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What Do Pit Bulls & Cockroaches Have To Do With Learning & Teaching?

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(crossposted at In Practice)

A few days ago I wrote about Jim Burke’s great blog post on Metaphors We Teach By. In it, he wrote:

We are the metaphors we choose. If you want to change your world, change your metaphor. Don Graves, master writing teacher and mentor to so many, said we should read students’ work like doctors not judges.

What’s your metaphor and how does it shape the way you think about and do your work?

I’ve finally decided that trying to be an “agitational pit bull” is a good metaphor for the teacher I try to be.  Let me explain…

I like to see myself as a “Pit Bull” because I try to be relentless in challenging my students — no one coasts.  I try to make sure that students are actively learning at all times.

I emphasize the phrase actively learning because I think some teachers might be relentless, too, but might  use the word working instead.  I suspect we all know teachers, or might be ones ourselves, who are relentless in pushing their students to get the work done, get that assignment finished, get that chapter read, get the curriculum covered.

That’s where the word “agitational” comes in.

During my pre-high school teacher career as a community organizer assisting low-income people to build power and make social change, we talked about the difference between being “irritating” and being “agitating.”

The “irritating” approach was one that tended to cause displeasure, annoyance, and frustration to the people we were trying to organize.  We viewed irritation as telling people what they should want to know along with telling them how they should learn it.

We would contrast this with an “agitational” approach, one that would, as various dictionaries define the word, “stir things up” and “arouse interest,” with the goal of “putting things into motion to produce changes.”

I am relentless in pushing, or prodding, my students to do their assignments.  In addition, though, I strive (though often fail) to be equally as relentless in probing.

When students are not focusing on the assignment, in addition to prodding them to do it, I try (though often fail) to be equally as relentless in asking agitational questions — what do you think is making it difficult for you to focus?  Think about when you have been able to focus well and what made the different?  What can I do to help you focus better?

When a student is consistently having difficulty getting started doing an assignment, in addition to prodding him to do it, I try to ask similarly probing questions and/or offer agitational suggestions — think about times when you have been able to get started well on doing something — what helpful you then?  Start by writing one sentence — don’t worry about the rest of the essay…

When a student who has had difficulties in the past, but then has had a good day, I’ll ask him/her to reflect on how he/she is feeling now and to think about what made the difference.

And it’s not uncommon for their classwork on the official assignment to get somewhat shortchanged because of what a student might need to do to get answers to those questions — they might need to take a walk around the school, or put their head down for awhile, or go to the quiet school library for a few minutes.

If we give in to the temptation to relentlessly prod (and it’s not uncommon for me to do that, too),  I think we do a disservice to our students by not helping them develop their ability to reflect and become more self-aware.

Yes, I know, we are all under pressure to cover the curriculum and have our students perform well on standardized tests.  I’ve got to say, though, student test results from my classes and from the classes of my colleagues who I would also characterize as “agitational pit bulls” generally turn-out pretty well.

In The Metamorphosis by Kafka, it seemed to me that one of the reasons Gregor turned into a cockroach was because he felt he always had to get the work done and there was no time for self-reflection.

I know this post is about teaching metaphors, but, in terms of student and learning metaphors or similes, I’d like my students to stay away from being like Kafka’s cockroach…

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

3 Comments

  1. Larry-

    You’ve done it again: Made me feel like I have work to do (that’s a good thing), and created a MUST read by every educator that exists. I have printed this out and will be giving it to the teachers that are in my building.

    I am thankful for your SPECIFIC comments by students and your SPECIFIC responses. A great resource for educators.

    Thank you!

  2. I particularly like this paragraph:

    If we give in to the temptation to relentlessly prod I think we do a disservice to our students by not helping them develop their ability to reflect and become more self-aware.

    I agree. I believe that the prodding comes from our own insecurities that we are not being good enough teachers and are in fact, trying to have control over the situation.

    However when we become more conscious of our own teaching abilities and that we are imparting wisdom we drop some of those controls and allow the reins to be picked up by our students’.

    This handing over control then gives the students the chance to assert themselves, take charge of their own learning and become aware of their own learning abilities.

    Loved this post – wow, Larry, you brought me over twice in one week! I think I love hearing you share your own teaching development even more than your wonderful lists of resources – but don’t stop those, they are precious gems!

    xxKarenne

  3. Pingback: » Week 3: Websites of the Day Whitney's Classroom: Where Learning is Lovable

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