Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Educational Showmanship

There is a symbiotic relationship between performer and audience. When I did juggling shows, I learned that the hard way. Some days I juggled incredibly well, but if the audience wasn't into it, I wasted a lot of time and energy trying to engage them. Those shows always tended to run short and left me tired and frustrated. And if I was having an off day, my performance could be made ten times worse by a lackluster crowd. There were also shows where for one reason or another I wasn't into what I was doing, but I had such a terrific audience I could feed off of their energy. Their excitement would pull me out of my doldrums and usually the show ended better than I expected. Then there were those special shows where I was on and the audience was responding easily to everything I did. Those were the best shows. The ones where your energy combines with the crowd's energy and you come away feeling like you are the greatest performer ever.

Now add a partner to this relationship and you add another level of possibilities. My husband and I did many shows together. There again you had times when you reached a magic moment where you and your partner are juggling well and the audience is laughing and clapping in all of the right places. Nothing can top that feeling.

Teaching is also a performance. In my own experiences as student or instructor, I've found that the same issues that can affect my juggling show can also affect the learning experience. I've sat in classes where the teacher grabbed your attention from the very beginning and classes where the instructor was never able to gain control of her classroom before the bell rang. And sometimes it can be the same teacher on different days or teaching different topics.

I never considered myself good in math. Once I reached multiplication and division, I found myself floundering in the classroom. It wasn't that I couldn't do it, but rather I was slower at figuring things out. Part of the problem was the thought that math was a subject where answers were either right or wrong. I didn't want to be wrong, so I spent a lot of time figuring and refiguring to make certain I was right. I had a math teacher in seventh grade that I loved. Mr. Fuller taught general mathematics in a way that awakened an interest in me. In that class I not only learned math, but I wrote math stories and read some as well. I didn't even know there was such a thing! Because of the energy of my teacher, I realized it was possible to enjoy math.

Skip ahead two years. I had the same instructor for geometry in ninth grade. I was excited to have him again, especially after struggling for a year in algebra. But math was no longer fun and games in Mr. Fuller's class. There were theorems to memorize and proofs to write all leading up to the BIG TEST at the end of the year. Perhaps the specter of the statewide test made math more serious and sobered Mr. Fuller's teaching style. Perhaps my own confusion and eventual loss of interest drained my teacher of his ability to help me learn. Whatever the reason, I almost failed math that year, and I was only saved from failing by a private tutor.

When I've taught my own children, I have also seen how these energies can mingle. If it is a subject I like, I can sometimes cause my own enthusiasm to be contagious. If it is a subject that I am hesitant about, my children will sometimes reflect that. There are days when they have inspired me by their interest, and my teaching improves because they are excited about the subject. Best of all is when we are all interested in the topic and have that perfect symbiotic relationship where our combined energies create something wonderful. But how do you attain that?

I think the answer lies in how we view the experience. Teaching isn't merely about spoon-feeding facts, it's about exploration and discovery. A good performer knows how to bounce back from mistakes. No matter how much I might know about a subject, I try to approach it with an open mind, ready to learn something new. A good performer needs to be aware of their audience. I consider the strengths and weaknesses of each child. I help where I am needed and step back where learning seems to be happening spontaneously. I facilitate learning by offering books and materials that appeal to their interests. A good performer always acknowledges a great crowd and responds to feedback. I praise my children for the work they do and I am always willing to let them teach me a few things. Because it is always possible to teach this old dog--I mean, middle aged dog--new tricks!


Angel R said...

All those events are the performing exercises. There is much feedbak going on. Previous to thet is the in-forning exercise when you are performing for yourself. That's where the most self doubt and criticism happens. You are sharpening your ax, but can't be sure if the ax is sharp enough. Continue to be conscious,as I know you are, and you are on your way to many more great dicoveriees. I love you and your thinking, Dad

Susan Gaissert said...

I like this post! I think all good teachers are good performers---feeding off the audience's energy and instinctively giving them more of what they enjoy and less of what they don't enjoy. May we all, whenever and whatever we teach, knock 'em dead!

Paula Vince said...

It often amazes me how a crowd can acquire a distinct personality, despite the separate personalities of all the individuals in it. And that this doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the performer, who begins with the same frame of mind each time (to the best of his/her belief)

About the Math, we have come across a wonderful series of text books called "The Life of Fred" which combines a quirky, highly comedic story with problems to solve as you progress. It's the only resource I've found that's really worked with Emma, who has a low tolerance to numbers.

Inner Elder said...

You have hit on a truth of teaching, performing, etc. and expressed it so well. I experience this symbiotic relationship when I do a workshop, presentation or group session. I have often been nervous about a presentation only to have the enthusiasm from participants make it memorable. And other times I have prepared so well only to meet with the sounds of silence. At those times - as you well know - you soldier it out! Thanks for a great post. Love, Mom

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