First Day of Class–Awe, Wonder, and Community; and Two Certainties About Education

I probably started teaching with dozens if not scores or hundreds of beliefs about education.  32 years into secondary education and I have just two bedrock beliefs left: 1) Intelligence is NOT fixed; and 2) teaching transference of skills is possible.  I’m willing to go to almost any lengths to render these beliefs incarnate.  Virtually none of my students come to my classes believing either of these (and you may not believe it either)–all of them will believe it–and demonstrate it–by spring time. We’ll spend the next 9 months improving our intelligence. But right now they BELIEVE that intelligence is something you either have or don’t and that comes to you in fixed quantities. I suspect that this attitude is the product of being forced to take standardized tests endlessly (you are compared by percentages to others constantly), hearing about IQ tests, and being subjected to teachers who believed some kids were smart and some not–and showed that to students in some way.  It’s tough to fight against this.

On the first day of class I tell my students (juniors in high school) my name and have them check their schedules to make sure that they are in the right place.  There are some administrative things to accomplish–course policies. I have only three classroom rules: 1) you cannot put your head down on the desk because, I explain, even though you might be paying attention, I cannot tell and would not want to misread you, 2) we respect each other and you should give each speaker your attention, and 3) do not ask me to go to the bathroom–if you have to go [juniors in high school!]–then go (quietly let yourself out and back in).  I tell them if situations come up that we need a rule  for then we’ll make a rule–it rarely happens. And then the real fun can begin.

I also make my students do a brief inventory, redacted below:

  1. My favorite/the best movies I’ve seen are XXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXX; I think this because…
  2. My favorite musician(s)/songs are XXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXX .  I like them because…
  3. The best book(s) I’ve read or The favorite book(s) of mine is/are XXXXXXXXXXX.  It’s the best or It’s my favorite because…
  4. This summer I read XXXXXX and I thought XXXXXXX
  5. At DeMatha, I participate in …
  6. I don’t participate in XXXX but it looks interesting
  7. Intelligence means…
  8. I learn best when I…

I rarely find an intriguing choice of movie, song or book–but I love watching the reasoning.  Part of the goal in introducing movies and music (before books) is to convince them that ALL THE WORLD’S A TEXT.  Next challenge, convince them that reading with me will make them better “readers” and thinkers, smarter and more intelligent.  After I collected these I asked two varsity quarterbacks if they “read any defenses” this summer.  They said they did but did not list that among the things they read; and, we had a fascinating discussion about what counts as a text and what needs to be “read.” But my favorite part is when they define “intelligence” (I have appended their definitions below).  I’ll teach numerous stories–especially in the first part of the year–that give us a chance to redefine and evaluate intelligence and to test our own reading.  I call your attention, as you read the following, to how many students believe that intelligence has a moral dimension–and how many don’t; to how many believe that intelligence has a practical dimension (do something with it) and how many don’t; to how many believe “speed,” “memory,” or “capacity” are important.  Note the occasional tautologies which I think are working to something deeper that the student doesn’t quite have the vocabulary to express. Hang with the blog long enough and I’ll define intelligence, too.  Though I suspect most readers of the blog could do a fair job of deducing what I think about intelligence.

Dr. McMahon’s World Lit Class–Definitions of Intelligence 2012

  • Intelligence means that you can show an expertise or skill at something.
  • Intelligence is the whole [of] ideas produced by a human.
  • Intelligence is knowing a lot of information about all kids of subjects, not just knowing a lot about one thing.
  • Intelligence means the collection of knowledge that someone may have based off of studies and travels and being able to share that knowledge.
  • Intelligence means being mentally adequate to complete different tasks.
  • Intelligence is the act of taking a situation and analyzing what has happened, in order to respond in a certain way.
  • Intelligence is what you know after you apply yourself and learn information.
  • Intelligence means displaying a sense of logic (i.e. knowing right from wrong) and being good at certain academics.
  • Intelligence is understanding of learning and remembering the material given
  • Intelligence is the measurement of someone’s ability to understand and comprehend the world around them.
  • Intelligence is something you gain based on experiences and something you gain throughout your life.  Has to do with knowledge and the way you think.
  • Intelligence is being smart.
  • Intelligence is being able to use your mind to understand something and be able to learn things quickly.  It is also common sense.
  • Intelligence is being aware of the world around you, and reaching/making decisions that correspond to it.  Intelligence is like smarts.
  • Intelligence is understanding. Humans are intelligent because of their ability to understand.
  • Intelligence is how someone or something can comprehend and understand things to full capacity.
  • Intelligence is how much you know and how much you can learn.
  • Intelligence is something that is used to measure a person’s character
  • Intelligence means doing something smart.
  • Intelligence is the ability to be self-aware, acknowledge your existence and the capacity to learn.
  • Intelligence means knowledge of a certain area or areas which you profess or base your career off of.
  • Intelligence is using reasoning and logic to interpret and understand certain subjects or topics.
  • Intelligence is a level of knowledge that can vary from nothing at all to everything that can be known.  Every animal living falls somewhere in between.
  • Intelligence is how much someone knows
  • Intelligence is being able to understand what is happening in the world around you but may not fully comprehend what is going on [sic]
  • Intelligence is a way of being smart with your decisions and thinking. Intelligence is not only book smart to me, intelligence can also be street smart and smart how you live. Being intelligent is being smart.
  • Intelligence is the knowing of what’s right and what’s wrong. It is common sense that a person has to choose the right thing to do. I’m not saying it is the sense of choosing good or bad, but to make the decision of what is better.
  • Intelligence is the ability to apply what you learn or obtain information and apply it to a situation that is necessary.
  • Intelligence is having knowledge on different things.
  • Intelligence is how smart you are book-wise or streetwise.
  • Intelligence is making wise decisions from your own and other’s understanding.

