Teacher as Host, Teacher as Life of the Party

When I was teaching, if you looked out over the classroom, everyone was seated quietly. And there, at the front of the class, was this lunatic with a nose prancing, screeching, talking and talking and talking, yelling, banging the table, moving, laughing, telling stories, interrupting movies and conversations to add his two sense. I staged an environment in which I was the life of the party, goddammit!

It's what I did naturally but there was a method to the narcissism. It was a gangbusters approach: if only I'm ardent enough, insistent enough, I'll get this understanding into their heads, their bodies, their lives. There's at once a violence and a generosity implicit in the method just as there is always violence and generosity in any pedagogic situation — the generosity and violence of giving (it's there, more subtly, in gift giving, as well).

My son is at a new school — new for him as well as new in general, its first students started in 2011. It takes a different approach to pedagogy. They call their teachers "collaborators." The space itself is something to behold: 62 kids aged 5-18 broken into "bands" of around eight students, each inhabiting a cubby, a tree house, a loft amidst this warehouse. There are drills and saws and nails available; there's a computer lab; there's a small kitchen; there's a cork(ish) board floor with mats available for tumbling and such.

This is one angle of my son's incredible school, Brightworks. 

The school and its teachers — its collaborators — create an environment for learning. There is no set curriculum but there are themes (called "arcs"; this year's is Rocks, Seeds, and Humans). They learn how to work together on projects; to plan and distribute responsibilities; they have a lot of work they do alone but for which they usually submit proposals that are then critiqued by peers and collaborators. Which is all to say, the school plays host. 

One result, as far as I can tell, is that there are many lives of the party. The school seems filled with characters, students and collaborators alike, each doing their own thing while interacting with everyone else. There is no center, no gatekeeper of knowledge or grades (there are no grades per se, of course).

Two approaches to pedagogy, then: life of the party and host. No doubt, there is a cultural heritage of the former and a cultural bias for the latter. Schools are generally architected to have one teacher in the middle running the show; one problem that arises is that that teacher is bored or insane or vapid or stupid. And then the whole things goes to shit. We've all had those classes; no doubt, I've been that insane, stupid teacher.

Today, we have less tolerance for the one who would hold forth. We live in a culture of "likes" in which very few are willing to take center stage. And those who do are, more often than not, attacked mercilessly. We like to think, not erroneously, that everyone is special, that every person learns differently, that kids should be empowered to learn as they wish and want and are so inclined.

I don't disagree with either position, either model. And at a certain point, these two blur just as all dichotomies blur. I like to imagine that in my narcissistic ramblings, my insistence on my own voice being heard, that I created a certain environment, that I hosted a certain kind of party where learning could (and hopefully did) happen. Yes, it revolved around me. But I wasn't the cool, kick back host who sat in the corner sipping his Rémy with sycophants gathered at his feet. I tried to be the life of the party who touches everyone, influences everyone, gets everyone engaged, laughing, learning. Frankly, it's exhausting.

The host model takes a different approach. It puts in its work behind the scenes, before everyone's arrived, putting everything in its place, making snacks and drinks readily available, putting cocktail tables in just the right place.

Now, were I ever to host a party (which would mean I'd have friends: see earlier post on the inhuman social), I'd buy a bunch of booze, put out cups, and set everyone loose. And then, no doubt, I'd parade about holding forth on this and that.

The host model seems more efficient. Most notably, it's replicable. It doesn't turn on the personality of one person. But it also relies on the motivation and energy of the student which might very well be absent or in short supply. Then again, that's always the case, always a possibility.

When we think about teachers, we imagine lives of the party, even if they're often a tad curmudgeonly. I'm thinking of John Houseman in The Paper Chase and of Socrates, of course. And even Jesus, who could be a bit cranky. Which is to say, we imagine the teacher as a kind of storm, a whirling dervish, a strong personality. Kierkegaard argues that the teacher is everything (for Kierkegaard, that is what makes Christianity Christianity: if Socrates was a mid-wife, bringing about what we already know, Jesus is the essential factor that makes rebirth — repetition — possible. See his Philosophical Fragments).

