On Saturday I auditioned for a part in the Lake Bemidji Opera Festival production of Carmen. The audition went pretty smoothly, though my accompanist made a clunker on an important bass chord that pulled me off pitch for one note.I got a small role, and membership in the chorus. Performances in July.
I was riding with a former student—now a colleague—and we were discussing our approaches to teaching. She has taken many classes from me over her career, probably more than anyone else has. She knows my teaching as well as anyone outside myself does. She told me (don’t hold me to exact quotes—I’m approximating) “Your classes always look unplanned, as though the things that happen are almost accidental.”
I said “Remember the day you realized my teaching had lots of planning involved, and you hadn’t noticed before, and you said you almost felt tricked? That it wasn’t magic after all?”
She nodded, agreeing and reliving the memory. We went on to talk about how we teach by leading, by drawing out, which led me to talk about why my teaching rarely involves lecturing. She said “You should write what you do, so teachers can use it.”
The truth is that what I do is pretty easy to describe and doesn’t involve magic at all. I teach to please myself.
I’m a curious guy. I like to learn things. One of my interests is in people. So I teach to learn things and to learn people. I teach with a single goal for each class, modified to adjust for the course title. The goal is independent power; the class purpose is motion toward achieving that independent power. For example, in a course entitled “Writing Creative Nonfiction” my goal is moving students toward independent power as writers of creative nonfiction.
My daily plan, then, is always built on holding the one goal in mind. After the first day of class, I think about where the class is based on what I saw in the last meeting (and after that I think of all the previous meetings), and think of something to do to move that class at that time further toward the goal.
My Plan: know the goal, start, assess, re-start.
Over the years I’ve reached an accumulation of experience that helps me predict where students are likely to be at any given point in a term—at least, if I’ve taught the class before—so larger developments I can build into my thinking about the next day’s class. The developments on any given day aren’t so predictable, however.
I rarely lecture, and here is where my teaching looks unplanned. The reason I rarely lecture is that I’m a curious guy. Lecturing is me talking about what I’ve already learned. That’s boring to me unless I’m doing it as a response. If a student says or asks something that prompts me to talk about things I know, that’s a social interaction. That’s getting to know the student by establishing the back and forth of conversation. That’s working together. The frontal speech, the lecture from the podium, is too canned and too distant for me to enjoy.
I want to enjoy my teaching. That happens when I’m learning from student thinking, student writing. So I set up classes to draw students out. I offer pertinent discussion prompts and then pay attention to what they say. I can’t know what they’ll say before they say it, and that is where one element of surprise, of unpredictability, that my former student spoke of comes from. This requires serious listening, but that comes easily because I am, after all, interested. Curiosity is a greater strength than already acquired knowledge.
Writing assignments in my courses are also designed to draw students out. This means they sound vague to the uninitiated who expect specific topics, formats, page lengths, etc. Most soon learn that the assignments are really invitations. The invitations ask the student to explore and discover and report the voyage of discovery. I don’t really mean “Write whatever you want,” which is what so many students happily report in my course evaluations. I mean “What’s new?” I mean “What interests you that you can then use to interest me?”
I move students toward independent power as learners and writers by inviting them to assert that power, to practice it. Then I get to enjoy their interest and interests.
Done any creative thinking lately? I’d love to hear all about it.
In response to Loralee, here’s my prom story. I had my first prom date when I was 30.As a high school student I was far too nerdy and unpopular ever to go to prom. Unthinkable. Think of slide rules (if you know or remember what they were) and get an idea of what I was in high school.Through some weird twists of fate I became a high school teacher. As the class advisor, I had to chaperone the prom. Early in the school year the kids said I should have a date. I didn’t have a wife and didn’t know any single women under 55. This was life in a very small town. Women my age were married or didn’t live there any more. The kids even asked various women they knew to be my date for me, and all turned me down. They decided I was hopeless. I started seeing a woman who was the older sister of one of my students. The older sister had come back to town after years away and out of state. I asked her to go to prom, which she thought was very funny, as her own prom had been about fifteen years before and she certainly had thought it was her last. She bought a staggeringly gorgeous dress and did up her hair and all the rest of whatever women do for these occasions. I wore a suit and brought a corsage and frankly I can’t remember whatever else but I know we did it up right.The kids were astonished. Oh, and while the kids nearly all left fashionably early, my date and I danced the whole night.
I have perhaps two hundred papers left to read and grade by Friday. Despite that, I just spent three hours on one paper. One. It was so interesting that I had to write back to the author in the margins of her excellent essay, and things kept growing, and then I started to think about why I thought the things that I wrote to the author, and then started writing a response to her, and that grew into a couple of typed pages, and finally I woke up and thought “WHAT AM I DOING?!” And with the couple of pages my three hours had grown to four and I still have read only one paper so far today.
