What do I mean by organic teaching? I mean teaching that responds to the living breathing souls in the classrooms - the students. It is an authentic and natural teaching that the teacher dares to bring into the classroom. Organic teaching requires a teacher to be awake, alert and empathic. The kind of teaching a student remembers for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately organic teaching has become a rare event in schools. The business of schooling is more than ever interested in exam results. The single pointed focus on exam results is arguably the greatest misrepresentation of a teacher's effectiveness and a student's intelligence. So what could organic teaching look, sound and feel like?
It takes me back to a hot, muggy day in 2012 when I was teaching. What do you do as a teacher when the temperature is a muggy 90 degrees outside and your lethargic students have just eaten lunch?
I peruse my room. Students are slumped over their desks barely able to stay awake. My carefully planned lesson seems strangely alien in this atmosphere of reluctance. The vision of students struggling enthusiastically to solve challenging problems is fading as I take in the panorama of sleepy minds and bodies in front of me.
An overwhelming wave of futility washes over me. I gaze around the room desperately looking for a natural opening. Unfortunately, there is a force field of inertia so thick that, I feel like I am talking through wet cement. My words fall on deaf ears and wooden desks.
I stop and wait quietly. Several students prop open one eye to make sure I am still there. My natural opening just arose. I turn my back silently on my students and write a quote on the board: "I think, therefore I am." Then I write the question "What would happen to space if the co-ordinate (3,6) went missing?"
Gently, ever so gently, I state: “Today is our last Wednesday together and it is NOT a coincidence that we should be doing THIS question on the board.” Three or four heads pop up and stare vacantly at the question. There is more silence, until one student mumbles, “What’s the coincidence?” His jet black eyes are hidden under long bangs. “Aah” I think, “he’s awake!”
Two more heads pop up like prairie dogs looking for predators. I answer quietly and slowly: “I haven’t worked that part out yet”?
More voices contribute unexpectedly throwing out unlikely conjectures. “Well one co-ordinate has a 3 and Wednesday is the third day of the week!” says one student at the back of the room, beaming with satisfaction. Another chimes in that “the combination of co-ordinates (3,6) adds to 9 which is the number of letters in Wednesday”.
Suddenly over half the bodies in the hot, muggy, depressive room are awake and squawking like chicks in a nest. “Where is this enthusiasm coming from?” I wonder. My mission is to awaken the rest of the class to wonder and want to explore with me.
Raising my voice I ask “Do you realize how lucky you are to have a classroom ? In some countries, students walk 10 miles to school to stand or sit under a tree. No books, no shelter, and a long walk home.” There is a stirring. I feel like a preacher on a pulpit as I rhetorically declare and ask “Do you realize less than two percent of the entire planet’s population know what a Cartesian Number Plane is and even fewer understand how to create graphs?” Heads are popping up curiously.
“Do you know that if the co-ordinate (3,6) was missing you would not be able to have video games?” Only two heads remain down. "How come?" says one student.
Unexpectedly a student blurts out "Because computer pixels are co-ordinates on a number plane. We are making progress. “There is still time” I think to myself, “we will get through this”. I savor the moment.
“Do you realize co-ordinate number planes are only 300 years old?” I ask in an excited tone. “Hurrr?” mumbles someone. “Yes!” I claim exuberantly. “Descartes thought this out while he was eating eggs at a restaurant in Paris. He wrote it down on his napkin! He was so excited he forgot to tip the waitress. Can you imagine how she felt, while one of the greatest moments in mathematical history was unfolding?”
Everyone is awake, alert and curious! One blurts out "I thought the Mayans already knew this?" I was reaching them now. I had them! “No” I said delightedly at his wonderful input, “the Mayans invented zero! But without zero the number plane would be meaningless.” I ask the same student "What is the significance of zero in the Cartesian number plane?"
With the Mayans and Descartes at my side I am surfing the interest and learning with my students. We complete the problem with relish. The rest of the lesson unfolds as we learn and practice the distance formula. There is a buzz in the room and as students work together I am delighted to hear their conversations and imaginations alive and well. The students are alive with that peculiar energy that appears from nowhere.
I ponder the lesson's aftermath in my hot, muggy room, wondering "What are the special ingredients that make it possible for students and the teacher to mysteriously come together?"
If you enjoyed this post please forward it to a friend.
Click to set custom HTML
"Lawrence Carroll's workshop on personal stress management, which he conducted with my Columbia Grad School class
was a huge success."
Neal Pilson, Columbia University, Former President, CBS Sports