TITLE: A Touch of Greatness AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 01, 2005 5:03 PM DESC: Push Back the Desks can inspire teachers to turn their classrooms upside down. ----- BODY: Recently I wrote about teacher Al Cullum, motivated by Rich Pattis's recommendation of the recent PBS movie about his teaching career and ideas. I finally finished Cullum's Push Back the Desks, the 1967 Citation Press book that introduced his teaching style to a wide audience. It's a light and easy read, but I kept slowing down to jot notes of the ideas that Cullum's ideas caused in my mind. The Techniques The book is organized around chapters that present one of Cullum's exercises for "pushing back the desks" and creating an active world of learning for his elementary school students. To help folks in all subject areas, he describes how his techniques can be applied across the curriculum. Some are not too surprising, such as writing a newspaper about a topic or putting on class plays. These are standard techniques in schools today. I recognized a couple of Cullum's techniques as pedagogical patterns sometimes used in college CS classrooms:
I have found that children are interested in two things-- doing and doing now. Children are looking for the unexpected, not the safe; children are looking for noise and laughter, not quite; children are looking for the heroic, not the common. Sadly our K-12 educational system tends to beat this energy out of college students long before they get to us. But I didn't think the fire has been extinguished, only masked. With some encouragement, and evidence that the instructor is serious about having real fun and learning in the classroom, most of my students seem to open up nicely. I've been most successful doing this in my algorithms course and my now-defunct user interface/professional responsibility course.
When I first began teaching, there was Al Cullum the teacher and Al Cullum the person. I soon discovered that this split personality was not a healthy one for the children or for me. I realized I had better bury Al Cullum the teacher and present Al Cullum the person, or else the school year would become monotonous months of trivia. I began to share with my students my moments of joy, my moments of love, my moments of scholarship, and even my uncertainties. That last sentence reminds me of a quote I read on someone else's blog page, about how the honest teacher presents his students with an honest picture of him or herself, as a scholar who doesn't know much but who searches for understanding. In my experience, students respond to this sort of honesty with openness and honesty of their own. Exposing the "real person" to students requires a certain kind of confidence in a teacher, but I think that such confidence is a habit that can be developed with practice. Don't wait to become confident. Be confident.
Many times as a beginning teacher I used to say to my classes:Programming teachers must write programs. It gives them the context within which to teach, and to learn with their students. Otherwise, instruction becomes nothing but surface information from the textbook du jour, with no reality for students. Plus, how can we stay alive as teachers of programming if we don't write programs? Writing our own programs also reminds us what's hard for our students, so that we can better help them overcome the real obstacles they face rather than the artificial ones we create in our minds and in our theories.
"I insist you write complete sentences!"
"How can you possibly forget to put in the period?"
"This composition is too short!"
"This composition is too long!"
One day I heard the echoes of my admonitions, and in an embarrassed fashion I asked myself, "What have you written lately?"
Good schools introduce students to as many new worlds as possible.  A love of reading is developed through students and teachers sharing what they have read. We can help our students develop a love of reading programs in the same way. I think that a love of writing programs grows in a similar fashion.
Once a teacher loses the feeling of doing something for the first time, it is time for the teacher to change grades, schools, or professions.I've always asked to teach different courses every few semesters, for just this reason. If I teach any course for too long, it becomes stale, because I become stale. When I must, as is the case with our introductory OOP course, then I have to throw myself a change-up occasionally: change language, or program themes, or examples, or development style. Almost anything to keep the course fresh. (This semester, I have yet to reuse a line from from voluminous OOP course notes. I feel more alive (and on edge!) each day than I've felt in a long while.
I haven't heard of a student who died from being challenged too much, but I've heard of many who wasted away from boredom. This may be true in spirit, but students can be challenged too much. They need to have enough background, both in content and style, before they can rise to meet challenging problems. Hitting them too hard too soon is a recipe for revolt or, worse, desertion. (Those are especially unattractive outcomes at a time of falling enrollments nationwide.)
There are two aspects of every classroom -- the students and the teacher! Both need to be touched by greatness. Students seek the mystery and magic of school that was there the first day they entered the hallowed halls. Give them the magic again ... Be yourself. Dare to experiment. Be touched by greatness yourself. Live in the creative act, too.
Many eyes were moist; I knew mine were partly because of Longfellow's poetic gifts and partly because of one hundred and one students who had confirmed my opinion that they had the ability and nobility to accept a touch of greatness. There silence at the end of the poem ... told me that school life need not be routine, dull, or one long series of learning basic skills. We teachers must reach the hearts of children before they are impressed with our basic skills. Wow. I've known that feeling rarely, but it is magical. An algorithms session when a game or puzzle opens students' minds and hearts and they sense a greatness in the solution. An OOP session when a group of students clicks with, say, the Decorator pattern. Or when a programming languages class clicks with the idea of higher-order functions. A rare and beautiful feeling. I have a chance to reach this elusive state only when I create a suitable environment, in which a great idea is front and center and the student is motivated and challenged. A lot of it is luck, but as they say, luck favors the prepared.
[M]essy classrooms are perfectly natural if something is happening in that room. If dreams of greatness are to be fulfilled ..., I don't see how teachers can avoid having messy classrooms. Sometimes a neat classroom is a bore. By this Cullum means the elementary classroom: paper scraps, glue, paint, easels, costumes, cloth scraps. But the college classroom should be messy, too, at least for a while: an intellectual mess, as ideas are being formed, and re-formed, extended and applied. A class gang-writing a program a lá XP will be "messy" for a few days, until the product takes shape and the program is refactored and the code makes us find and use a big idea (say, an interface) that resolves the mess. In Conclusion While reading this book, my wife (a former elementary school teacher) and I both commented that this book poses a serious challenge for our elementary schools as they are right now. This approach requires real knowledge and love of the subject area. Someone teaching science only because the school needs a 5-6 science teacher will have a hard time sharing an abiding love for science and the scientific method. This approach also requires great confidence in one's knowledge and teaching skills. But great teachers exist. We've all had them. And someone who sincerely wants to have a great classroom can develop the right habits for getting better. Cullum's philosophy can be Just as tough to apply in a college classroom. A lecture section of 200 students. Picking up a new class in a new area, one that extends an instructor beyond the core of his or her expertise, because the old instructor retired or moved. But it can work. I eagerly sought out our programming languages courses and our algorithms course as a means for me to "go deep" and cultivate my love and knowledge of these areas. I could never have taught them if I hadn't wanted to touch their greatness, because I would have bored myself -- and my students -- to death, and killed everyone's spirit in the process. By no means am I a great teacher in these areas yet, but I do think I'm on the right path. A touch of greatness. I think that's what conferences like OOPSLA do most for me: let me re-connect with the greatness of what I do and think about. Now, how can I make that feeling available to my students... -----