There are times when writing about teaching feels like a pretty lonely affair. It’s sort of a double-whammy of loneliness. At first, we turn to writing because there’s a something about the work that we can’t quite talk about with other teachers at our schools. That’s how I started, at least. I write, hoping to find someone who can give me that something I don’t get at school.
There’s another level of loneliness, though, that can sneak in to the teacher-writer’s life. It happens once the teacher starts worrying about the craft of writing. The teacher now – almost by accident! – has picked up a new art, a second set of tools, and might now be itching to figure out how best to use them. Not all teacher-writers share this itchiness, but there aren’t many places to turn if you do.
Magdalene Lampert – teacher and researcher – set out to do something about that first bit of loneliness. She video-taped every second of her school year and wrote a book about her decisions. Why?
“As the nature of teaching practice is made more explicit, it should be easier to teach well and to learn what good teachers know how to do. It should be easier for teachers to work together on improving what they do.”
Lampert’s aiming to make it easier for us to talk about teaching. It’s not my place to judge whether she succeeds. Instead, I want to take a closer look at her writing, as writing. Every teacher experiences isolation in the classroom. How does she aim to attack it?
Her book (Teaching Problems and the Problems of Teaching) is an account of the major areas of her preparation and teaching. She tells us what she was planning to do, what she did, and why she did it.
The image I have of Lampert is her, alone in an office, meditating on the day’s work:
“Anthony interrupted the flow of the teaching I was trying to do but he gave me the opportunity to use what he had done as an occasion to teach something I wanted to teach. He had not raised his hand to ask for the floor. My work here was to manage the tension between encouraging Eddie and concurring with Anthony’s correction, as well as to acknowledge the correction while maintaining civility in students’ interactions with one another. I had to teach not only what a generalization would be, but also how to disagree with another student’s assertion.”
Do you hear all those “I”s, “me”s and “my”s? This is not a story about what went on in her classroom. This is a story about what went on in her head in her classroom. This is the author, thinking about her thoughts.
Now, this works well for the reader (me) because Lampert’s head is an interesting place to spend some time. And Lampert is the absolute, unquestioned authority on what goes on in Lampert’s brain. She can tell us what she was trying, and I don’t doubt her.
Actually, I can’t doubt Lampert. All the action is happening in her head. As a result, her authorial voice is the voice of an expert, someone who is talking about what she knows best. The reader is almost eavesdropping.
Lampert’s style perfectly matches her purpose. There might be no better way to expose the complexity of the work of teaching. But it’s not the only way to write about craft.
One of my favorite writers is George Saunders, and he wrote a lovely piece about story-telling, “The Perfect Gerbil.” Saunders takes a very different stance than Lampert’s. Saunders is clearly addressing you, the reader, as a knowledgeable equal. Sure, he has something to say about writing. But just as he is a writer, you are a writer too. (In contrast: Lampert is a teacher, and that is that.)
Saunders’ piece takes us through his reading of a story by Donald Barthelme. This choice – to focus on the writing of someone else – is an important one. He could have walked us through the process of creating one of his own stories: Here’s what I was thinking when I wrote this paragraph, and so on. Focusing on his own work, though, would be placing himself in a position of authority relative to, me, the reader. There wouldn’t be room for my thinking.
The choice to think through someone else’s craft, then, is a show of goodwill to the reader. It’s an act of parity, of putting the reader and the writer in roughly the same place. It’s an awfully generous thing to do.
Writing about Barthelme, Saunders says:
“…he has given us a little something extra: a laugh, yes, but more important an acknowledgement that the writer is right there with us: he knows where ware, and who we are, and is involved in an intimate and respectful game with us. I think of this as the motorcycle-sidecar model of reading: writer and reader right next to one another, leaning as they corner, the pleasure coming from the mutuality and simultaneity of the experience.”
And this is precisely what Saunders is pulling off in his own piece.
This model of writing – the one that fosters mutuality and simultaneity – is certainly not the only good one. Lampert’s style is good too, for her purposes. The best parts of Teaching Problems feel to me like I’m trying (often failing) to keep up with a brilliant teacher. She manages to hold many things in her head at once. She’s driving the motorcycle all by herself, and I’m running after her, practically.
Lampert’s great, but here’s what I want to posit: her writing isn’t the best way to dispel the second sort of loneliness. By placing the reader in her mind, her area of greatest expertise, we aren’t given quite the invitation that Saunders offers us to engage in the work of writing. She isn’t saying to us, you know, it’s hard, but you could do this too.
What, you want Lampert to literally say ‘you could do this too’? No, absolutely not. Like I said, she has her own purposes. More to the point, even if she wanted to create parity between reader and writer, a simple statement wouldn’t be enough. Her stance as an expert is central to her writing. We are in her head, and we just don’t know enough to keep up with her. The reader can’t think about the things she’s thinking about. This is the missing invitation – we have no chance to think along with her. She does her work, and we do ours’.
However, this is not how writing about teaching has to be. Writing (thinking) about teaching can invite readers to do that very same work. Joe Schwartz recently wrote a piece – “22? 30? 50? 100?” – that exemplifies this to me. From the very first sentence (“Meet Alex.”) I feel Joe taking care to catch me up on the situation. Who is this kid? Who are you? What are you doing? (Struggling first-grader; devoted math coach; learning how this kid counts.) It’s only after establishing all this context that Joe drops the major intellectual puzzle, the one that drives the rest of the piece.
It would have been so easy for Joe to write a piece that had none of these qualities. Today I worked with a kid who had some interesting issues with counting collections of objects, he might have begun, and the reader is already lagging behind. Knowing that I wanted to check up on his counting skills, he would continue, thinking something we could not possibly have thought, I dumped out some plastic dogs and asked him to count them, and I rest, because for a brief moment I’m all caught up.
In short, then, establishing context can be an act of generosity to the reader – he’s making room for us to think right along with him, rather than asking us to keep up. Is it surprising that some twenty-odd people wrote paragraph-length responses to his post, with ideas, analysis, their own suggestions and questions?
(And, by the way, Joe is also offering a master-class in hooking the reader. He’s dangled a huge piece of intellectual bait in front of starving teachers. Of course we bite!)
Teachers are given so little respect as thinkers and writers about teaching, that it can be tempting to write in a way that raises ourselves up from the reader and emphasizes our expertise. I’d suggest that Saunders and Joe point towards another possibility. If we write in a way that empowers the teacher-reader, we can invite them to become a teacher-writer. None of this work needs to be quite so lonely.