Friday, October 06, 2017

Teaching Tip #27

Teacherscribe’s Teaching Tip #27

What’s your story?  As a teacher.  What is your story?

Here is mine.

Oh what an amazing profession teaching is.  


The longer I teach, the more I realize it’s not a profession.  It’s a calling.

(It has to be a calling.  I started typing this at Caribou while my wife was getting her hair done yesterday, and I’m up at 7 am on a Sunday trying to get this done before lesson plans and grading essays beckon.)

Last summer I finished my final 10 credits to get to the top of our salary scale.  Since I have my master’s degree and 40 additional graduate credits, along with a minimum of 18 years experience, I am maxed out.

I was telling my Teaching & Learning 250 students at UND a few weeks ago that I could just coast the final 18 years or so, and I would never make any less than I am now.

“So what keeps you motivated?” A student asked.

“This,” I said, sweeping my right arm toward them.

The students.  The craft.  The content.  The profession.

Mainly, the students.

And the stories they share.  And the connections they make to the stories, novels, and essays.  And when they realize a talent buried deep inside that they never knew existed but I saw a glimpse of and helped them excavate.

I don’t know how teachers of other disciplines do it.  I love history, but social studies just doesn’t offer the look inside students’ worlds and lives that English does.  The fact that students are willing to share their most important memories and their deepest desires with me via their writing is still something that amazes me.  Even after 19 years.  That rush never gets old.

Last week I worked virtually via Drive to help my students draft and develop their rite of passage essays.  

I read about the night a student learned her older brother died in his garage when his truck fell off the jack.  When I asked her permission to share it on the SMARTboard the next day – as it was an excellent example of the power of dialogue – I hugged her and fought back tears.

Then I read several essays from students who lost their dear friend to a three year battle with cancer.  They wrote about lying in bed with her as she passed or about her father sitting them down and breaking the news that today would be that last day his daughter would be alive or how as middle schoolers they had to learn what “chemo therapy,” “radiation,” and “biopsy” meant.   I told each of them how sorry I was and that kids their age shouldn’t have to go through that.  But I also told them how much I know it meant to the family of their friend to know their daughter was so loved by her friends.

Next, I read an essay from a young man whose father taught him how to shoot, and it was the first time he ever remembered his father offering praise.  I made a mental note to make sure I heap as much praise as I can on him for the rest of the semester.

I read an essay by a young man about his massive crush on another young man in class.  He had such voice and style that I had to clamp my hand over my mouth as I read it, for I wanted to giggle at a photoshopped image he included with his essay: a picture from prom featuring the young man that was the apple of his eye and his prom date.  Only the writer had photoshopped his head in over the date’s head.  Then I marveled at the trust this young man was putting in me, knowing I would never berate him or share it with anyone else.

Finally, I read an essay from a senior, who has dated the same boy since middle school, about the first time she saw her boyfriend.  It was during, perhaps, the most awkward moment at our middle school: the dreaded phy-ed swimming unit.  She re-captured the voice of a desperate, nervous, and hormone ridden adolescent so well that I wrote on her draft how I felt instantly transported back to sixth grade as I read it.

Seeing all this pain and joy take shape before my eyes as my students type away on their MacBook Airs is as good as something that still thrills me, even after 19 years.  Then sifting through their drafts, pointing out lines or images for them to uncover and develop – seeing their writing shift and grow right before my eyes – is even better.  Finally, on the third draft, watching as students recognize the key moments or sentences in their own writing (or, best of all, the writing of their peers) is as good as it gets.

Teaching has become so ingrained in me that I wake up in the night thinking about writing assignments, different ways to engage my students, or new connections to materials.

I have taken to sleeping with my laptop on my nightstand, just in case I have a dream about a killer writing assignment or a new connection to “The Lottery” or “Young Goodman Brown.”

Some of my colleagues may not refer to that as a calling but more of a curse.

I recall one teacher telling me at our inservice day that they never thought about teaching at all over the summer.

I thought,  Good God.  There hasn’t been a day that has gone by that I haven’t thought about teaching.  Whether it was summer or not!  

In fact, we took a vacation to visit my father-in-law in Custer, S.D., a few years ago and the whole trip there I devoured Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them.  

I just don’t understand how to take a vacation from teaching.  Either I’m teaching students or I’m thinking of ways to better teach them.

That is life.

My wife, who is an excellent marketer for a very successful insurance company, but she never wakes up Monday morning eager for work.

I do, though.

Many of my colleagues are giddy on Fridays and can’t wait for the weekend.

Not me, though.

Nineteen years in to this calling that is teaching English, Mondays and Fridays are just days of the week.

In fact, I feel a sense of disappointment on Fridays.  Too often I’m frustrated that I didn’t get to do more during the week or I let some of my classes end with a whimper rather than a bang.  This bothers me . . . even after 19 years.

Mondays, though, are a different animal.  I’m up extra early, eager to get to work . . . to do work that really matters.  Every Monday – as I drive to school – I think of this scenario: Mr. Zutz (our principal) has given every kid in our high school this option for Monday: they don’t have to go to their assigned classes.  Instead, they are to go to the classroom where they feel the most engaged, the most inspired, where their voice is heard and matters, where they are valued and cared for.   And as I open the door to my classroom, I wonder, Would anyone be in my room?