But Brightworks, my kid's school, enacts a different model all together. They architect then hang back a bit, steering here and there, nudging but not dictating. Which can be hard for me at times. Often, my boy reads me his homework and, well, I take to it with said whirling, hurling questions, giving lectures, offering different models, poking and prodding with a certain vehemence. Which my self deprecation tells me is wrong but all my pedagogic instincts tell me is good and right.

Alas, like most things, I suppose the best pedagogy takes place within a well hosted environment punctuated now and again with a life of the party: a welcoming environment accompanied by a host not unafraid to demand you try his cocktail (to extend the metaphor, however awkwardly).

And yet the two modes involve fundamentally different modes of training with different sets of expectations, different ways of assessing success. But what is success in education, anyway? For me, it was always a mind blown, a new life view inaugurated — which I believed I could bring about through a relentless show. But surely there are other metrics and other ways.


Foamy Witch Slut said...

Reading your posts about the school, I am struck by the similarities to the Montessori method. This school sounds like the new and improved, more refined (or maybe less refined?) model. It must be a delight to be a student as well as a teacher there!

Daniel Coffeen said...

I don't know much about Montessori. But I'll tell you: this school has tools lying everywhere — jigsaws, drills, hacksaws. Plus lots of code. Plus relentless writing. And field trips to super cool places. In his first semester —just completed — he wrote a 10,000 word screenplay; made a 10 minute documentary film; learned how to cut plexiglass; read Raisin in the Sun; learned a little HTML; learned basic 3D modeling; learned basic game coding. Holy moly!

Daniel Alexander said...

What is your goal with your child's education? Is it to see him attend a certain school? Subscribe to a certain philosophy? Where in your goal does acceptance and presence to your child lie? These are really just rhetorical questions for you and your readers.

Being a father of four I struggled with balancing my need to "create responsible people" with my desire to express complete and unconditional love. It is and was hard. The young mind is not homogenous. Of my four, no two are similar in their approach to learning. How then do I judge success in their education? Am I reduced to ranking my children? Screw that.

It hit me recently that since I have no true acceptance of life after death, all I have is what is going on now, in life. Education, philosophy, money, status, reputation....moot points 100 years from now. The pressures young people feel to follow certain paths (i.e. Acceptance to a school, to a social clique) can be debilitating. Now, I work only on having them see the joy in choosing a harmless path. What I mean by that is, don't go to college if you don't want to. Work minimum wage jobs if that makes you happy, but first and foremost, choose happiness each moment and trust that there are others wishing this joy upon you. Do not harm others or yourself. That is the one rule - and hey, this ain't new. It's the Golden Rule for a reason. From this, I think our stay here can approach being the best possible experience given the unanswered questions.

I hope we can all help each other (regardless of age or background) see the beauty in the present and avoid wrapping ourselves in the cloak of the past or waste time on choosing a cloak for the future. Living is happening ..... right this moment.

Daniel Alexander said...

By the way, "harmless" does not mean "without direction". A harmless life can be one with all the trimmings like you would see in the movies - success, fame, money, glory, reputation.....it only means the path was chosen from joy (not from pressure) and the path is not littered with bodies and crushed spirits along the way, his, hers, yours or mine....I felt a need to clarify that so that readers would not imagine a delinquent forever on a couch.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Daniel: Thanks so much for your incredibly thoughtful comments — including your kind of hilarious qualification (although I sometimes fear I am the delinquent forever on the couch).

Anyway, your first question is beautiful and is the one I asked myself early on: "What is your goal with your child's education?" And I realized quickly that I'd have only one marker of success in terms of his education: Does he feel lit — passionate, happy, joyful — at the end of the school day? Grades shmades, of course. Knowing this and that? I found I just didn't give a shit — even if he could read!

As he's dyslexic, there was a moment when he came home miserable (1st grade): he had no idea what people were looking at on their page! And I believe, deep down, he'll always have fear of that moment when the institution that his parents and community and government sent him to, judged him found him fundamentally wanting. And so I swore, from that moment, I'd do everything I could so that he didn't feel that again.

This is hard, of course, because he feels so much pressure from forces beyond me — his own sense of shame, of belonging, of self worth. So when the opportunity came to send him to a school that would push him through excitement, not coercion, I jumped on it.

And, yes, I'm with you completely: College or no college, career or no career — if he feels lit, I feel it's all good. And as for not being a douchebag, well, I feel that duty falls to me and to him, not his school (but, yes, his education).

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