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(crossposted at Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites Of The Day)

A few days ago I wrote about Jim Burke’s great blog post on Metaphors We Teach By. In it, he wrote:

We are the metaphors we choose. If you want to change your world, change your metaphor. Don Graves, master writing teacher and mentor to so many, said we should read students’ work like doctors not judges.

What’s your metaphor and how does it shape the way you think about and do your work?

I’ve finally decided that trying to be an “agitational pit bull” is a good metaphor for the teacher I try to be.  Let me explain…

I like to see myself as a “Pit Bull” because I try to be relentless in challenging my students — no one coasts.  I try to make sure that students are actively learning at all times.

I emphasize the phrase actively learning because I think some teachers might be relentless, too, but might  use the word working instead.  I suspect we all know teachers, or might be ones ourselves, who are relentless in pushing their students to get the work done, get that assignment finished, get that chapter read, get the curriculum covered.

That’s where the word “agitational” comes in.

During my pre-high school teacher career as a community organizer assisting low-income people to build power and make social change, we talked about the difference between being “irritating” and being “agitating.”

The “irritating” approach was one that tended to cause displeasure, annoyance, and frustration to the people we were trying to organize.  We viewed irritation as telling people what they should want to know along with telling them how they should learn it.

We would contrast this with an “agitational” approach, one that would, as various dictionaries define the word, “stir things up” and “arouse interest,” with the goal of “putting things into motion to produce changes.”

I am relentless in pushing, or prodding, my students to do their assignments.  In addition, though, I strive (though often fail) to be equally as relentless in probing.

When students are not focusing on the assignment, in addition to prodding them to do it, I try (though often fail) to be equally as relentless in asking agitational questions — what do you think is making it difficult for you to focus?  Think about when you have been able to focus well and what made the different?  What can I do to help you focus better?

When a student is consistently having difficulty getting started doing an assignment, in addition to prodding him to do it, I try to ask similarly probing questions and/or offer agitational suggestions — think about times when you have been able to get started well on doing something — what helpful you then?  Start by writing one sentence — don’t worry about the rest of the essay…

When a student who has had difficulties in the past, but then has had a good day, I’ll ask him/her to reflect on how he/she is feeling now and to think about what made the difference.

And it’s not uncommon for their classwork on the official assignment to get somewhat shortchanged because of what a student might need to do to get answers to those questions — they might need to take a walk around the school, or put their head down for awhile, or go to the quiet school library for a few minutes.

If we give in to the temptation to relentlessly prod (and it’s not uncommon for me to do that, too),  I think we do a disservice to our students by not helping them develop their ability to reflect and become more self-aware.

Yes, I know, we are all under pressure to cover the curriculum and have our students perform well on standardized tests.  I’ve got to say, though, student test results from my classes and from the classes of my colleagues who I would also characterize as “agitational pit bulls” generally turn-out pretty well.

In The Metamorphosis by Kafka, it seemed to me that one of the reasons Gregor turned into a cockroach was because he felt he always had to get the work done and there was no time for self-reflection.

I know this post is about teaching metaphors, but, in terms of student and learning metaphors or similes, I’d like my students to stay away from being like Kafka’s cockroach…

3 Responses to “What Do Pit Bulls & Cockroaches Have To Do With Learning & Teaching?”

  1. Mark says:

    Good post. I can be that same way, and so your post is a good reminder to calm down and let the kids do some of the reflecting and self-critiquing.

  2. ckirby says:

    I really like this metaphor. I’m not sure I would have thought to put it that way, but I definitely agree with the substance. It seems to me that what you are saying is that you are more interested in your students becoming learners than you are in them mastering one particular piece of content (i.e. teaching people not stuff). The inverse correlation is that the better learners they become, the better they will learn your content as well as the content of the next teacher.

    I think that many of us tend to focus too much on regurgitation of some specific content. This can be due to personal paradigm of what teaching means, lack of time and/or resources to conceptualize it differently, lack of desire to conceptualize it differently, or pressure from administration for specific results. When the last reason is the cause, I find it useful to continue to think about the inverse relationship I mentioned before. If we step outside and look at the person we are trying to help mold, then we will see that being agitating pit bulls will actually work better than just being pit bulls (or worse, irritating pit bulls).

  3. Cary,

    I think you framed what I was trying to say well, perhaps even better than I had said it!


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