Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Thurs, 12 Jan 1995

Great walk this morning. It was one of those "not too...." mornings: not too cold, not to warm, not too wet. Just right. As I gleefully glided through this air, that was so was clean and crisp it reminded me what being alive was all about, I was thinking some more summery thoughts about my garden and my classes.

You know, no where in my yard, or in any other yard I passed this morning for that matter, is there one hint, not one shred of evidence, one shriveled leaf, that the "typical plant" which would make gardening ever so easy ever grew. Instead, in my relatively small plot of land grows a large assortment of flora: bulbs, rhizomes, comes, annuals, biennials, perennial, grasses, bushes, shrubs, hedges, trees; spring bloomers, summer bloomers, fall bloomers; ornamental and cacti; a host of hardy and cold sensitive; diverse color, varied sun-tolerances, different space needs, different water needs, separate nutrient requirements, set at various depths, growing at various heights; exploding into countless sizes and shapes, emitting a mixture of smells, being susceptible to an assortment of different pests and diseases. I suppose you think that I could make it easy for myself by planting only one kind of flower. The problem with that is that each flower has its own profusion of varieties each of which has its own particular needs and characteristics.

There are times, when I am tired, as I look squint my sweat stinging eyes, that I resignly mutter in a mixed mood of frustration and challenge, "There are so many different plants with so many different needs, and I am only one person. So many different plants with so many different needs, and I must be many different gardeners if I want each plant to have the chance to come to full bloom and don't want to angrily wrap a hoe or two around a tree in frustration."

It's no different in my classes. It's the beginning of the quarter. I've been working hard to make contact with my students. I've been going over 122 written biographical interviews, self-describing exercises, and initial journal entries from two classes. I've been watching each student introduce him/herself to the others in the class and share with them. I've been small talking before, during and after class with as many as I can. I've been watching their body language, facial expressions, listening to their tonal inflections, noticing their idiosyncracies as they play some critical thinking games, engage in such bonding and trust exercises as standing up and singing solo in class or falling backward from the top of a desk into the arms of others. I've been watching and listening and talking, watching and listening and noticing, watching and listening and..........

Such diversity: a confusion of likes, dislikes, expectations, hesitations, and reservations. So many different attitudes and feeling about themselves; so many different skill levels; so many different learning styles and habits; so many different social and cultural backgrounds; so many different age levels. There are "talkers" and "listeners"; there are innocent teenagers and there are working single parents; there are those on scholarship from either the state, the University or their parents and there are those working their way through school; there are the shy and the outgoing; there are first generation college students and grandchildren of intellectuals; there are the learning disabled and the social disabled; there are the self-proclaimed mediocre, poor and outstanding; there are the self-described unimaginative, artistic, and creative; there are the self-characterized ordinary and extra-ordinary; there are the grade-conscious and the learning centered; there are the frightened, curious, and daring; there are the determined and uncertain; there are the confused and informed; there are the confident and insecure; there are so many distracting personal concerns, so many intruding issues, so many problems contesting for attention, so many confusing matters; there are............; there are...............

And I thought yesterday, as I do especially at the beginning of each quarter, in a fit of combined anxiety and challenge, "So many different students with so many different needs, and I am only one person. So many different students with so many different needs, and I must be many different teachers if I want each student to have the chance to come to full bloom."

So many of us reduce the students to mental constructs, theoretical images or stereotypes, as that "typical student." In our haste to pigeonhole, to believe that one size fits all, we seldom think about the diversity of real people none of whom that single size really fits. It almost like gardening with one tool, having one watering and feeding schedule, believing all soils are alike, having on fertilizer formula, planting everything the same way, expecting everything to bloom in unison and uniformly, needing only one pesticide. But I have wandered our campus, calling out, "Oh, 'typical student', where are you to make teaching easy?" I have searched the labs. I have ranged through the stacks in the library. I have roamed the halls of the dorms. I have wandered into classrooms. I have searched the dining halls. I have knocked on door. I have carried a lamp held high through the night in my quest. I even peeked into the specimen bottles thinking maybe one of them, having become extinct, is being preserved for posterity, observation, and study. Alas, I couldn't find one hint, not one shred of evidence, that such a student ever walked our hallowed halls of ivy.

Instead, I always find diversity and individuality. I think teaching and life should come together no less than gardening and life should merge. In both efforts, the goal should be to bring together what should be done and what can be done. And so, I concluded that "one" cannot be the governing word in my classes any more than it is in my garden. The controlling word must be "Many."

