I recently assigned a teaching story to a second year class of education students. It was one of those vexing Zen stories whose meaning keeps slipping through your fingers like a live eel. It was about a young monk who loved to tend his temple garden.
One day he took special care to manicure his garden impeccably for some special guests expected later that day. An old master from the neighboring temple watched him intently. When the young monk was sitting back to admire his finished work, the old priest told him the garden was missing something and offered to set it right for him. The young man, with some hesitation and much curiosity, helped him over the fence. The old man proceeded straight to the great tree at the center of the garden and shook it vigorously, sending leaves raining down over everything. “There, that’s better,” he said finally. The young monk stood there helplessly, his mouth gaping.
My students drew many lessons from this story. Some thought it was about the difference in the beauty made by man and that created by nature. Others thought it was about the folly of making an effort only for special occasions. Each student projected her own values and experiences onto the story to give it meaning. So did I.
I thought of the times in my teaching career where my garden seemed all clean and tidy. At one time, for example, I was convinced that the best path to oral fluency was oral practice. It seemed to make sense. After all, oral expression is a physical act and, as such, it is subject to the law of specificity. If the best training for a swimmer is swimming then surely the best training for a speaker is speaking. I taught speaking through oral practice and I taught with confidence.
Then I conducted research to assess oral fluency in several elementary school English classes that were taught using my speaking centered approach. Among these classes, one had received an extra session of listening input instead of speaking practice because I got a lesson plan mixed up. It became an accidental experiment, comparing oral practice to listening input in developing speaking ability. Unexpectedly, the listeners turned out to be better speakers than those who received more oral practice. Leaves everywhere, and the old man disappeared over the fence.
Needless to say I became a disciple of input. Soon, teaching was easy as before and I was so self-assured, until the old man showed up and shook my tree, again. I’ve gotten used to that old man. I look forward to his visits now—for those times, when I’m standing in a pile of leaves, my mouth gaping, is when I grow.
I still try to keep a neat garden but I think I spend more time watching it and less time working it, knowing the garden changes and I change with it.
Teaching, learning and growing are not processes plural; they are one process, a social process. In our teaching community, we learn from our colleagues and from our experience with students; we teach each other our discoveries and difficulties, and we grow through the feedback and support of our peers.
So, I invite you to join the process of teaching, learning, and growing at JALT2011 Submit your proposal by April 29 and take advantage of this opportunity to communicate your experience, share your findings, and be part of one of the largest language teacher conferences in Asia. Remember we are open to a variety of formats—from poster sessions to workshops to formal presentations. For more information see the Call for Presentations.
Stan Pederson JALT2011 Conference Chair