Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Laura Ingalls, Lousy Teacher

I found this clip from "Little House on the Prairie" where Laura Ingalls, played by Melissa Gilbert, (unintentionally) showcases about six terrible teaching techniques in the space of about three minutes.

1) Although "cold questioning" can be useful as a way to open a lesson, it becomes immediately clear that she's asking questions about material to which they've never been introduced.

2) Her impatience mounts after one kid lucks into an answer; she seems to think that if one student has heard of one borough of New York, they clearly should all know all five boroughs--as if they are just refusing to answer out of obstinacy.

3) She allows the minor disruption of the spitball to take over and sideline the class activity, such as it is. Furthermore, she singles out and punishes Willy without actually knowing he did it--all the more reason for Willy to act out, if he knows he'll be punished anyway. (Self-fulfilling prophesy, anyone?)

4) Willy's question is a legitimate one, one for which teachers should have a ready answer. And she does have an answer--but does she have to be so mean about it?

5) When Willy confuses 'borough' with 'burro', Laura passes up the chance to conduct an interesting side-trip into homophones, so that she can instead belittle him and goad him into further acting out. Good choice, Laura Teacha!

6) It might occur to the students that the Brooklyn Bridge goes to Brooklyn if they had, say, a map; the bridge also goes to Manhattan, so why isn't it called the Manhattan Bridge, then? A map would also help in identifying the three rivers in question.

It's well and good to have high expectations for your students--I use the TESA model myself--but clairvoyance is a bit too much. Give them some tools, Miss Ingalls! A hand-drawn map on the board would suffice, since you probably didn't have a textbook in the 1880s.

Well do I remember the maps of Mr Ferguson, a big beefy guy who taught history at Chaplin School in the 1970s. Four color works of art they were, beautifully lettered, bold arrows illustrating troop movements, mountain chains so real you felt your chest tighten in the thin air. We were expected to copy them down in the first minutes of class. The rest of the period, Mr Ferguson dictated, and we wrote everything down. 45% was the passing grade in his class; I never knew anyone who got over an 80. He wasn't perfect, but he didn't expect us to know things before he taught them.

He set up his classroom with a big open space in the middle, through which he would pace, droning his dictation, with rows of desks on opposite sides, facing in. Dale M--- and I would spend most of class trying to look up Janet E---'s dress. I've never used that desk arrangement, and still blame it to this day for why I don't understand how the von Schlieffen Plan led to Germany's defeat in WWI.


John from Daejeon said...

You might want to watch the entire episode before passing judgment on a short scene taken out of context from the whole. The episode is titled, "Goodbye, Mrs. Wilder." Also (in case you don’t have all the back story), the young teacher did not even finish the eighth grade before being granted her teaching certificate as the need was so great back then.

However, it still speaks volumes though by paralleling how students in the late 1880's rural Minnesota needed to know about NYC (and French and art) because the educational authorities pressed it upon them and how English is being forced upon "all" students in the two Koreas whether they will ever use it or not.

If you watch the episode, you will see just how poorly her replacement fared in trying to teaching the arts and French to the children of farmers.

Rebecca said...

This is what happens when a Hollywood writer/director/producer purports to know how teachers teach when writing a script. :o) They'd best stick to their job, and leave us to ours. :o)

Tuttle said...

As always, thanks for the comments. JFD, within the context, which of my criticisms do you think becomes invalid? Being young makes her poor decisions understandable, but it doesn't make them less poor.

Yeah, I remember when just a season earlier, Laura was classmate sitting there with Willy and Albert. Wasn't her replacement teacher Mrs Oleson? Really, wasn't the whole purpose of the episode to show Laura growing up and make fun of the Olesons, as usual?

John from Daejeon said...

Give the episode a watch. It strikes pretty close to the home if one teaches in South Korea with the eventual points that are made.

It also shows that the students were already taught the lesson beforehand and were acting up (and out) in the beginning and in the end the actual culprit (not Willy) serves time in the corner.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

You will also learn that showing nude pictures in class, even in the name of art, is never a good idea.

Tuttle said...

John, thanks for the links to the full episode. However, watching it has not changed my opinion one iota. The scene in our much-discussed clip is the opening of the episode, and I saw no evidence that it was a "review" of previously introduced material.

The educational message of the episode is that students should only learn things that will be of direct benefit to them later on. Everyone can use art aprreciation, but only people that will deal with French speakers should learn French. I don't agree.

As to Korean students and English--of course, many of them don't see the point in learning to speak English. They're kids, who don't know a lot of things yet (including what they need to know), so we probably shouldn't shortchange their future by not teaching them stuff they don't want to learn.

As I see it, as English conversation teachers, a big part of our job is to make them want to converse--motivate them. I've found some good ways to do that, but am always looking for more!