Of course, the problem is that I have my learning style and I have my teaching style, but the students, we so often forget or ignore, are a diverse lot of individuals, and few are like me. I, for example, am totally right hemispheric. I revel in creativity, the big picture, and love to evaluate things. I live in a state of organized chaos. I hate order. I like things to interrupt themselves. But, the class isn't populated with only that mythical "typical" student who is like me. Some students like to make their own rules; some want to follow procedures; some like to compare and contrast; some like to lead and see where things go; some like to follow and be told where to go. Some like to write; some like to speak; some like creative freedom; some like to go by the book; some love the big picture; and some revel in detail.

As I accepted that reality, I came to see that my challenge in the classroom, no less than it is in my garden, was three-fold: to get to know each student, not just his or her name, but to really know him or her; to transcend my own predisposition of utilizing a particular teaching style; to challenge myself to vary opportunities in a way that fits different students' kinds of learning styles while challenging them to use others.

I won't argue that most students, however, feel far more comfortable with or resigned to learning experiences with which they are familiar--being spoken to, taking notes, memorizing to take tests, getting a grade, getting out of the class, and forgetting most of the information. I think most professors feel far more comfortable with teaching experiences with which they are familiar both as past student and teacher--talking, assigning, and grading. At the same time, it behooves us to challenge the students--and ourselves--to learn to stretch beyond their inclinations and learn the benefits of other styles of learning. I think, however, it is important, very important, for our teaching to be varied, to be analytical, creative, practical, traditional, experiential, interactive, passive.

In my classes, if I can use myself as an example, I provide something of structure with a 20 page class syllabus, but provide flexibility so that the students are allowed to change any requirement or schedule as they reasonably see fit. I give weekly short-answer quizzes every Friday however I despise them, but allow students to interact with each other; every Monday we do weekly issue discussions from weekly readings of the student's choice; I provide 5 minute end of class summaries of the discussion; we debrief and provide structure to whatever we do on that particular day; we write valuative commentaries and questions for each daily reading assignment; we will brain storm details and facts one day; we will mind map those details and facts into issues, processes, themes on another; we will reflect and evaluate with lots of "whys;" we will do role playing on one day, stick drawings on another, skits on still another; there are debates, mime presentations, and games that the student create. We work in groups and are responsible for others; there is opportunity to work alone and let the student be responsible for him or herself. At times, I will talk; and at times I will remain silent forcing them to talk; they have final exams centered on six thematic questions around which the course is wrapped and which they receive in the syllabus at the beginning of the class, but they have the latitude to address any one of those six issues in any manner they as a group wish using whatever medium they decide. We have to write, listen, talk, act, draw, memorize, think, participate, cooperate, collaborate, trust, interact, and sit back. We learn and express in music, art, sculpture, poetry, drama as well as in essay writing and talking. We think, memorize, compare and contrast, take things apart, put things together, experiment, imagine, copy, and create. We allow, require, support, encourage, demand, and relax. We swim against the current and go with the flow.

We're always performing a high wire balancing act. There are times to talk and times to be silent; there are times to be creative and times to be traditional; there are times to push and times to back off; there are times to control and times to let go. The world isn't shaped in a way that anyone can have things go only their way. You have to know when it's better to fight to teach your way and when it's better to just work within the limits of the student; when its better to stretch yourself and when the time is ripe to stretch the student.

There's a little something for everyone. And everything for each one. I let them play to their style of learning and expose them to others. I accommodate, challenge and shake them out from their comfortable mould and broaden them; they accommodate me, challenge and broaden me, and never let me get into a comfortable mould.

I've heard and read so many of us say of a particular teaching style, "that's not me" or "it doesn't fit my personality" or "oh, I can't do that." As a ex-talking addict who has been clean for almost three years, I can testify that teaching styles, like learning styles, are not written in stone. Teaching style is not something we're born with. It's not built into our DNA code. It's not an automatic reflex; it's a learned response. Teaching style is something we develop much later in life. It is something that is more often than not an aping of our own professors. And, what is learned can be relearned. If teachers are interested in changing and improving, if they have a desire to touch all students, if they feel the need to change, then I think they can. Changing isn't a sign of failure, of rack and ruin. It is an indication of growth and development. It is an indication of growth and development.

Until I started to change, I didn't realize the extent to which I really under-appreciated the fact that so many students simply think and learn differently than I do and remain relatively untouched, but have within them unimagined and untapped potential.

If we are to be effective teachers, which really means the students--all students--must be effective learners, we MUST vary our style in a sort of mix-and-match fashion. I think we can transcend our own dispositions and reach a broader range of students. It's not that hard to do. Then, again, it's not that easy to do either. But, nothing that's easy is really worth doing.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
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Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
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