Do I, perhaps, have a time management problem?
Oh, that title might be a little overdone, but I’ve just finished my last class of the semester, and so now the paper avalanche is in full fall. The next week or ten days will be long days at my desk without the pleasure of interrupting in order to go to class.
The reading will mostly be pleasurable, but it will be enormous and intense. That is what it is to be a writing teacher.
A couple of days ago I was in a film shoot. The community choir that I’m in was asked by a producer/director to participate in a music video–of werewolves.
I know almost nothing of modern music, so I don’t know whether Lo-Fi Sugar is important or nobody, but my choir ended up standing on a snow covered hill in fifteen below zero temperatures for a couple of hours making fools of ourselves as background while a pretty young woman with an wool-backed oversized guitar wandered around pretending to be singing and a man with some amusingly ghastly make-up and a guitar with a bayonet on its end also wandered around and werewolves were being shot by another man with even more dreadful makeup who was sporting a shotgun.
It was very funny.
It was also funny just getting there. The scene was shot under a bridge. To get there, the choir had to wade down a hill through deep snow and over a high snow bank. These middle to late middle–and maybe quite a bit past late middle–aged people were slipping, falling on their backs, falling on their faces, and laughing so hard you’d think they were all five year olds.
The director of the shoot thought we were a blast.
This is what we do for our art.
On this past Sunday the community choir that I am part of gave two performances of Bach’s “Magnificat,” along with a few lighter pieces. I was the bass soloist for the Bach. It was a challenging solo, for which I prepared intensely.
This morning, and again yesterday, two people I know have reported that they had heard announcers on two different radio stations talking about Mark Christensen’s solo singing, one of them recommending that anyone who meets me should ask me to demonstrate.
I don’t listen to local radio. When I have the radio on, it’s tuned to NPR–either the news and information branch or the classical music one–so I don’t hear the local talk shows at all.
It is very weird to realize that people are talking about me on the radio without my knowing it. I’m not sure what I feel about that. It’s sort of a feeling that someone else is taking over my public persona.
We all have people talk about us outside our own presence. But on the radio?
I have to think about this. I’m oddly off balance.
Each term has a rhythm, rising and falling. During the term is a sense of timelessness. The term begins with excitement. It ends abruptly, and then the people are gone. Spring term starts well, with holidays finally over and work welcome. It gets very long. Many people get depressed. There will be students in my office in tears. The absence of light will contribute to this, and northern Minnesota winters can have many consecutive, overcast, short days.
More students will miss more classes. Spring break will be a psychologically necessary relief.
There will be one or two weeks of relatively warm weather at the end of the school year. Shorts and miniskirts will reappear. Men will take off their shirts while vigorously pursuing frisbees on the campus lawns. Then everyone but employees will be gone.
Even with the depression, the time spent doing, between time spent starting and ending, will be the best time.
People will forget color.
The third year is the best year. By then people are school savy and have a chance to really savor the experience without yet worrying about the complications and consequences of graduation.
Relationships get solid.
The fourth or fifth–anyway, the final–year is more tense, both with anxiety about leaving and with growing desire to move on. By the time people graduate it is time people graduate.
For most, that is the end of their connection with the school other than the alumni publications that will follow them if the alumni office can keep a current address.
Five years later people won’t remember much about their first year. Ten years later they will remember three or four of their teachers, but not much about them. They will be more likely to remember teachers for personal qualities than for teaching.
This is what I watch. Isn’t it strange that experience that sounds so bleak is so rich.
The term got really busy. Like, really.
Over Thanksgiving my mother and I went to my sister’s house in Chisago City. There we joined my brother’s two wives (sounds kinky, huh?) and the two children he had with the first wife and their spouses and children, including a four month old baby and a five month old baby that I had never met before. They, with sibling seven, four, and three year olds, made for a fest of children. I enjoyed thoroughly. My nephew’s friends from the area came over, as he was up from Florida, and I got re-acquainted with them, too. Mom continued her tradition of feeding everybody in highly satisfactory ways. Turkey, dressing, etc. Fish, salads, etc. Egg messes, desserts, etc. Lots of etc. Wine, too.
The night before she and I left we hosted a master class of those who are learning operatic singing from my teacher. He came and we sang and he did example lessons and we learned. Then Mom fed all of them. Lamb. Wild rice. Beans. Etc. Some wine went down, too. Etc.
Then back and start work yesterday. Eight a.m. until 9:30 p.m. One half hour for supper. Usual Monday.
Today at 1:30 in the afternoon I finally have half an hour that isn’t devoted to papers, travel, paper, rehearsal, paper, etc. Really tired of etc.
Going to go catch up on Loralee, Kurt, Laumei, Jessie, Laura, Alexis…probably etc, too.