I passed a team of preschoolers on my way home yesterday. Three adults, all dressed in matching orange tee shirts, guided the tiny group as they moved towards a nearby park. The students were all dressed in yellow tee shirts. They held on to a rope suspended from the hips of each of the teachers, one student on either side. As they crossed a street, their faces (most of them, anyway) seemed intent on getting to the other side safely. Clearly, the possibility of danger had been imprinted on their brains.
As I watched the little ones navigate the crosswalk, I thought about my own approach to teaching. My students are nearly grown–at least in their eyes. Eleventh graders are just a sniff away from college. As they traverse this last stretch, there are no ropes to guide them. I tell them our destination is knowledge, and I show them how I propose we get there. But I do not hold their hands. I especially love those moments when they back into understanding and connect the dots themselves. That way, the things they find, they keep. One thing I dislike about Impact, the new DC teacher evaluation system, is its inherent belief that instruction only occurs when you tell students exactly what you are going to do, over and over and over again. I just think they are brighter than that.
In English III, we read creation myths, and then they construct a list of common themes and occurrences. Now, armed with that information, they must write one of their own and illustrate it. I tell them enough, but not everything. I treat them as intellectual equals almost, and they seem to respond to that.
In AP English Language, I let them “hang themselves” with the first draft of their Cosby rebuttal. Then, after reading and analyzing actual scored essays from the AP exam, they are ready to rewrite their pieces, turning them away from rant and closer to argument. A few feel misled (you should have told us exactly what to do), but I reassure them I grade based on effort. I tell them there is a “method to my madness.”
Two years ago, seniors voted me their “Teacher of the Year.” Last year, I came in second place. Still, you wonder sometimes if what you are attempting as a teacher is sinking below the skin. By connecting “A” with “C,” and then inventing “B,” have they moved beyond rote learning and grade grabbing? Did they find a new approach to the subject at hand? Did they get an “aerial” view?
Today, a former student came to see me. I taught him two years ago in tenth, and again last year in debate. He is a senior now and very much a force in the school. As president of the Student Government Association, he works hard to involve his peers in the daily workings of the school. I admire his drive and dedication, as well as his sense of humor. He always gets my jokes.
He bounces into my room and tells me I have to hear something. It is in-between classes, but my students know I do not like to be disturbed while preparing to teach. He persists. I take the headphones and listen. To my surprise, Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” blares in my ear. For five years, I used that song in English II to begin my lessons on plot, conflict, and resolution. Whenever I played it for the first time, moans of “what is that?” inevitably arose. I told them a little about Chapman’s background and then handed out copies of the song’s lyrics. I described for them where I was the first time I heard that song.
Then we get to work, preparing a timeline, outlining conflicts, and speculating on the main character’s future. We carefully dissect the choice of words, especially the memorable lines, “and your arm felt nice wrapped ’round my shoulder, and I had a feeling that I belonged. I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone.”
Finally, the students must rewrite the lyric from the perspective of the young man we call “Fast Car.” Was he a user, or was he used? Consider him: a young buck still living at home with the fastest car in town. He stops at a local store and meets a young woman with a sad story and smoldering dreams of a different life in a big city. He agrees to leave his life behind and then loses his bearings in her dream. Who, if anyone, is to blame?
I loved that lesson, even after playing the song for them over and over again. The student who came to visit me tells me that the night before he and a dozen more shared the song on Facebook and argued about who was lost and who was found?
He tells me about one young lady who always seemed to frown whenever I played “Fast Car.” He shares with me that it is still her “favorite song.” “I loved it when he played that song,” she shared. I laugh, remembering how much I thought she hated it. I think the reason I love surprises in teaching is because I always loved surprises in learning. As the former student turns to leave my classroom, and I move towards my latest crop, I think about Fast Car racing through the wind, destination unknown.
With young people, you just never know.