One of the things I do to further my teaching practice is to act like a student. When I’m getting ready to teach a unit, I will do a fair bit of investigation and research on the topic, I’ll read articles (and other people’s lesson plan ideas) and I’ll try to get at least a working outline of how I’m going to approach the material over the course of however many class periods I’ve set aside for the job.
One of the things I’ve never been overly confident about, either as a student or a teacher, is the area of debate and persuasion. While I really do think of myself as a pretty fair critical thinker, I have a rather lower opinion of myself as a persuader, especially in person. I’m what I call a “ten minute delay” person; I’ll think of a great response ten minutes after it’s relevant, usually in the car on the way home. Gah! In addition to that, I don’t find that logical connections come easily to me; I really need time to get smoothly from point A to point B. If I’m talking off the cuff, I’ll fall into logical pitfalls as sure as I’m standing there.
To try to get a better handle on this whole debate and presuasion thing, I started reading about the art of argument about a month ago. Thank You for Arguing is on my bedside table, I’ve got lists and definitions of logical fallacies at my desk, and I ordered (and received) a concise little Rulebook for Arguments from Amazon.
After spending some time working on getting a better understanding of the mechanisms of argument (and lightening up about the “rules”), I’m finding that I’m looking at the dynamics of my family in new and very interesting ways.
Case in point; Punkin’ Pie, my beloved elder daughter, is having a bit of a time in school. Truth be told, she’s always had a bit of a time in school; typical of many young people, my daughter is far more interested in friends, t.v., and, well, pretty much anything but school, really.
Several weeks ago, Punk came home with the year’s first progress report. Her numbers weren’t good (even worse if one considers that her parents place an especially high value on academic achievement). We took beloved daughter aside and asked her what needed to be done to bring her low grades up to a level that would get her parents off of her proverbial back. She told us that she needed to focus more on organization; that she was doing the work, but she often lost it between completing it and handing it in. We reiterated how quickly zeros killed averages, and the child assured us that she had a handle on her problem.
The report card came yesterday. Punkin’s English grade is, well, let’s just say that Mom (and Dad, too, of course, but mostly Mom) found this grade to be entirely unacceptable.
I had to leave for my Local U. class, so I decided to not press her too hard about this issue right before I had to head out; it seemed unfair of me to start something I was likely unable to finish. Dad had no problem getting into it with her, though, so I had first-row seats to a pretty engaging discussion.
What I was able to observe from my semi-detached perspective in the few minutes before I left for work were gorgeous examples of what I now recognize as the appeal to popularity and the straw-man proposal. EVERYONE hates the English teacher, my daughter claimed, and EVERYONE else is failing; thereby, she hoped, making it acceptable that she is getting a C- which isn’t, in point of fact, a failing grade. The teacher is terrible; her policies are confusing and inconsistent, so it isn’t Punkin’s fault that she’s not turning work in on time; if the teacher were more predictable and consistent, everything would be different.
I took my observations to Local U. with me and started to talk about the difference between “arguing” and “fighting.” I asked the kids to give me the qualities and characteristics of each, and they came up with a lot of great stuff. Observe:
When we were running out of steam, I wrote “Goals” on the board. One young man (he’s the one who took the picture, by the way, and I adore him on general principle), was looking carefully at the board. “Oh, wait!” he said, “I totally get it now! When you’re fighting, your goal is power. You want the other side to do what you tell them to do because you’re stronger than they are in some way – they don’t have to like it, they just have to do it. In an argument, you’re trying for agreement; you want the other side to want to do what you want them to do!”
I still don’t know that I have this whole logical argument thing under my full and complete control (in fact, I think it’s safe to say that I don’t). I do, however, have a much stronger grasp of the concepts of argument and persuasion than I did before I started doing all this reading (and before I had a teenager. Would that I could teach her the nuances of argument; I could do with a lot less fighting in my household. Sigh). I do love, though, that I can take experiences from my personal life to strenthen my professional life – and vice-versa.