Among School Children
Teaching Smart. Schwab’s Four Commonplaces, Zajac’s Focus
Schwab’s Four Commonplaces and Zajac’s Focus
As any knowledgeable teacher can attest to, teaching is not easy. In fact, it can be a grueling, tiresome task at times, if only because there is so much more to a teacher than merely dispensing facts and educating students about history, math, or reading. A teacher is a motivator, a psychologist, a referee, a decision maker, an organizer, and so much more. To this extent, it can be overwhelming, as a new teacher, to determine what aspect of classroom life demands the most attention. Joseph J. Schwab (1973) sheds light on this problem through his theory of four commonplaces, where he states that there are four things an educator must take into account when teaching: the student, the teacher, the milieus, or the environment in which the child learns and grows, and the curriculum. These four aspects of educational thought are all of equal importance, and one must never overshadow the others. However, not all teachers can achieve this balance, causing their teaching style to unconsciously lean towards one commonplace. This disproportion is reflected in Tracy Kidder’s nonfiction work, Among Schoolchildren, in which he chronicles a year in the life of Chris Zajac, a fifth-grade teacher, and her rambunctious class. Mrs. Zajac is an extremely talented, effective teacher and a model of inspiration for aspiring educators; however, she displays a tendency to favor her students over the other three commonplaces. Mrs. Zajac’s teaching style is greatly enhanced by her unbridled love for her students, yet the question remains: does this passion for children blind her to the other aspects essential for teaching?
Schwab’s theory of the four commonplaces does not suggest that each commonplace should be taken individually; rather, “coordination, not superordination-subordination is the proper relation of these four commonplaces” (1973, p. 509). The teacher, student, milieu, and curriculum all intertwine, and none of them should be ignored. When defining these commonplaces, Schwab identifies the milieus that are relevant to teaching as “the school and classroom in which the learning and teaching are supposed to occur […] the family, the community, the particular groupings of religious, class, or ethnic genus” (1973, p. 503). Each of these environments is essential in understanding the students that are to be taught, their attitudes about education, the influence that their parents have on them, how they relate to their peers and to the teacher, and, ultimately, the person that they can become if only they are properly cultivated. The teacher is equally important, as she “will most often serve in the role of umpire and serve more extensively as the more mature member of the learning community” (Schwab, 1973, p. 509). She becomes a role in teaching herself, not just the one who teaches the children, but only one part of the larger whole of the educational process. Likewise, curriculum and the subject matter taught is a necessary component of educational thought. It is “the source from which and by which selection is made of the provocative objects and events which serve as catalysts of curricular activity” (Schwab, 1973, p. 509). Without a curriculum to be taught, teaching simply cannot exist. But despite its extreme importance, the teacher must be aware that it should not be placed over the other commonplaces because it alone is not all-encompassing; it coexists with the teacher, the students, and the milieus which surround them. Schwab’s final commonplace is that of the learner and the student. Schwab explains that teaching “must include general knowledge of the age group under consideration: what it already knows, what it is ready to learn, what will come easy, what will be difficult” (1973, p. 502) and much more. The students are a central, indispensible part of teaching and learning, and a good teacher knows her students strengths, weaknesses, and limits and works together with them to help them learn and grow. Without this love and dedication to her students and a desire to help them reach their full potential, a teacher cannot succeed.
