"Mistah Kurtz, he dead." *

  • This has been such a great discussion on teaching and performing! I'd like to follow up on these points in response to "Of Masks and Myths":

    Some subjects are not so interesting. If you don't perform, your efforts will only be propitious in nature. Also, teachers aren't always feeling well. They must put on their best performance if they are to reach even the most despondent of students. 
    If you aren't enthusiastically passionate about a given topic, your students won't be either.   

     I think the science part of teaching is in the content and design of a lesson. The delivery of the lesson is an art, a performing art.
Maybe the purpose behind performing is where I struggle with its use in connection to teaching. 

A performer’s purpose is to entertain. A teacher's purpose might better be defined as to motivate others to gain knowledge and understanding.  We could say that effective teachers possess the ability to explain things in an entertaining manner, when it best serves the topic and purpose of the lesson (e.g. an overview of the Holocaust versus explaining the parts of a cell.) However, that alone doesn't make them performers because the objectives differ.

I’ll concede that elementary teachers, in particular, need to be animated and expressive—the younger the student, the more animated one would need to be, perhaps. 

However, that same level of animation won’t fly in a high school class, and I should have been specific in the previous post: effective high school teachers don’t need to be good performers. (Apologies for not clarifying!)

I’ll concede that all high school teachers need to be passionate about their subject. Also, I realize that passion can be attributed to a performer or performance.  However, the purpose of the integration of that passion is different when performing and teaching.  It’s used for different things.

In performance, whether in dance, music, or theatre, passion is used to convey emotion based on the music or script, and through movements, lyrics, dialogue. It's an explicit use of passion. 

Teachers use personal passion for their subjects to positively motivate students to learn the material in those subjects that they might not otherwise desire to learn. It is, hopefully, an inherent use of passion.

I must ask, though: If the subject matter is somewhat dry and uninteresting but nonetheless absolutely valuable, rather than putting a sparkly performance all over it, why don’t we acknowledge its dryness and uninteresting…ness?

For example, I have many issues with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Ugh. I’d just rather eat dirt than read it again. However, I know that it’s a rich text for AP Lit students, and I don’t want to deny them the opportunity. 

Rather than work through the pretense that “isn’t this just the bestest most wonderfullest, most interesting book ever” (i.e. “perform”) and try to muster up enthusiasm and passion where none exists, I was open and honest about my evaluation of it.

“I have a real issue with this book,” I’d begin, “I find it a very slow, boggy read.  Have any of you ever experienced that with a text?”

What would follow would be a powerful entry discussion into a school of literary criticism:  reader response.  As a marginally proficient actor, I probably could have “faked” it, extolling the virtues of this book's structure, but why?  

Why lose out on a more engaging and authentic discourse for the sake of making something seem interesting when, maybe, it isn’t?

I’ll also concede that lesson delivery—if you’re up in the front of the class delivering information—entails good public speaking skills (eye contact, vocal inflection, articulation, appropriate emphasis, and the like).

However, if you view lesson delivery as a performance, you put students in “passive audience” mode because the goal is to present an entertaining explanation. It’s a directive method as opposed to an exchange of ideas.  

Why not explain something to students in the context of their currently held beliefs, experiences, and ideas  of a topic instead of through presentational prowess?   
High school students don’t need us to be entertaining. They need to see our intellectual curiosity of the material and what others think about that material.   

They don’t need us to perform through an illness; they need us to “let them in” on our state of being, to be authentic and frank.  “Guys, I’m not feeling well, today, so bear with me!”

Despondent students don’t need to see any more artifice than they already see day in and day out. They need to see and hear what a mature adult does to cope when things aren't going well.

They need to see the best of who we already are. : )

* From T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men"

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