Thursday, August 09, 2007

Those who can't teach, suck

One of my favorite moments in teaching happens when the kids discover something you've never thought about or explain something in a new way. Like the time an otherwise uninterested student who failed every English class ever suddenly perked up long enough to describe Juliet as "a dime," meaning she's a perfect ten.

Today as the class was reading and analyzing Emily Dickinson poems I asked what her style was and what were her major themes. We talked about her obsession with death and her tendency to be alone and proud of it.

"She's emo," one of my kids said.

Yes. Perfect. Emily Dickinson is emo. I was so pleased the whole rest of the class period. I told them they could write a paper comparing Emily Dickinson poems to Dashboard Confessional lyrics.

That's when lightbulbs start blinking on around the room, when you make connections to things the kids can relate to. Emily Dickinson is just like the emo kids. Hamlet is a typical boy, telling a girl he loves her to get her into bed then ordering her to get to a nunnery. The bastard.

But there are teachers at this school who will never figure it out. They continue to insist that even if all the students in the room write terrible papers it's because they're terrible students.

I got a set of papers recently that were supposed to be well-researched analyses of various American poets. Instead I got a bunch of reasonably well-written biographies.

So clearly I've been doing something wrong. If they don't understand what I'm trying to tell them then I have to tell them differently. So I scrapped my plans and started over, which may take some extra time but I'd rather make sure the kids are learning than make sure I've hit every stop on the list of California standards without them understanding any of it.

I almost punched another teacher the other day as he asserted that his kids can't write opinion papers because they're too stupid to understand the issues and they don't care about anything except their Ipods. Another teacher recently asserted at a meeting that none of her kids are college-bound, so why do we bother teaching them to write essays?

I don't know how those teachers have kids so vastly different from mine. My kids are reading Hamlet in the original Shakespearean language, and for the most part they get it.

I'm not a perfect teacher. I go on tangents, I let the kids play around a little too much, and I'm completely disorganized. But I would never, ever assume they couldn't learn. If they come into my room with weak writing skills it's my job to make them better. If they don't want to put in the effort that's not my problem, but as long as they're willing to learn I must teach them. I want to teach them. This school is like a challenge every day.

Your mission as a teacher: figure out how to get kids who don't do homework and have a weak background in written English to understand complex literary concepts.

They don't come into the room knowing everything. They honestly come in with major gaps in their education. But that's what makes my job fun. I get to puzzle out how to reach them and keep them interested at the same time, and in the process I learn a lot about them and their culture, and sometimes a few new things about the literature I teach.

All in all it's not a bad job. I wish the people who hate it would go away.


  1. "Tangents" are in large part "contextual examples" and are in my experience the most powerful teaching device we have.

    viva la tangent!

  2. Anonymous3:54 AM

    I thought you said in a earlier post that you were giving up teaching. Something in the corporate world???

  3. No. Never said that. Not sure where you got that from, but it wasn't me.

    I am trying to start a career as a writer, but that's not really the corporate world.

    And the fact that I want to be a writer does not mean I don't still enjoy my current job.

  4. That was always so maddening about teaching -- listening to the teachers who hated kids and teaching.

    Can you imagine how depressing and boring that must be -- being a teacher and not believing the kids can learn? Which level of hell is that? And all self-created and self-sustaining.

    So sad.

    But it's good to know there are good teachers out there.

  5. Anonymous3:10 PM

    I must have remembered this post...

  6. Anonymous4:11 PM

    I had two English teachers teach the way you're doing it. One taught "Julius Caesar" when I was in her class in 11th grade and the other taught "Hamlet." And the most important thing they stressed was understanding the language of Shakespeare because that opened up his characters and their motivations moreso than just reading them blind. I don't remember if any of my classmates understood Shakespeare as much as I did, or they just learned as little as possible because of the "stigma" attached to Shakespeare (too difficult, too hard), but I was inspired by how they taught me and I love reading Shakespeare on my own just for the words, for his thoughts, for how much the problems of his characters still relate to us today.

    And I am in awe of you for really giving kids the chance to learn by seeing what they relate to today and applying it to the current focus in your teachings. My father's a business education teacher and teaches the exact same way and he procures results in his class that other teachers can't even hope to achieve, simply because they have the same mindset as the bastard teachers in your school.

  7. A fair point, Guy Who Doesn't Have The Guts To Leave His Name.

    Being a personal assistant to a showrunner hardly qualifies as the "corporate world".

    I've never tried to hide that I wanted to be a professional writer. That's always been my goal. The job I applied for was the next step to that, and if you actually read my posts on the subject you'll note that I agonized over the idea of leaving the kids.

    And teaching has its bad and good days. I probably wrote that post on a bad day. Lately I've been having good days.

    But all this is irrelevant because what I choose to do with my own career is my business. If you don't like it, stop reading about it.

