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On “The Sacramentality of Teaching and Learning”

February 3rd, 2010

Great post on Dennis Jerz’ blog about experiencing the “ritual” encounter of freshmen writers with the difficulty of learning at the college level, and the gentle way that teachers should respond to it. It includes a sad-but-true clip from a Charlie Brown movie that revolves around the typical student approaches to a paper assignment, and knock-out quotations like these from William Zinsser (Writing to Learn):

“Whenever I hear [students] talk about their work, I feel that few forms of teaching are so sacramental; the writing teacher’s ministry is not just to the words but to the person who wrote the words…. Through the writing of our students we are reminded of their individuality. We are reminded, whatever subject we are charged with teaching, that our ultimate charge is to produce broadly educated men and women with a sense of stewardship for the world they live in.”

Zinsser and Jerz aren’t advocating some religious dogma here, but instead articulating the “reverence” one must have to be a real sponsor for another learner’s efforts to grow. I admire this. This reverence is composed of “ministry…not just to the words but to the person who wrote the words”. This is well and good when it comes the instructor’s affect, but to push it even further, what form does that ministry take in praxis on the classroom floor?
First, there are many ways in which college teaching should probably not be like Ministry with a capital M. One shouldn’t “preach” through lecture. One shouldn’t “worship” the books taught in the class like they are a “gospel” that cannot be open to criticism. One shouldn’t “bless” the A students and “damn” the Cs. One shouldn’t turn class journals into “confessionals”. And one certainly shouldn’t use the classroom as a conversion machine for one religious doctrine, but have tolerance and respect for diverse faiths and backgrounds.
One should “minster” not in the clerical sense, but in the broader sense of the term: “To attend to the wants and needs of others.” So I’ve been thinking about how I’ve tried to do this in the classes where I’ve had the most success. Here are a few ways I think the “minister” metaphor might be extended in fruitful ways (with the caveat that this advice always depends on the context):
Establish Sanctuary.
The classroom has to be a place where students trust that the professor has their learning and not their own personal agenda in mind for all class activities. They have to feel that if they reveal their “secret selves” through their writing or speech, they will not be harmed by the teacher or others. This means speaking up to protect the innocent, when conflicts occur during peer workshops, responding with politeness and affirmation when leading discussions, avoiding privileging some students over others, cultivating a sense of class unity by fixating on the diversity of the issue at hand, rather than one dominant idea alone. Cultivate an environment where people want to read their writing aloud, and want to listen to what one another has written, too. Applaud often. When I ask my students to formally perform “readings” of their papers and stories to the class, I flat out tell them, “This is church.”
Model the Golden Rule.
I realize this is loaded with Christian implications, but I simply mean that teachers should “do unto others” in the way that members of an academic discourse community implicitly are expected to. This is true of writing workshops, but it’s also true of the entire teacher/student relationship. This requires responding to writing and grading with the same degree of energy you expect from students, meeting deadlines, arriving to class on time, putting effort into handouts and documents as if they were papers you too were submitting to the class, etc. Good writing teachers will write in class while their students are writing in class, for instance. Working together is the great equalizer that foments collaborative learning. Similarly, it means taking spoken comments in class seriously, even if the student is slacking or goofing or rebelling (these actions often mask some insecurity about the material or their preparation, and feel like personal affronts, so it’s often hard to contend with this… the trick is to shape your responses to these students in a way that is actually redirecting attention to the whole class interest, and to try to get the student to see it that way too).
Respect the Sabbath.
Students always over-determine days off (snow days, holidays, weekends) and so do faculty, because the “work” of school can become a grind. Use this to your advantage by employing rest time. Do it consciously, aware of when taking a break (whether during the period, or during the semester) can actually make students’ learning more productive. Schedule breaks in the center of courses longer than an hour and a half. Ease up once in a while on the drill routines. See if you can avoid dumping huge assignments into student breaks just because they wouldn’t fit into your class syllabus. Make Fridays the “fun” day. Now I’m not saying you should let go of the wheel and turn the course into a pleasure cruise, or you risk losing student respect, commitment, and growth. All “fun” activities should still be related to the course content, but in a way that relieves concentration on one thing and allows coming at it from a different, looser angle or context. Buffer time between projects allows learning — and an awareness of growth — to sink in. Use reflection paper assignments to ask students to stop and take stock of what they’re learning, to measure their own self-development. Vacillate between contemplative tasks (reading/listening) and productive tasks (writing/speaking). Watch a course-related movie and host a conversation about it once in awhile. You might find it also allows you to take stock of the students real understanding of the material by letting go of what you “need” to cram into the course calendar.
Listen.
Too often we think our job is to transmit information like a non-stop broadcast antennae. To minister to student need and revere student thinking is to stop talking and “just listen.” It isn’t always the case that students don’t know how to write; it’s more often the case that they’ve never written for an audience. We need to be that audience, and they need to understand the variety of audiences that they will be engaging as a scholar. Moreover, conferences should be a chance to listen to students, to be their sounding board, to be their audience. It seems self-evident to me that to minister means to pay attention to the needs of others as they emerge in the present tense, not just the act of planning to serve them in advance. If we want our students to be good listeners, we might have to show them the art by doing it ourselves. If your mission is to teach, you need to be a missionary of education and go to where the student lives, not spout from the hilltop and expect them to know how to climb up.

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  1. June 13th, 2010 at 20:36 | #1

    You wrote: “This requires responding to writing and grading with the same degree of energy you expect from students, meeting deadlines, arriving to class on time, putting effort into handouts and documents as if they were papers you too were submitting to the class, etc. Good writing teachers will write in class while their students are writing in class, for instance.”
    When I look at myself and my colleagues, I sometimes think that this is the number one thing teachers forget. It’s the first thing to go. I’ve seen too many people develop materials specifically so they don’t have to rethink it – just pass it out again next year. It is also the biggest challenge – rethink your approach, be self-critical, look for new and exciting entry-points into the text, and meet all the grading deadlines that you set for yourself.

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