Mrs. Zajac focuses her attention primarily on this aspect of the student, embodying a child-centered philosophy of education. Everything she does is done with the good of her children in mind. Even when thinking about her curriculum and assigning tasks in the classroom, the well-being of her students is first and foremost. When dividing the children into pairs to practice their spelling, “Chris paired up good spellers with poor ones. She also made spelling an exercise in socialization, by putting together children who did not seem predisposed to like each other” (Kidder, 1989, p. 29). She works hard to establish harmony in her classroom and brings together two radically different students in the hopes of helping them overcome their differences, showing them that they aren’t as unalike as they think they are, and establishing bonds of support. She intuitively senses the mood of her class and on long, exhausting days where the kids are sleepy and unmotivated, she takes their disposition and adapts to it, playing up her comical side and rejuvenating them: “There was a lot more light in the room now. It came from smiles” (Kidder, 1989, p. 43). Her enthusiasm and dedication, coupled with her focus on the commonplace of the student, contributes to her success as an engaging teacher. Schwab also states that this commonplace “should include intimate knowledge of the children under consideration – knowledge achieved by direct involvement with them” (1973, p. 502). Chris perfectly exemplifies this, as she develops close, intimate bonds with each of her students. After a long day at school, she settles into her dining hall and begins correcting papers, taking the time to reflect on each student individually. She doesn’t simply scan the tests, look for the right answers, count the number of wrong answers, and scribble down a grade in red, branding ink; rather, she uses the opportunity to pay attention to each and every one of her students, taking into consideration the knowledge she’s garnered from personal experiences in her classroom where she gets to know each individual. In her dining room, “one by one, her class would file into this quiet, orderly room. Here, many problems seemed manageable, or at least she could imagine that she had time to work on every child’s problems” (Kidder, 1989, p. 72). Mrs. Zajac observes her children, taking note of their strengths and weaknesses and always doing her best to help them improve. Her faith in them, even in the troublesome ones like Claude and Robert, is unshakeable. Through her involvement with her students and the close bonds she forms with them, she learns about what is right for each individual, and she knows that taking Juanita or Clarence away from the class is the worst thing that could be done to them. Unfortunately, Chris herself learns that there are uncontrollable circumstances in life and, no matter how hard she works or how strong her focus is, she cannot fix everything. “But,” she reflects, “It wasn’t for lack of trying. She hadn’t given up. She had run out of time” (Kidder, 1989, p. 331).
However, there are drawbacks to her child-centered approach to teaching. By placing the majority of focus on the student, Mrs. Zajac unintentionally neglects the other commonplaces, which results in Robert’s downfall. After several frustrating encounters, Chris places Robert into a predefined role, thinking that she has figured him out and leaving it at that. She assumes, “Robert wanted her to yell at him. He wanted her attention” (Kidder, 1989, p. 214). Yet, this perception blinds her to the truth behind Robert’s behavior, and she lets her general knowledge of troublemaking students like him overshadow the lost little boy seeking help that he is on the inside. She ignores the role that Robert’s home environment, or milieu, plays and doesn’t catch on to the hints that he drops about his broken family that affect him so deeply. When she realizes her mistake, Mrs. Zajac feels her heart sink and she berates herself:
“How many times had something like this happened to him in his life already? Was this the reason Robert behaved as he did? Is self-inflicted pain better than sadness and despair? […] He had no one at home to help him make an electric light. That was why he’d said he didn’t want to do a project. He wasn’t just being perverse. ‘How stupid I am!’ she thought” (Kidder, 1989, p. 283).
She also falls prey to the same error of overlooking Schwab’s (1973) milieu commonplace with Blanca, who is unfortunately whisked away before she can correct her mistake: “She remembered Blanca’s frightened eyes, and reproached herself: That girl was probably a victim of sexual abuse, Chris decided. She hadn’t done enough, she thought” (Kidder, 1989, p. 312). Mrs. Zajac initially dismissed her as a quiet, easily-frightened girl whom she needed to “get into” (Kidder, 1989, p. 78) at some point in the future, failing to notice the warning signs until it was too late.
Chris Zajac’s love for her students gives her great insight and guides her teaching spectacularly. Of Schwab’s four commonplaces, her teaching style clearly focuses prominently on the student, which enables her to identify with the children and create a well-rounded, rich learning experience for them. However, she, like all teachers, must be careful to keep this passion from blocking out other, equally important aspects essential to teaching. There is more to teaching than simply loving children; as Schwab asserts, one must strike a balance between the four commonplaces of the student, the teacher, the curriculum, and the milieus of both the classroom and the home. Only after equalizing these four aspects can a teacher truly excel.
Among School Children by W.b. Yeats. Poetry Analysis
Among School Children explores the reflection of life and mortality, as famous Irish author Yeats confronts the mistakes of his past. In Among School Children, Yeats explores the motivations and values of humanity through the speaker’s confrontation of his own mortality supported by allusion, structure and diction.
The work begins with the speaker being forced to confront his own age and mortality when among school children. He stands as a “sixty year old smiling public man” (8). Forced to confront his own age, he reflects on and assesses his life as he is no longer one of the school children.
