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Fill that vacuum -- team teach with an expert

One trouble with pedagogical innovations is that once they have lost their popularity, teachers have a tendency to dismiss everything associated with that particular fashion. As teachers, we, unfortunately, have a tendency to throw out the educational "baby" with the bath water.

"Team teaching," for example, is one of those innovations that caught hold in the '60s and early '70s, but is rarely used today except at the college level. Without intense teacher motivation, the average high school rarely has the staff flexibility, expertise, or incentive to really make such course-sharing effective.

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Many of the benefits of team teaching, however, can be reaped simply by inviting another teacher in at an opportune time. In my last two years of teaching high school English, I invited as many as 20 different teachers to my classroom. Not only did I pick up the cognitive nuts-and-bolts of a lecture, but I always picked up good teaching tips as well.

Every teacher has strengths . . . weaknesses, too, perhaps, but whenever I had a teacher in, that teacher knew he was far more "on stage" than if he had been in his own classroom. These invited teachers made special efforts in their preparation, and as they discussed their material, it was their strengths that came through.

Last year, when I began teaching "Anna Karenina" to an accelerated group of seniors, I wanted the scope of Tolstoy's masterpiece to come across -- both the love story and the social setting. Tolstoy's own point of view was ambivalent. As a member of the landholding aristocracy, he shared certain sentiments with his conservative peers. But as one of the new breed of Russia's political liberals, he sympathized with the peasants.

When I first started teaching the novel, I felt that the important historical background information I was trying to convey was being received by my students as so much digressive polemics. They were just interested in the adulterous love story; they were therefore largely oblivious to the fact that the political and social climate defined the parameters of the love story itself.

From our social studies department I called on the school's Russia expert. Once he met my students, there was no moralizing. Rather a slide show. He showed Russian paintings of the last century which did, however, have a social message. One was a religious pilgrimage, headed by richly attired, corpulent church officials -- flanked by destitute peasants. Another showed a wedding of a very old and very wealthy landholder being wedded to a very young, and apparently not altogether willing child-bride.

To these students, it was explained that Tolstoy himself did not have to preach about such things because his readership well understood. Now, my young readers understood as well.

In Philip Roth's "Good-bye Columbus," there is a poignant scene in which the protagonist of the story, a librarian, is counseling a young black boy who has become enamored with the reproduced works of Gauguin.

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In a way, I felt that this could have been a leitmotif for the entire novel, in that Gaugin himself represented a kind of full-blooded, noncompromising idealism that appealed to the impoverishment in both lives -- in both the boy's and in Roth's protagonist.

At the same time, I suspected that Roth's original audience may have been more sophisticated and knowledgeable than my high school students. With the exception of a couple of girls who had had art history courses, none of them had ever heard of Gaugin. It was at that point I invited the head of the school's art department to my classroom, where he spent the entire period with a carousel full of colored slides, which was accompanied by a brilliant commentary on Paul Gauguin's happy, tragic, but eminently successful career, the most eventful years of which were spent in Tahiti, eschewing some of the more frivolous and "social" aspects.

As it turned out, this particular class -- taught by the art teacher -- was one of the best I ever had. As its readers well remember, "Good-bye, Columbus" has a milieu which can be characterized as shallow, meretricious, and banal. Many of my students came from similar backgrounds.

Gauguin symbolized the antithesis of this. However, if I had taken the time myself to explicate the significance of Gauguin, it would not have seemed nearly as significant. Moreover, it would have seemed like preaching.Besides, I did not have the art teacher's knowledge or enthusiasm for Gauguin; nor, for that matter, did I have the slides.

Clearly, novelists do not write in a vacuum. Their references and allusions are often drawn from all the disciplines: art, music, history, foreign languages , science, other literature. Even math and physics . . . more than one famous literary work has referred to the ubiquity of "E equals mc ." And since works are not written in a vacuum, does it really make much sense to teach in one?