“So, you want it?” my colleague Lee asked me during the last week of her teaching career.
I felt like a ravenous buzzard prematurely circling an animal. “Absolutely,” I answered. “I’ll send a couple of students to pick it up right now.” Her signature of retirement was not even dry, and here I was, first in line to pilfer her belongings?
Darn right. Mrs. Corners owned a single relic found nowhere else on my campus: a podium. It stands alone in the front of my room now, in its chipped, weathered glory, shielded from the summer painters and potential podium thieves. On the last day of school, I admired the dark spots on the wood stained by sweaty palms, the note fragments jotted directly on one inner shelf, and 3½ feet of pure particleboard inspiration.
The weight of a humid Florida summer must have cooked my brain, right? Why would I want such an antiquated monstrosity in my room of Brightlink projectors, Apple products, tablets, and Snowball microphones?
It’s because I still lecture sometimes. Am I the last one? Maybe I’ve seen The Great Debaters too many times, or maybe I need to let go of my Socratic ideals, but I find few things more inspiring than a riveting lecture. In this age of constant engagement, of Groupthink, of structured team activities, I believe we’ve lost an educational art.
Is it any wonder that TED videos have become brain candy, as if we have never yearned for brilliant examples of experts sharing their knowledge and passions?
Diana Senechal, in one of this year’s must-reads, The Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, gives us the example of MIT’s Technology introduced Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) program. She describes how, in an effort to engage students, professors have ditched much of their lecture format in favor of the clicker-driven workshops. The shocker? Not all students are entranced by it.
One of them, Arun Agarwal, states: “The presentations don’t hold a candle to a lecture, because they simply highlight issues from the reading, through quick board work and some PowerPoint…”
As I read Republic of Noise this week, I don’t regret salvaging the podium one bit. Mine is a cooperative classroom, but that moniker does not suggest that I roll my students through constant overstimulation while I occupy the role of “guide on the side.” We teachers are trying to elevate our collective voice in America, not silence it. This means that we can’t be afraid to be the experts. Don’t let the constructivist buzz belittle your role as a teacher. Your students need to hear you as well as each other.
I’m not suggesting we return to the droll 50-minute blackboard lectures while students text, sleep, and do anything but retain information. But we can project wisdom and authority while hooking our students through shorter, well-designed lectures. We should be able to let our learners quietly grapple with our words without looking over our shoulders for an evaluator to question why we are the ones speaking in class. We can do it with tact, skill, and intrigue. Is there anything that makes you feel more like a teacher than holding your students’ attention without bells and whistles?
The most memorable lesson of my student life was a closing plenary lecture at the University of Cambridge. In a sconce-lit lecture hall that rivals Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, I sat mesmerized by the poetic manner in which Dr. Charles Moseley spoke about the importance studying English literature. I felt compelled to thank him personally for his wisdom after the session. He answered with a warm handshake. “My dear chap,” he said, “thank you.” What a teacher.
My students, as IB learners, reflect on both their learning and my teaching. “Some teachers don’t teach,” one lamented on a sticky note reflection. “I learn best when only one person is talking,” another wrote. “And it’s not my shoulder partner.”
So I’m reviving the podium as a part of my repertoire and challenging myself to maximize my words. My sixth graders will still sit in teams next year, and at some point, they’ll all take turns feeling powerful behind the podium. But they won’t do all the talking. Listen to your own voice in the classroom. How long has it been since you heard it?