• Brent Kaneft

Fan the Flame in 2018

"We protect candles against an enduring wind." - from "Raleigh Central, 2 a.m." by Erin Fornoff

Erin Fornoff's poem makes me feel hopeless, as it is intended to: a David and Goliath scenario, but David doesn't win. How can anyone keep an "enduring wind" from extinguishing a flickering candle? The truth is, you can't. The only way to protect the fire is to make it bigger, so big the wind changes roles, from threat to fuel.

A colleague of mine, a chemist, sent me a blog about the emerging division between scientists and citizens. His concern is great. What he's fighting every day in the classroom is the belief that science is something "geniuses" do. He wants to change that dynamic, to show his students that curiosity and passion are more apt characteristics for who can be a scientist than someone's IQ score. A lesson in line with Angela Duckworth's research in Grit.

After reading the blog, I wondered about the state of affairs in my English classroom, not necessarily because my students felt threatened by the intellectual prowess of famous literary critics (who would, right?), but because I have seen a noticeable decline in curiosity and passion in recent years that has bothered me. At first, I thought perhaps this decline had more to do with the ubiquity of knowledge and service-oriented technology. The safety net for people who refuse to cultivate their intelligence is greater than it's ever been. In fact, as the blog post suggested, we inhabit a world where "empiricism and rationality" are increasingly "discredit[ed]" by our elected officials. So, not only is there a Google search bar in everyone's pockets, but our leaders are watering down the very idea of intelligence and how we acquire it.

That being said, is it possible, as many have suggested, that schools and teachers are beating the curiosity and passion out of our students? That their candles have long been extinguished and that teachers must focus on rekindling the flame? I spend the greater part of the fall semester helping students re-imagine the student-teacher dynamic. They look to me for immediate answers, I shrug my shoulders and suggest where to look, what practice might help, and what questions are worth asking. It drives students nuts. I am the architect of their experience, not a "pail filler." Though I'll admit, when I'm tired or frustrated, I will revert to "filling the pail," which is a 20th-century technique, not one that prepares students for the world ahead. "Filling the pail," telling them everything they need to know, reinforces the idea that students receive information, teachers give it. This method is akin to trying to shield the candle from the wind. Good intentions, but bad outcomes. We must remember, these kids have a future that doesn't involve us.

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." - William Butler Yeats

No teacher is perfect, but when you fill the pail you extinguish the fire. Plain and simple. We must design our classes to be student-driven: their questions, their growth, their work, their creativity. Many students, like mine, will struggle to understand this approach, to be on board, but give it time. What you are lighting — student curiosity — will help that student later in life, regardless of what jobs are still available. In 2018, let go of that control we teachers value so much, and let students wander. Create an environment where discovery is possible, and when you observe the flame building into a fire, then step in and help guide it.

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