Monday, February 19, 2007

Metaphors for teaching

By Betty Azar, Freeland, WA, USA

There's been an interesting thread on metaphors for teaching. From my teaching days, I can relate to all of them! They made me think of the metaphors I use as a materials writer. When someone, say at a cocktail party, should happen to ask me what I do, I tell them that I write grammar-based textbooks for adult students of English as a second or foreign language. Well, if that doesn't stop the conversation dead in its tracks and, lo, I catch a glimmer of interest, I often go on to compare my job to that of a carpenter. I say that I start with an empty lot and a pile of lumber and hardware -- and then I have to put it all together. I shape every piece of wood myself and pound in every nail, fitting everything together exactly where and how it should be. I know every square inch of that house inside and out. And it's a long, complicated, and deliberate as well as deliberative process. And in the end, I have created a solid and well-designed structure that will stand, I hope, the test of time.

If I still haven't lost my audience, I might go on to explain that not only am I the carpenter, but I'm the architect and the contractor. As the architect, I have to know design and theory. I have know what the final product will look like before I start. I have to know the materials I work with and the specs for making them hold together. As the contractor, I'm like any small businessperson -- I need a knowledge of legal and financial issues in the publishing business and need negotiating skills. I also need to know when and to whom to subcontract when I don't have the necessary skills to accomplish something (for example, art).

Another, albeit shorter, metaphor I sometimes use is to say I create a mosaic, a wonderful, beautiful, intricate, interlocking mosaic -- making thousands of small decisions along the way, but always knowing the final design I'm aiming for. To me, that metaphor expresses the joy of doing creative work -- which writing a textbook is -- and for me, especially a grammar-based text, because grammar is in and of itself a beautiful mosaic.

And the last metaphor I use, depending on the audience, is that writing textbooks for a living is like being a perpetual graduate student with term papers perpetually hanging over your head, endlessly, weekends, evenings, holidays, middle of the night -- no matter. You never lose that feeling in the pit of your stomach of having a term paper due and that you're behind schedule.

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