In the second stanza he alludes to the tale of Leda, a beautiful woman and mother of Helen. The poet interprets the Greek myth as Zeus raping or seducing Leda in the form of a swan, and Leda later giving birth to Helen of troy. An unnamed woman, and her ledaean beauty, stands in as one of his regrets, he alludes to Plato’s parable, the concept of two halves of a whole being separated at birth, growing apart but wanting to find each other. This is likely a reference to his love, Maud Gone, who he attempted a relationship with and proposed to many times over the course of their friendship. This allusion to the unnamed woman continues into the third stanza when he muses about the beauty of youth, comparing her to the daughter of the swan, Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman on earth. The diction surrounding the unnamed woman shifts upon the confrontation of age once again. His words once describing her as daughter of the swan, and using phrases like “and had that color upon cheek or hair, and thereupon my heart is driven wild she stands before me as living child” he is forced to confront the deterioration of beauty with age as he recalls her current appearance. His own ageing as addressed and dismissed with the phrase “had pretty plumage once-enough of that”(30). This dismissal illustrates the speaker’s struggles with ageing and loss of his own youth and his difficulty accepting that. This is a major theme of Yeats later poetry as he struggles deeply with his age and regrets during his time in the Black Tower.
In the fifth stanza the speaker refers to his age once again. The confrontation of age continues as he muses about what a mother would think of her son “with sixty or more winters on his head”. The use of winters rather than years creates a tone of age and weariness rather than youth and vigor. In the sixth stanza it alludes to multiple well known figures, Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras. Rather than celebrating their achievements his word choice underrates them with phrases such as “a ghostly paradigm of things and bottom of the king of kings” (42-44). He instead chooses to emphasize that these are all men too with the line “old clothes upon old sticks” (48), men who are mortal as well and age. The diction and allusions throughout the poem illustrate the speakers struggle with his own age and mortality as he reflects on his life and attempts to evaluate the worth of a life. The dismissal of accomplishments and focus on the aging process reveals that with age comes the loss of accomplishments and the focus on failures and mortality.
The poems structure also supports the speaker’s difficulty with impermanence. The poem is structured in eight octets, each octet is able to explore the frailty and loss of a different element from beauty, love, faith, youth and innocence and conclude with a reflection on the worth of life. The allusions to outside figures, diction surrounding them and the structure of the poem enhances the speaker’s confrontation with age and mortality. It is through this confrontation the ideas of love, art, success and youth are explored and reflected upon as well as the value of a human life.
Among School Children by William Butler Yeats: Synthesis of Thematic Binaries
Analytical/Research Paper: “Among School Children”
Written in 1926 following a visit to a convent school Waterford, Ireland, “Among School Children” by William Butler Yeats, is a multilayered poem–a meditation by an aging man on life, love, and creativity. Didactic in certain areas, this poem possesses an overarching transcendence as Yeats considers universal themes such as human frailty, the inevitability of death, and moral implications from which no human person is exempt. In so doing, Yeats writes his poem in the form of an ottava rima, in which the whole work is written in eight lines and eight stanzas in regular rhythm and rhyme scheme. Usually this poem structure is employed for epics, but for Yeats, this poem is epic–an epic reflection on his attempt to consolidate the binary oppositions between such themes of life and death, youth and old age, beauty and suffering, and the past and the present. Through this analysis, we will consider each stanzas’ composition of points of view, analogies/metaphors, and symbolism by which he goes about synthesizing these thematic binaries.
The poem begins with a “sixty-year old smiling public man” (8), strolling through the classroom in Waterford, Ireland, a convent school that focused on interactive learning and the principles of free expressions where children learn by discovery rather than instruction (Saint Ignatius College of English). Hence, this classroom is perhaps more of a metaphor for the “schoolroom of life,” where real lessons come from life, not the lecture hall.
Yeats progresses to his second stanza where his thoughts stray to “a Ledaean body” (9), a Greek mythological illusion, which is perhaps an ambiguous reference to his unrequited lover, Maude Gonne, who he met at only 23 years old and to whom he proposed five times and who ended up marrying someone else. Yeats refers to that first fateful meeting as the day the troubling of his life began (Macmillan). His lost lover was something that deeply affected him for virtually the rest of his life, and this brokenness is manifested as the rhythm in the second stanza becomes fractured by enjambment.
