This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. This week’s topic is focus. Please be sure to visit Margaret’s blog to read more Digilit Sunday contributions.
At the ophthalmologist’s office, my chin is perched on a cold metal plate. My eyes are pressed into a mask of metal and glass that must make me look like a steampunk insect. The doctor casually flips lenses back and forth. “Better?” he asks, or “This? Or this?” How do I know with any certainty? My eyes are dilated and stung, blurry and burning with this effort. Then the doctor flips the lens again and, as if by magic, everything is clear.
Sometimes I feel like this when I’m writing. I have some nebulous idea in mind that I circle around for days or even longer before I have a clearer vision of what direction or shape a project will take. Other times, an idea appears as suddenly as if a switch was flipped. Who knows why.
The trick is to be ready to catch the idea. I’m fascinated to hear authors and other artists describe how ideas come to them. Francine Prose recently talked about the origin of her new novel, Mister Monkey, on NPR. As I listened, I thought only a true artist could find inspiration in such an awkward and unlikely moment and turn it into a work that moves and enlightens others.
How does this relate to teaching? There are at least two sides to this question. Our primary focus, of course, is our students. But clarifying that focus onto individual students is a much more complicated job.
I wonder, though, if it’s really that different from being at the ophthalmologist’s? We look at students and their work through different lenses. Our first lens is straightforward: we look to see if their work is accurate. Whether it is or isn’t, a second lens will be needed. If the work is correct, we’ll look through a lens of where to go next. If it isn’t, we need our “why not” lens.
As a reading interventionist, this is a lens I look through often. During a phonics dictation last week, a student spelled chase, (as in “The cat will chase the mouse.”) as chaise. Focusing on the why of this spelling and not just the right or wrong of it tells me two things. First of all, this student needs more work with long a spelling patterns. Secondly, and more importantly, he knows what they are, but hasn’t learned that they aren’t usually used at the same time. With this information in hand, I can focus my attention on how to help him master these spelling patterns.
Not only do we have to view the students and their work through the right lens, we need the knowledge to know what we’re looking at, the skill to catch the idea, if you will. Without this knowledge to give our teaching a focus, we may wander around from idea to idea, but never connect them in any meaningful way. We have to articulate a goal, then keep it in focus. We may fall short, or we may have to alter our path along the way. But as long as our focus is clear, and we remain flexible, we are much more likely to succeed.