As a teacher trainer in a charter school which uses a particular pedagogy, I find my Parkinson’s poker face pays off. Below are two YouTube clips which show what I mean. They also reveal how I feel about education and my role as a teacher.
But first some background. My school was set up to train its staff in the pedagogy created by Caleb Gattegno, an Egyptian mathematician. I first learned about him as a Peace Corps Volunteer to South Korea in 1975. The Peace Corps used his approach for second language teaching, called the Silent Way, to train my volunteer group to speak, read and write Korean. In the clips below I am using the same materials and techniques to teach Korean in my Bronx charter school.
You’ll see why the approach is called the Silent Way: I don’t speak a word of Korean, and very little English. Furthermore, I am mostly impassive. No energetic smiles, no histrionic looks of surprise, no glee-filled compliments like “Good job, students!” or “Excellent work, kids!” And I don’t model anything in the new language. It’s all part of Gattegno’s proposal to subordinate teaching to learning.
Instead of talking and “teaching” something, I direct the students’ attention to precise issues for them to investigate and sort out for themselves. I let them develop their own criteria for what’s correct. I try to keep my face expressionless, so they focus on the task at hand and on their own independent judgment.
Now for the videos.
In the first one, I’m teaching Korean numeration to three adult interns and three 2nd Grade students. (This is part of our interns’ training, to learn something alongside our students. We videotape the sessions to analyze later.) It was an hour-long lesson, and in this segment we are working on the extra aspiration you need to pronounce the number 8 (“pahl,” with lots of air on the initial consonant). In this case, the students have to say it twice because we are working on the number 88 (“pahl-ship-pahl”). The camera stays mostly on the learners, where the learning takes place. But the few times you see me, you’ll notice I’m predominantly poker faced. Thank you, Parkinson’s disease! I’ve been trying to master this technique for years!
Why am I glad about this? It creates space for the learners. Just look at what’s up with them in these videos. They fill the empty space with relaxed but on-target outbursts. I could watch this clip for hours just to observe all the spontaneous things the students do. For example, at the 2 min 20 sec mark, both girls take their pointers and tap on the Korean words as they speak. It’s their decision to do this. And a few seconds later, the boy off-screen surmises, “It’s like you’re blowing.” I believe my expressionless face helps create an ambience for this kind of independent, self-sponsored exploration. I reveal neither approval nor disapproval.
The second video shows me working with an entire 2nd Grade class. The kids are learning new vocabulary by decoding the Korean alphabet. In this clip, they work on the word for “child,” a two-syllable word which sounds like “ah…ee.” Again, I believe my lack of facial expression serves us well. The kids make mistakes but as a group correct themselves. As the interns watching at the back of the room later noted, the children remain energetic and focused as they independently build up their criteria for how Korean works. They also appear relaxed and confident learning something that is really quite foreign and bizarre: written and spoken Korean. It would be distracting if I made a lot of facial expressions or otherwise exerted my personality.
The interns that I’m training, as well as other staff members, keep commenting on my lack of facial expression and the effect it has on the learners. (And yes, everyone – even the students – knows I have Parkinson’s disease.) In her written reflection about these two Korean lessons, an intern wrote:
- One major question I asked myself throughout the lessons was: Why are kids so enthusiastic when the teacher is silent and doesn’t create energy or praise? What motivates them? … All Bruce did during the lessons was point. He didn’t say a word or verbalize questions. He was radio silent. Somehow, his silence prompted kids to figure out things on their own and master the material. … I believe that this method allows kids to spend their ogdens [= learn new items] economically and keep them forever. The knowledge is forever retained when they learn things independently.
So thank you for the professional boost, Mr. Parkinson! I’m pleased as punch that my poker face produces powerful performance in my pupils!
And now I’ll stop pontificating! I’m positive my pronouncements sound pathetically pompous!
Here’s a third clip, in case you’re interested. The three 2nd Graders didn’t want the numeration lesson to end, so we played a dictation game. Once again it’s mostly the learners’ show, with my Korean co-teacher and me rather expressionless and silent.