplines, but also of inventing ways that students could use to become aware of their own learning processes so that they could facilitate their own learning.
Looking at teaching time as an opportunity to learn something new and unexpected requires keeping myself in the position of a learner, and doing so continues to yield a great deal.
The day I addressed my new colleagues at the College of Staten Island, I told them Dr. Gattegno’s story about shaving. I also talked about how the story and his work had inspired the experiment which I have just described and which continues ongoing.
© Rose Katz Ortiz
The Science of Education in Questions – No 10, Une Education Pour Demain, France. December 1993.
Rose Ortiz, a member of the Department of English, Speech, and World Literature at the College of Staten Island teaches Reading, Composition, and Speech courses.
She coordinates the college’s Reading Program, directs the Freshman Workshop Program, and Supervises the Faculty Development component of the Coordinated Freshman Program Linked Courses Project.
She has been working with Words in Color and The Silent Way for about three decades.
“Approaching Teaching with Fresh Eyes” by Rose Katz Ortiz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.