Thursday, November 11, 2010

What I Learn When I Teach (and How It Helps My Fiction)






Teaching something is the best way to learn it. Ask any teacher.

Whenever I teach, I learn . . .

1) how much I know--and don’t know;
2) what my students want and need to know;
3) how my students like to learn.

Contrary to what you might think, teaching is not the opposite of learning. It’s a component of learning. As we master something, we discover that we can demonstrate and explain it to others. We want to use what we learn. Likewise, no matter how many times we teach the same material, we find something new in it. Something personally relevant.

Teaching begins with deconstruction, taking something apart in order to put it together as if for the first time—step by step, piece by piece, test driving the product along the way. Occasionally, while teaching, we may be able to skip a step or two; more often, we channel
Sisyphus. When or if leaps and bounds of learning occur, they are a thing of beauty and likely to be cited as The Reason We Teach.

Of course, parents teach, too, in more intimate, ongoing, and unpredictable contexts. With no time to prepare a lesson, they may be called upon to answer questions ranging from “How does electricity work?” to “Why start a war when so many people end up dying?


Teaching, then, is not the exclusive domain of professionals. Yet those who teach for a living spend their days doing it and analyzing the results. Even as educators embrace new teaching tools and strategies, the challenge remains to take something apart and put it back together so that it’s fresh, vital and useful to students.

For me, teaching—like writing—begins with imagining something from other points of view. Whenever I do that, the wh- questions rain down on me, and I am invigorated.

Last week I was in Elgin, Illinois, teaching story-building skills to a talented group of middle-schoolers enrolled in
S.C.O.R.E. (Students Creating Opera to Reinforce Education). We spent four hours playing with the 3P’s of Story Building: People + Problems = Plot. Because characters want and need things even as they dislike and fear other things, trouble (that is, The Story) begins. My students came up with endless combinations of characters, situations, and “what-ifs,” acting out many of them.

We piled on the problems, forcing our protagonist to make harder and harder choices as the story unfolded. In the process of moving from plot point to plot point, we discovered a simple truth: Reaching past the obvious first choice is usually the way to go! While it may be helpful to acknowledge easy or clichéd options, a narrative built on choices and outcomes that nobody could predict is infinitely more satisfying.

Life tends to work that way, too. . . .

I’m blessed to divide my time between writing and teaching. The variety keeps my skill sets sharp and increases my enthusiasm for both jobs. After the S.C.O.R.E. students revved their “what-if” engines, I could hardly wait to get back to plotting my own work in progress.

In Jonathan Livingston Seagull, author
Richard Bach writes, “We teach best what we most need to learn.”

Sometimes it's really that simple.









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