In line seventeen, Yeats mentions “Plato’s parable,” which is concerned with the genesis, nature, and purpose of love. Plato explores this theory that God created man and woman by splitting an egg-like shape into two halves, sending man and woman into a constant search for their other halves for their whole lives. This Platonic concept of love is possibly how Yeats saw and desired the relationship between himself and Gonne to be, “the yoke and white of the one shell” (18).
The fifth stanza changes course by digressing from an aging man to the perspective of his own mother, who had him at the young age of 24. He uses this stanza to ponder the possibilities of what his mother would think of him now at this point in his life. That is, if his achievements thus far have been significant compensation for the pains of childbirth. “What youthful mother…/Would think of her son, did she but see that shape/…A compensation for the pang of his birth…/” (40, 44-46). At the end of the stanza, he leaves his question unanswered, and instead employs a metaphor of “sixty or more winters” (45), a desolate image of life being a concept of struggle and sacrifice.
Still searching for some answers, Yeats progresses onward to hone in on major philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras, who all had their own views on the essence and value of education–Plato as the idealist, Aristotle as the realist who tutored the legendary Alexander the Great, and Pythagoras as the mathematician and astronomer. Yeats comments on the reality that despite all of these great men from history who possessed a profound level of education, could not escape their own mortality. “They too are old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird” (53) as Yeats himself is, too.
The final stanza has many layers to it. It is in this last moment that Yeats makes his finals remarks, but this time recalibrates his thoughts to discuss his search for reconciliation and acceptance. He mentions in the beginning of the poem that he is intrigued by the great paradoxes of life. To Yeats, paradoxes are powerful tools in both life and literature because it is only when we set these paradoxes parallel to each other, that we realize the connection and the value of that connection between them. It is also here that Yeats finally reaches this reconciliation of opposites and this unity of being in the last lines of the piece. This is not to say that Yeats gives us any answers throughout the poem. Rather, the eight stanzas serve the purpose of raising even more questions. For instance, at the very end, Yeats crafts two potent metaphors we should all consider the value that being aware of the connection between things presents.
The first is the image of the chestnut tree that is composed of many parts, equalling the whole: the roots, the leaves, the blossoms, and the bole. Without any one of these parts, the chestnut tree would not be the chestnut tree standing before us.
Yeats then moves on the evocative and sensual image of dancing. Dancing is his metaphor for the unity between body and spirit, creator and creation, and art and the artist. In all, life is not about answering questions, but instead, it is about seeking answers. He proves this by presenting his own rhetorical questions, showing that one needs to ask the questions to blossom and thrive. For Yeats, to separate the blossom from the leaves is to deny and ultimately dismantle the unity of being.
Most of the Yeats’ early poetry in the 1890s used symbols from ordinary life from familiar traditions, especially those find in his Irish subjects. Moreover, it was also during this time period that he became quite interested in different poetic techniques. In 1890 he and English poet, Lionel Johnson, formed the Rhymer’s Club, a group of London poets who met to read and discuss their poems. The Rhymers placed a high value on craftsmanship and preferred “sophisticated aestheticism to nationalism” (Poetry Foundation). Yeats remained adamant to the Rhymer’s tenet that a poet should labor at “at rhythm and cadence, at form and style” (Poetry Foundation). For this reason, it can confirmed that “Among School Children” is a typical work for this poet. This work focuses on the everyday activity of schooling in an average neighborhood in his homeland of Ireland. His use of ottava rima, a specific structural approach to poetry writing, also showcases the typicalness of this particular poem.
The early twentieth century witnessed much push back against the formal structure and style that had previously dominated the poetic world. The modernist movement of the early 1900s was a method to remind the masses that poetry is meant to be elegant and beautiful. Poems thus became shorter and more concise, as less ornate and simpler styles of poem became preferred. Yeats, along with Robert Frost, and W. H. Auden were some other well-known modernist poets of the time.
“Among School Children” is a poem that represents the major complexities of life, entailing the inevitability of mortality, the dynamics of love and suffering, and the binaries of youth and old age. Yeats uses metaphors and allusions to portray his ideas, hopes, and curiosities throughout his poem, while remaining true to his values on how a poem should be constructed, and it is because of this fact, that this poem has become one of the most influential poems of the twentieth century, and why its writer has become a major player in the modernist movement of early 1900s England.