Thinking about the simple things

Simplified parse tree PN = proper noun N = nou...

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I wanted to teach my class of 7th graders the very simple and basic difference between a common and proper noun.  They should already know this, so I considered the lesson largely to be review.

I drew a line down the middle of the board and asked the students to name nouns while I directed my assistants on what side of the line to write the nouns given by the class.  Common nouns went on one side and proper nouns on the other–but I did not tell the class this.  Then we began comparing.

It did not take long for the students to say the names “common” and “proper.”  The two primary things that I heard were that proper nouns have a capital letter, and are more important than common nouns.  Really?

I asked if the “Gators” (a sports team I suspect) are more important than “water.”

“Well, . . . uh, no . . . I don’t know . . . Oh no, Mr. Holler is playing his tricky mind games again.”  (Why do my students think I am playing a tricky mind game when I ask them to think?)

I discovered several things during this class.

1.  Students can enjoy thinking about grammar. Though, I already suspected this.

2. My students concluded that proper nouns are a unique thing within a larger class of common things.  They used the example of the word “restaurant” as a class of common things, and Arby’s, Bo Jangles, etc. as the unique things within the class of restaurants.  Beautiful.

3.  I wondered had they, or any of their teachers, thought this freely about common and proper nouns?  And this revealed something to me that might explain the unspoken prohibition junior high students have sworn an oath to by never capitalizing anything in their writing.

They have never been taught how to write proper nouns because they have never been taught what a proper noun is.  They have only been taught to recognize one on a worksheet or when they read it printed on the page.  Remember, they said, “It has a capital letter.”

How can you write if you do not know the thing you are attempting to write?  Thinking about the simple things will lead our students (even ourselves) toward writing and speaking of greater things.

Inside, Outside, Upside Down

You can live from the inside, or you can live from the outside.

You can think from the inside, or you can think from the outside.

You can read from the inside, or you can read from the outside.

You can teach from the inside – but only if you live, think, and read from the inside.

To live, think, and read from the inside you must enter into the thing you live with, the thought you are thinking about, the text you are reading.

To live, think, and read from the outside, you only need to look at it.

Most living, thinking, reading, and teaching are done from the outside.

The greatness of the great teacher is the ability to get inside and lead his students there.

Things can only be loved on the inside, where they cannot be measured.

Things can only be measured on the outside, where they cannot be known.

By living on the outside, we have turned education and our civilization upside down.

Teaching students how to think

The great need that Dorothy Sayers and classical educators have always claimed to meet is teaching students how to think. I’m still amazed, however, at how little of what schools do with their students actually trains them to do so. So much time is spent getting through materials and learning what they are supposed to think that no time is left to learn sound habits of thinking.

Schools, to my astonishment, don’t teach higher level reading skills after around 5th grade. I’m afraid that most teachers might not know what those higher order skills are. Writing usually follows formulas that should have been mastered in middle school. Math is taught in such a way that students can apply processes to controlled situations, but are unable to adapt the ideas to other contexts.

If this describes your classroom or school, you don’t need to despair. The trouble with thinking is not that it’s so difficult, though it isn’t easy. It’s that it takes time and practice. And when my generation was growing up, we didn’t learn to take the time to think. We had work to do, things to get done. No time to think.

But think about it: The assumption behind thinking is “I need to figure something out,” or “I don’t know what I need to know.” In short, I am ignorant.

This may be the ultimate fear of the unknown – the fear that I will have to admit that I don’t know what I need to know and I don’t even know what I need to know I need to know.

So how do we move from ignorance to knowledge?

By asking questions.

Therefore, when we say we want to teach our students how to think, what we mean is, we want to teach them how to ask questions.

But we’re afraid to do that, often, because we fear that they might come up with different answers than we have or that they’ll find out something we don’t know. And they will too. They’ll grow beyond us. They might even liberate themselves from some of our fears.

That would be a good thing.

Teaching children the seven great questions as outlined in classical rhetoric (e.g. in The Lost Tools of Writing) will enable them to think at a level beyond what their peers can reach – and beyond what we have reached too. If we are afraid of this, we should stop teaching and, if necessary, admit that we are not teaching anyway.