Next week, an imitation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations! And, a list of summer dreck that I read searching for “a few good ideas”–as befits Pulp Teacher.



Filed under books and learning, definitions, definitions of intelligence, education, inferential skills, opening of school exercise, pedagogy, teaching, theories of reading, Uncategorized, writing exercise

12 responses to “First Day of Class–Awe, Wonder, and Community; and Two Certainties About Education

  1. Laura Pasatiempo

    My husband is an alumni of Damatha and forwards me your Blog. I find it very inspirational as well as informative. The ‘Go as a Pilgrim’ was brilliant. Thanks for posting!
    Laura Pasatiempo

  2. Dan,
    It’s interesting and probably not coincidental that the word “believe” is part of your past two posts. Certainly a necessary attitude at the start of each school year and more significantly, teaching in general. Getting the students to do the same is the challenge. Thanks for the continued inspiration.

  3. Janet Dixon

    We picked DeMatha and every day since his acceptance, our decision has been validated . Your words today are that validation. ,

  4. Lori Ganey

    Since our son’s first year (probably first month! )at DM we have talked endlessly on the merits of DM. About the friendships, the mentors, the sense of community, the opportunities and oh, the education … and people have heard and listened. The most recent being my coworker who lives right next door to Pallotti, she listened and her son is now a freshman at DM. He comes to our office after school each day and i hear the excitement in his voice, and it has only been a week. And i keep telling his Mom, it will last…And how do i know? Because our son is now a senior, and i still hear it and see it! Thank you DM! Best choice not only for our son, but for our family!…….

    • Hi Lori, Thanks for the lovely comment (and for the recruiting!). I’m really fortunate to work with so many terrific teachers and to have so many wonderful students and families. It makes for a great community. I can’t believe it is Jake’s last year; seems like only yesterday he was arriving at freshman orientation….sigh. Dan

  5. Jason Dillon

    I had some great teachers while at DeMatha, I honestly wish that I had been able to have you as one of them Dr. McMahon. I’ve only read a few of your blog postings, but I’m definitely going to be reading them more often because of the depth of insight that they express. I also forward them to my mom cause she loves reading things like this.
    Thanks for 4 great years! I can’t describe how it feels to be an alum yet, but I know I’m very proud to be a Stag forever.

  6. Richard Fry, DM '64

    Hi Dan,
    I must confess that yesterday was the first time I read your blog although I never miss an issue of DM Express. I have recently retired and will be pursuing some other interests including teaching altghough as a pharmacist I consider myself a teacher. Your first day of class inventory yielded some interesting results that tend to confirm that many students do believe that intelligence is somewhat static and synonymous with knowledge. I agree with Laura P that your “God as a Pilgrim” column was brilliant and inspirational. I also took to heart your piece on bad teachers. While I have always strived to provide students and patients a positive learning experience, I know I have frequently been guilty of playing the blame game especially when I observe the poor communication and “people” skills of newly minted pharmacists. Thank you for your words of wisdom and inspiration. I will continue to read your blog. Go Stags!!

    • Hi Rich, Thank you so much for the generous comment. I agree that being a pharmacist–and many other professions as well–should be considered teaching professions. Please feel free to weigh in whenver you have an idea of any sort. I usually post about once a week but occasionally miss a week when the other work here is particularly demanding. All best, Dan

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