Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Aim Game

Lots of administrators love to see the aim on the board. I learned this very early. When I first started teaching, I had never heard of an aim. When teachers taught me, they had an aim, I guess, but didn't write it on the board. In NYC, the aim is about the closest thing to a religious doctrine I can think of. My first supervisor told me the aim must be in the form of a statement. My second said it must be in the form of a question. Or maybe vice-versa. I don't really remember.

Most supervisors now say it must be a question. Evidently, if you don't place one on the board you can't possibly know what you are doing. The thing is, though, that if you don't actually know what you are doing, the relative quality of your aim won't mitigate that at all. And if you do, for my money, it doesn't make a bit of difference whether you write it or not. I don't believe students are so simple minded they can't comprehend what's going on unless you reduce it to a statement, question, or even an emoji. Still, if supervisors want them so bad, who am I to start a fight over that?

I favor simple questions. If I'm teaching present progressive, or something that forces my students to use it, I'll write, "What are you doing?" Some colleagues won't. They'll write things like, "How can we describe what's happening right now?" And then there's literature. If I were teaching Jurassic Park, and I have once or twice, I might write, "What's the best thing to do when a dinosaur is chasing you?" The answer, of course, is run like hell, which is what the characters spent that chapter doing.

My colleagues will write, "How do we show a deep understanding of literature via use of literary elements?" These are things that the geniuses who write the NY State Regents exams deem crucial when discussing literature. You have to talk about theme, setting, character, and a few other things or you can't possibly understand or appreciate what you read. It's very important, you see, that we reduce things like literature into five or ten defined areas and describe it like that.

I see things like, "How can we explore the deeper meaning in this limerick?" and I don't even want to read the thing. What do I care if the young man from Nantucket was driven by his environment to perform whatever unnatural tale unfolded? Would it have been more poignant if he had done it in Brooklyn?

Then there's that other thing, the instructional objective, which my first supervisor insisted I place on a lesson plan. I didn't understand the difference between an IO and an aim for years, and I was lucky because I haven't had a supervisor since who cared whether or not I wrote one. And anyway, the UFT Contract specifies that lesson plans are for teachers, and the layout is at the teacher's discretion. (I had great fun pointing that out to a pompous bureaucrat who visited my school and said schools would close if lesson plans didn't contain Common Core Standards. Teachers came up to me for days and thanked me for being there.)

I didn't really figure out what the instructional objective was until I observed a class in which a new teacher wrote on the board, "Students will be able to explain the meaning of this piece of literature via utilization of literary elements." That's what it is,  I thought to myself, as I advised the young teacher that what she had written was not, in fact, an aim, and that the principal would not be offering her a raise and promotion if she continued to write such things on the board.

If you have to write an aim, I think, it ought to be some kind of hook. It ought not to contain language that suggests what we are going to do is tedious crap. To me, even when I am compelled to teach tedious crap (like how to pass the English Regents Exam), I try to find some way to personalize things. Now it isn't easy when you're doing test prep, which is precisely why I hate doing test prep.

What I do now is teach kids how to speak and love English. It's one of my favorite things, and I hope to make it one of their favorite things too. I can tell them that they will use what I teach pretty much every day of their lives. They can use it if they go to college, they can use it if they go to work, and they can use it if they're hungry and want a hamburger. In fact, a student once wrote a composition for me about the difficulties he encountered trying to order a hamburger in a restaurant. It was pretty funny, to him too, as he'd finally acquired enough language to easily procure as many burgers as his money could buy.

For the life of me, I don't understand why anyone wants to make opening questions complicated. I think I'm in the minority here, though, so if I'm missing something feel free to let me know why.
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