Pencil, Paper, Purpose

With so much focus in education circles on technology, social media, and common core, I was struck this morning when I sat in on a class where one of my superstar English teachers was using a pencil and paper (projected on the board) to teach her 7th graders about thesis statements.

Without technological flashiness or portable electronic devices, but with a heaping helping of patience, humor, and encouragement, she led her students through the steps of developing a thesis that they might argue in an essay. This was teaching as it might have appeared in 1990, 1970, or 1950 (though it would have been accompanied then by a grunge soundtrack, teacher who smelled of cigarettes, or man in a short sleeved white shirt and black tie, respectively). It was good teaching, the kind of instruction that doesn’t go out of style.

Those who imagine that students today need to be on a Chromebook or smartphone to be engaged, or that they need to be working in groups puzzling out a concept every minute of a class period would have been surprised by the focus this class of twelve year olds brought to their work.

The students sat, their own pens poised over paper, watching as their teacher modeled the development and writing of the thesis. The kids answered her questions and provided great examples she might use to make her sample argument. With heartfelt encouragement, the teacher acknowledged student suggestions and pushed her kids to make connections, to think critically about the subject, and to draw on examples that supported the point.

In a moment not from the 1950s, students shared the sample thesis statements they’d developed individually with a group of four, discussing the merits of each before reporting back to the class. They class then reviewed, refined, and reflected on the strengths of the best thesis statements, and the students left with a better understanding about how they could apply that knowledge to the topics they’d chosen for their own upcoming papers.

It was a good example of the notion that sometimes the best tool for the job can be a simple one, and that sometimes the best method of learning is simply eye to eye.

As they move forward with their essays, the kids will use technology that their parents and grandparents wouldn’t have dreamed about when they were cracking open the World Book Encyclopedia or whiting out spelling mistakes they’d made on their typewriters. Even during the lesson today students enjoyed a certain freedom and comfortability that would have seemed foreign a couple of decades ago. At it’s heart, however, the magic of this lesson came in the interaction between a great teacher and interested students.

I could tell that they’d built a relationship over the course of the year. In her ready smile and the kindness in her eyes, the teacher showed that she loved her class. In their attention, participation, and willingness to contribute, the class demonstrated their affection and respect for their teacher.

Teachers since Socrates have recognized that it’s these relationships that underpin learning. Technology changes (chalkboards replaced by whiteboards replaced by document cameras replaced by Google Docs), as does pedagogy (that smoky fellow in the shirt and tie would be an anomaly these days), but even as they do it’s nice to see some gems keep their timelessness.

I remember with affection my own 7th grade English class and Ms. Sarver, teaching me about thesis statements. Many of the kids in today’s class will remember their teacher in the same way. Sure they’ll also remember the hands on, technology rich instruction they enjoyed in the class, but when they really look back I think what will stick with them most will be their teacher’s smile, her encouragement, and their learning.


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