Saturday, October 31, 2009

Multiple Approaches to Teaching

There is more than one way to skin a cat. I will accept that truism, even though I have only seen one cat skinned by my teenager neighbor Dickie when I was about seven. It was a gruesome sight, the way he opened up and examined that road-kill kitty, but the experience was educational for all the neighborhood kids. I never saw another cat skinned, but that experience sufficed.
When I was working at the college in Hope in the late 1990s, the biology department ordered preserved cats for dissection in the lab. One older student refused to skin a cat because of some kind of odd belief she had about cats. I kind of admired that woman. I didn’t want to see another cat skinned anyway. That one back in the 1940s was sufficient. I still remember the odor, the sounds of the process.
Oh, I had cleaned a lot of fish by the time I saw Dickie skin that cat, but I had never paid much attention to the process. I just knew that our family cats, Buttercup and Sweetpea, liked to clean up after we cleaned fish. They would fight over the heads and intestines with rare aggression. I couldn’t help noticing that the two house cats were nowhere to be found during Dickie’s cat skinning process. I think they knew to respect the remains of their own kind.
Maybe that woman in Hope thought of cats that way. Come to think of it, she was somewhat catlike--the way she moved, the way she talked with a kind of meow at the end of almost every sentence. Was it a laugh, a throat clearing, a sigh or an audible punctuation mark? I don’t know, but she would say things like, “Good morning (mew). How are you this morning (purr). I’ll bet she thought of cats as family members, and that’s why the biology faculty had to find alternate ways to teach this unusual individual about anatomy. I think it was a frog.
Anyway, as I started out, before my tendency to digress broke in: there is more than one way to skin a cat. Teachers know that better than anyone. Because of the diversity of modern day classrooms in terms of ethnicity, economic status, academic preparedness and home environment, teachers have to be multi-taskers in the classroom to get the lesson across. Any teacher will tell you that their “methods” courses in college seemed out of touch with the reality they face when they land their first teaching job.
On-the-job training leads those destined to be great teachers to multiple approaches to instruction. They often teach the same lesson over and over in varying formats, trying to reach as many students as possible. Teachers who do their job as a vocation instead of an avocation tend to skin the cat in only one way. Some of their students get it. Unfortunately, many don’t.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

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