Teach Me How

Once, in Rwanda, I was working with the English teachers in a secondary school in Kigali on the rules for punctuating compound sentences. I had handouts, visual aids, and even a graphic that illustrated a fairly clever way to remember the rules. But, I had run out of practice sentences. We were in the school library at the time—a room with very few books but many long tables and benches to accommodate the 50-60 students in a class. As I pondered how to produce more practice sentences quickly—without the aid of a blackboard—I glanced at the shelves and saw, to my surprise, a familiar text—Writer’s Choice—a book I had used in my own high school in Indiana some years before. In fact, a whole class set—two class sets—were neatly arranged on the shelves. I got up from my seat at the table and retrieved a copy for myself and one for each teacher.

The texts had been sent from a school in Florida to this school in Kigali as a charitable donation. A gracious one, indeed—but the books had never been used. They’d been on the shelves since they had arrived. The English Department Chair shrugged when I asked her why.

I didn’t belabor the point. I just turned to the index and searched for the page numbers that corresponded with compound sentences. We all turned to the appropriate page, and I resumed my lesson.

When I was finished, the teachers began asking questions. Did this book teach capital letters? Did it teach spelling? What about other comma rules? Could I show them how I found the sentences I had been looking for? It dawned on me, suddenly, why these books had not been used. These teachers weren’t accustomed to using textbooks in the first place, but more importantly, the books themselves were baffling. They didn’t understand how our thick and elaborate American textbooks are laid out: sequenced chapters with the rules and their exceptions, each rule followed by several dizzying sets of practice sentences and quiz sets; elaborate but confusing color-coding; distracting sidebars; and suggested links to related lessons located half an inch farther into the text. They didn’t know what an index was.

Once I showed them how to use the book, the teachers were absorbed, turning the pages avidly, asking each other questions, discovering with delight the explanations for rules they themselves weren’t sure of. It wasn’t long before the English Department Chair turned to me and said, “I see now that these books are very useful.”

An impromptu lesson in how to use a textbook was more critical—and probably more lasting—than the fancy lesson I’d prepared on compound sentences.

That experience with the Rwandan teachers sticks with me because it reinforced something I’ve known for a long time but sometimes lose sight of: Process is as important as product. Mastery of process yields confidence, an attitude that is, for a young learner, far more important than content knowledge. It is confidence that enables a student to shoot for the stars. Students reach high when they are comfortable with what they’re doing, comfortable with the process. Actually, don’t we all?

It’s intellectually interesting to identify content we want our students to learn; it’s fun to develop the blueprint for a culminating project. But it’s easy for us to overlook the importance of teaching processes. How to use a database. How to run the grammar checker. How to summarize. How to use Turn It In (an online plagiarism prevention site). How to give a speech. How to make a poster aesthetically pleasing. How to write a business letter. How to set up a Works Cited page.

Sometimes the process we need to teach is a basic one. For example, part of the Unsung Heroes project (which I wrote about a few weeks ago) is learning how to write a handwritten letter. My students write thank you notes to their heroes for the time spent interviewing them and invitations to the celebration we hold when the book is published. I insist they do this on stationery, in ink, by hand. Every year I have to teach my students how to address an envelope. I used to have to show them how to find an address in the phone book. Now it’s how to find an address online. But now they know—and they won’t shy away from handwritten notes in the future. In fact, they think they’re pretty cool.

Other times, though, the process is complex. For example, English teachers are charged with teaching research skills so students can produce what used to be called “the term paper.” What we are teaching our students is a very lengthy process: choosing a topic, finding resources, reading and understanding those resources, evaluating them, writing an annotated bibliography, formulating a thesis, combing the readings for evidence to support the thesis, and then writing the paper itself–clearly, coherently, correctly—even elegantly. And finally, that miserable Works Cited page—how to do that systematically so the bibliographical entries match the internal documentation. It’s an enormous process, and at my school, we lead the students through it at least once each year. Their papers often reveal that they don’t quite understand their topic. They may treat it superficially or focus on something trivial. But really, these fledgling scholars are to be congratulated at the end: they’ve gained experience with a difficult and lengthy process that will be second nature to them when they get to college—where the content will really matter.

Sometimes we forget how important it is to teach the “how-to” part. We have a way, in our eagerness to share our own excitement about a topic or an idea, to presume in our students skills they don’t have, just as the people who sent the textbooks to Rwanda presumed the teachers there would know how to use them. We sometimes assume familiarity, make assignments our kids don’t know how to approach, or confuse them with complexity. In our enthusiasm, we don’t break a process down—or we skip teaching it altogether—and leave our students puzzled rather than confident. I’ve done it myself too many times—but I’m learning. Teaching well is a process, too.

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