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October 27, 2018

How to teach on two levels


When I first started teaching, I made the mistake of assuming that everyone in the class was exactly the same. That is, they all knew the same amount of stuff, they all had the same interest in the material, and so on. I immediately found out that wasn't true, and quickly learned how to teach on two levels.

I'm old enough to remember when classes were actually divided up like that, and even secret names like "giraffes" and "zebras" were painfully obvious. When I started teaching in the '90s, of course, that wasn't done, but there were still giraffes and zebras, and I wanted to accommodate both of them.

I actually stumbled on it by accident, in the drawing classes, which were designed so that the students could draw. That the students didn't just watch me draw, although of course I did demonstrations, but the students themselves were expected to draw, and were given a generous amount of time to do it, with a teacher who could spend time with everyone. The classes were about three hours long, which wasn't nearly long enough for the giraffes, but the zebras were just being tortured, with nothing to do. So I showed movies.

I had originally tried to play music, just so that the class wouldn't be so silent, but that created arguments, so I decided on movies that had the minimum amount of talking and the maximum amount of music. I showed Fantasia more times than I can count, and also 2001: A Space Odyssey countless times. And it was wonderful. The students who wanted to spend the time in a drawing class doing drawing were not distracted by the movie, and the students who just were waiting for the class to be over were entertained, and didn't bother the other students. And I would often see someone who had been a "zebra" suddenly realized that they were in there not to watch a movie, and they would become a "giraffe". You can't force these things, but they do happen. And it wasn't as if I was just sitting there watching the movie, I would walk around and help students, give encouragement, make suggestions. The movie was just background music, which was pleasant. The two levels were satisfied.

I still use that technique, because I know that not everyone is a giraffe. When I write a post like this, I include a cartoon, which for some people is enough. The zebras tend to be people who have had their arms twisted a lot, and are inclined to think that someone is trying to "shove something down their throat". And that's no way to be a teacher. To this day, I refuse to be an arm-twister, and instead I show what I think is cool, and encourage people to learn more. I remember people who did that for me in my life, and that's the kind of teacher that I wanted to grow up to be.

If you read this far, you're a giraffe. The zebras looked at the cartoon and moved on. Don't worry about them, if they want to catch up with you, they will. Twisting their arms won't help.

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