Reading #2: The Construction and Reconstruction of a Teacher’s Personal Practical Knowledge during Inquiry.

After reading three of the articles suggested for inquiry in a music classroom, I chose the article by Mary Beattie titled The Making of a music: The Construction and Reconstruction of a Teacher’s Personal Practical Knowledge During Inquiry.

This article relates the foundations that a teacher, Anne, realized were necessary for her students to be functional inquirers, and the passages she experienced on her journey from being an experienced teacher in physical education to becoming a novice as a classroom teacher to emerging with an understanding that the foundations were the same regardless of the subject matter.  It was about the students, not the subject.

The most profound foundation Anne discovered was the need to nurture a climate of respect for persons first and then subjects in her general classroom, just as she had done in her physical education environment.

This article reminded me of the Culture and the School class in college and assignments on diverse classroom cultures.  It also brought back a vivid memory of student teaching in a Pittsburgh High School where the Orchestra director displayed what might be defined as three personalities. His personality before his A orchestra, which was an outstanding ensemble that played level 4, 5 and 6 music, was the sage on the stage. He put the music ahead of the people and would comment that he knew more than “you child prodigies” and told them to follow his interpretation whether they liked it or not! (Many of these students were the children of Pittsburgh Symphony players, and he seemed to be both arrogant and defensive.) Before the B group, where most of the players were basically good student musicians, working hard to pass an audition into the top group, he was almost grandfatherly and encouraged them and lavished them with praise.  There was a mutual respect in the B group that did not exist in the A group. Then, there was the C group, which had an odd instrumentation and most of the players were beginners and playing on wrecks of instruments. His attitude with these children was completely negative. He told them they were failures and he wouldn’t take any responsibility for anything they did! He also told them they would never make it out of the C group because they were hopeless! I was permitted only to observe in the A group, to play occasionally in the B group and to teach the C group. Discipline in the C group was non-existent and the professor who observed me from my college said they had no goals.  They also had no music, stands and in some cases they might have a bow but no cello to use with it! This experience for me was disheartening and sometimes I wonder how I got through it and landed where I am today.  I recall discussing this situation with the psychology professor who taught the Culture in the School class.  The revelation for me was when I verbalized that the circumstances the C group was dealt were fundamentally disrespectful to all parties involved and they were being made even more unbearable by a teacher who had absolutely no respect for the students. This in turn gave them no opportunity to develop self-respect, or to feel good about what they could do and they never had the opportunity to set or achieve any goal, no matter how great or small.

In the article, Beattie relates that Anne was advised to get control of the situation by establishing an environment where students would respect and listen to one another.  When I student taught, the temporary nature of a student teacher left me feeling that I could not gain control of a fiery situation that was being fueled with the outrage and disrespect that came from the person who should have been creating the respectful climate – the cooperating teacher.  Now, three and a half decades later, I realize that shaping a respectful environment has been a continuous thread throughout my teaching, not just a lesson taught but a continuous response and reinforcement of the behaviors that foster learning and achievement. I am often stunned by the professional attitudes in my high school students, and the progress they make as players is directly related to their attentive musical behavior in the orchestra setting, with attention to detail and the desire to constantly improve their technical skills.

However, I am confronted with a different problem. The respect is warm, but there is a chill when a question is asked.  They seem to go comatose!  Over the last few years, questioning has brought an increasing sense of the students shrinking in their seats – and those “please don’t call on me” looks!

It was related in the article that Anne discovered that it was necessary to create an environment where students would collaborate rather than compete.  She endeavored to build a climate for understanding rather than judgment or criticism, which in turn yielded to a comfort zone where the students supported and encouraged one another.  I do not necessarily find the students I teach to be competitive or even eager to answer questions, but I do find that they continuously defer to someone else…anyone else.  They are reluctant to commit themselves when questions are posed, yet when it is time to work in small groups, there is great give and take, support and caring demonstrated to one another and the progress in these cooperative groups is significant.  When these students critique performances, I have always asked that they write with a positive-constructive-positive format and find that they are quick to praise individual efforts by others, but on the part of the performance evaluation where they are asked to utilize a rubric to identify the level of achievement of the group and then of their own performance, they are very hard on themselves.  In some cases, I would probably rate them as they have rated themselves, but I am often surprised at how harshly they judge their own abilities and rarely is there any over-inflation of scores.

As we are beginning to implement inquiry into the classroom, I am realizing that the comfort zone issues need to transform so we can move into higher order thinking and creativity.  I realize that the students I teach in 2011 are concerned about giving right answers.  Open ended questions are the perfect catalyst to change the deferring game, but they still lack trust, be it in others or even in themselves. So for the present we are using a wiki, where I post a question and students take the initiative to respond.  Though they sign their names they seem to be a little bit more brave and willing to take a risk to share their thoughts.    At this point I am trying to avoid responding with comments so that I do not overshadow them, but I do prompt them with more questions.  The responses have been interesting but the best part is that after about five weeks in the wiki discussion forum they are posting.  The students are beginning to respond to each other and hopefully in the future they will allow their responses to grow and become as comfortable face to face as they are in cyberspace!  Still I believe it is important that the respect be maintained, but there must also be trust for this to happen.

To close, the experience shared about Anne, certainly prompted me to reflect on the need to create a nurturing climate based on respect for all concerned and to reflect on my evolution from the student teaching days to the present.