    Seriously, Anonymous, if you're the same Anonymous who's been making comments about what a horrible person I am, it's time you gave me some evidence to suggest that you have anything useful to offer in return.

  8. And thanks, Rory.

    I LOVE teaching Hamlet. It's one of my favorite things to do.

    We just finished it today and the kids were all like "I hated how that book ended! I didn't want Hamlet to die!"

  9. Anonymous9:51 PM

    "We just finished it today and the kids were all like "I hated how that book ended! I didn't want Hamlet to die!"

    Right now, I'm in the midst of watching the new 2-disc set of Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet," my favorite screen version. And I was wondering if you ever use movies to help teach some of the plays or novels. And if so, what version of "Hamlet" do you prefer for classroom use?

    I'm grateful to two of my English teachers for that method. I had a teacher in 10th grade (not on the level of the two I mentioned before, but still respectable) who showed "Of Mice and Men," and in the scene where Lenny is breaking Curley's hand, John Malkovich became one of my favorite actors.

    But that teacher I had in 11th grade who taught "Julius Caesar," I'm grateful to her because not only did she show the "Julius Caesar," with Jason Robards as a zombiefied Brutus (an insight to me about how Shakespeare can be played wrong), but also "A Raisin in the Sun," "The Scarlet Letter," "The Great Gatsby" (Redford, of course, and a tedious film), and "The Glass Menagerie," which I will always be grateful to that teacher for because it's my favorite play and wrenching to watch these characters just wither into nothing.

    That teacher is retired now, but just by writing this, I think I'll see if I can find her somewhere on the Internet because I've been reading since I was 2 years old, but she, above all, showed me that drama in all its forms is an immense artform and I don't think I'd be thinking of writing the plays I want to without having been in her class.

  10. That's awesome, Rory. Teachers love to be remembered by their former students. Most of the time we don't think we got through to anybody. Even one kid telling you you made a difference can make your lifetime.

    And thanks for sharing that with me. It gives me hope that a few of mine will remember me the same way.

    As for movies, we only get 8 weeks a semester so I usually only show one film, normally a companion piece to whatever we're reading - Madame Bovary along with The Dollhouse or Life is Beautiful along with Night.

    But this semester I will show the Kenneth Brannagh Hamlet even though it takes 4 days in class because it's so brilliantly done. Then on the fifth day I plan to show one scene through all the versions I can find so we can compare performances. I've never done that before. But to save time I give the kids a couple of homework assignments while we watch the films in class.

    I actually find The Scarlet Letter kind of boring, but I love Gatsby. Of Mice and Men also tends to go over really well, as does A Streetcar Named Desire.

    But no book is more loved than Night. That one always wins.

  11. I kicked around the idea of not commenting, since this is really my first visit to your blog, and since this is a post from last week, but I have a story to tell now, as I did in high school.

    When I was in high school, I had an English Lit class. I loved high school, because I had a serious need for attention, and I was funny and outrageous enough that I had an appreciative audience whenever I decided to 'act out'. As much as I loved high school, and my English Lit class, not all of my teachers loved me, especially my English Lit teacher. Before every class, a friend and I would draw strange pictures on the blackboard of a bird with one eye, a pistol, a bloody machete', anything strange that we could imagine. When class began, we would take turns telling a weird, horror/comedy story to the class. Everyone loved it, especially me, the attention whore. Everyone, except for the teacher, whose attempts to begin class were thwarted daily until we were done with out three minute or so story. Said teacher was very stoic and quiet until the story was over, and would make some passive-aggressive comment when we sat down about the class 'finally' being ready to learn. One day, she stopped me after class. I expected a reprimand, something about disruption being unacceptable. She told me that I was incapable of learning the discipline of story-telling, that my small stories were nothing but distractions, and I should not plan on attending college, as it would be a waste of my time. After that, I never performed an improv story in her class. In fact, I stopped participating altogether. I passed, barely, but I didn't go to college after high school until I was 25, and when I did, I became a charter member of my college's chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society.

    I suppose I was a disruption, and I upstaged the teacher, but I think I brought a morale boost to the other students in my class, and I really had a great time in that class until she was so churlish with me. My point is that, even if kids are disruptive and seemingly disrespectful, they may still be excited about the subject matter. Teachers are supposed to recognize a passion and encourage it, and not let fear of being upstaged make them discourage students.

    Of course, maybe I was just a jerk wad.

  12. I'm glad to hear that there are still teachers out there that guide their students and let them make discoveries on their own, instead of teaching them rote memorization skills. Force-feeding books for automatic regurgitation is great for the age of the assembly line, but the last time I checked, they're mostly manned by robots these days.

    I had a few teachers like you in my day, and I was grateful for each and every one of them. (Actually, I even ended up dating one of them... shhh...)


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