Teaching is the most misunderstood profession in America today. Too many people—politicians, parents, school administrators, even teachers themselves—seem to be under the impression that education means meeting or exceeding "standards" set by state authorities and "testing": if students can prove without the help of others, while isolated in silent focus at their desks, that they know what the gurus want them to know, the way they want them to know it, they’re home free. Teachers are considered either miracle-workers who put sight into blind eyes or dilettantes who have failed to find a real job. In Woody Allen’s memorable phrase, "those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym."
None of this has much to do with what actually goes on, and should go on, in classrooms. Helaine Smith’s marvelous book Teaching Particulars presents conversations about literature she has had with students from grades six through twelve during her long teaching career at Hunter College High School and The Brearley School in Manhattan. These are conversations in which students are working at full song, speaking naturally and intelligently about literature. The full cast of characters from any classroom is on display throughout these conversations: the textually faithful student who rarely speaks except to draw out a rare insight into the language of the text; the "endings expert," who notices a poet’s repeated use of "-ing"; the off-the-cuff speaker who takes risks and drives the class forward. Teachers will also recognize Smith’s frustrations admitted but unfussed about: her students’ prolonged hesitation to use the Oxford English Dictionary, for instance. But this book is not only for teachers; parents of young children who are close to school age and all readers of good will interested in seeing a master practice her craft will enjoy watching Smith work.
Smith gives us a window into the classroom of a master teacher. She does not discuss standards at all. I have no doubt that her students perform well on standardized tests but she is too wise to stake her students’ education on such empty talk. Indeed, Smith’s classroom is simple and runs on one guiding principle: pay attention to the text in front of you.
What results from paying attention to a text—that is, paying attention to the particulars? Smith suggests that students learn "what directions to go in." In learning which directions to take in a conversation, they learn to think. In thinking together, students discover their own capacities. This discovery gives them joy. "What makes teaching and learning a pleasure is a sense of shared discovery." Paying attention to the particulars is essential for teaching students to think. Smith’s notion of the "particulars" is to be distinguished from what is formulaic on the one hand and what is directionless and chaotic on the other. "Good questions at each grade level need to be open-ended, but not directionless. Students are most at ease when they feel held, but by the loosest of ties…."
This may not be palatable to readers who think that Smith is not teaching because she is posing open-ended questions rather than transferring information, or to readers who are angered that, in discussions on literature, Smith is not letting students share their opinions because she is holding them by a string. Both criticisms miss the point that a teacher’s job is essentially guided by practical judgment of how to boil the right stew of immediate reactions and thoughtful reflection. Smith is interested both in what her students think—especially their immediate responses to the text—and in helping them to see there is a depth initially invisible to them. This judgment entails assessing the particular students, their particular concerns, and the particular text.
Furthermore, a teacher begins with the understanding of the text that he or she has. This understanding is developed over time. Smith tells us that "like most teachers, only after I’ve taught something many times do I begin to grasp what is most important about it and to move expeditiously through it." Teachers and students are engaged in the same activity. The teacher learns to move through a text by paying attention to what is in front of him. Knowing how to move in an unknown world is real proof of having learned. This habit of thought, of meeting something alien without losing one’s bearings, is the demonstration of an educated person.
Smith’s notion of learning is an adventurous one. Conversations about literature are like walks in the forest: the further one goes, the more one sees. Smith’s students are lucky to be in her classroom and not isolated at desks taking tests. This is how students really learn.