It wasn’t always this way, though.  As you well know, Mark, I struggled mightily my first year – 1998 – at Lincoln.  

I made so many errors that first year, I don’t know how I ever survived.  But my two biggest errors were that I assumed students learned just as I had and that students would be impressed by all that I knew just as I was impressed with all that my college professors knew.

First, all the things that I had grown to love about college, discussions, reading my essays to the class and listening to my peers’ essays and giving feedback, journaling, and listening to my professors, were not what my sophomores were looking for.

Not at all.  I recall getting tablets to circulate around the classroom so students could offer their thoughts on what we were reading or discussing . . . just as you always had us do in your classes.

Thought I had the highest hopes and best intentions, the tablets bombed.  Students weren’t sure what to write.  Some did make useful comments related to what we were reading or discussing; however, most did just what you’d expect sophomores to do, they gossiped and complained and were downright mean.

This left me desperate.  I began floundering for anything to help me teach.  So I fell back on teaching my students the way I had been taught in high school.  That meant worksheets and quizzes and notes.  In other words, busy work.

And for awhile, it worked.  The students were quiet and focused. Or that’s what I thought.  They were working.  And it seemed like they were learning.  What I didn’t realize, though, was that they were just going through the motions.  They weren’t really learning anything.  They were doing what they had to do in order to get their A’s.  They were doing school.

That was not why I got into the profession.

Worse than that, I also thought my sophomores would be in awe of all that I knew about the works we read: A Separate Peace, Julius Caesar, and the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Again, I was so wrong.

I devoted many evenings to plotting out tedious notes about symbolism, the development of themes, and characterization . . . only to hear groans from my students when I began to put this all up on the board.

I even graded them on their notes.  

So I had a quiet classroom with students who seemed to really be working hard.  But it was all a guise.  Quiet isn’t always good.  And working hard doesn’t equate to learning anything.  But I was still a few weeks away from this realization.

The students suffered through my lectures.  The only signs of life seemed to occur when I went off script and made a joke about something a student was wearing or something they had said.  Those at least woke them up a little.  I also noticed that the only time I was able to get any real response out of them was when I connected what we read or studied to some pop culture event (like Armageddon or A Bug’s Life) or TV show (way back then it was usually something MTV related, like The Real World or Love Line).

I would leave work every day and walk to my apartment angry.  I wanted students to enjoy my classes and actually learn something.  What I got instead was students suffering through every single class period.

Then it dawned on me: I cannot control my students.  

Looking at that epiphany now, it seems so obvious.  But all those years ago I was caught up in just surviving, finding out who I was as a teacher, and keeping my students under control . . . that I had lost sight of that simple little fact.

Then another – even bigger – realized struck me: the only thing I can control is me.

For some reason, those epiphanies changed everything for me.

I went back to school the next day with a new outlook: I wasn’t going to control my students through notes and quizzes.  Instead, I was going to play upon all the stuff that the students like about my classes: my stories and my connections to their world.

My first order of business was to tell a story about a time I sabotaged a friend of mine during summer baseball because I was jealous of him.

Something magical happened.  I spent 20 minutes listening to the students share their own experiences of betrayal and revenge.  I was so swept up in listening to them, that I realized we only had 10 minutes left in class, and we hadn’t even talked about A Separate Peace!

I asked the class – for homework – to draw a comparison between their own stories of betrayal and revenge and what Gene did to Finny at the tree in A Separate Peace.

That was the very first homework assignment that every single student completed.  It was magical.  I was really teaching.

The next difficult thing the students were struggling with when it came to the novel was why the faculty was being extra nice to the students.  The faculty knew that in a few short months, these boys may just be called upon to help with the expected invasion of Japan.  So the faculty is letting these kids enjoy what might be the last few weeks of their childhood.

To illustrate this, I rented Saving Private Ryan and showed the class the opening scene, detailing the carnage of the marines storming the beach at Normandy.

The students were giddy as I wheeled in the TV and VCR (yes, it was that long ago).  I never told them what I was going to be showing them.  The only thing I said was, “every teacher at Gene’s school knows that in just a few months all the boys there might be doing this . . .” and I hit play.

Then I watched as students were shocked, horrified, and a few were even visibly shaken at the violence before them.

When the beach was finally secured, at the cost of hundreds – if not thousands of American soldiers’ lives – I shut the TV off and wheeled it to the side.

“Now, if you were a teacher, like me, wouldn’t you want your students, like you guys here now, to enjoy the last few months of their lives before going through that?”

No one even complained about not watching the rest of the movie.  

The point had been driven home, and it was plainly evident on their faces as the bell rang and they left.

Of course, a former colleague heard that I was showing Saving Private Ryan and questioned why.  They were worried that it was rated R and some parents might object.  I might get into trouble.  I should have followed the policy for showing films in class . . .

Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . I thought.  Sorry for trying to actually teach them something!  And you should have seen their faces!!  They learned more today than they have in three months!

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