Lessons Learned

Last week, preparation dominated my classroom.  In English III, we are about to begin reading The Great Gatsby. Working together and in groups, we first explored F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life, and then the “Jazz Age” he christened.  We talked about suffragettes, Prohibition, and the Roaring Twenties.  I worked to emphasize the national mood following World War I, the dramatic shift in tone and texture as the American Dream retooled.

I tell them the second decade in every century is always dramatic and agenda-setting.  “You will be in your late twenties, strong, independent, and ready to ride the wave coming your way,” I say.  They beam at the promise.  Then I describe the black community in the 1920s.  We talk about jazz and the Charleston sweeping the landscape.  I tell them about the Harlem Renaissance and the swagger of the New Negro.  I share with them stories my old college professor Ewart Guinier weaved.  He made the sights and sounds of the era come alive for myself and the others in his seminar.

The students now seem eager to read the book and decide for themselves how truthfully it captures the carnal energy and reckless optimism preceding the Great Crash.  I call them up one by one to receive their copy of the book.  I remember how much I loved getting new novels in high school, and my students are no different.

Some start reading right away, but I caution them not to go past the first chapter.  I need one more lesson to turn their focus to characterization, point of view, setting, and the novel itself.  We will continue to discuss the concept of wealth and the pursuit of happiness in America, then and now.   They have already had one Warm up statement–Money is the root of all evil–and they are split in their opinion. The money chase can corrupt, they agree, but it can also liberate.  “It’s not the money, but the people who have it,” one male student offers.  It should be an interesting few weeks.

In AP English Language, we are moving across the country to Chicago in the 1930s.  The challenges confronting the nation are different, and the worlds of Bigger Thomas and Jay Gatsby could not be more dissimilar.  For AP English, we will anchor the text with nonfiction essays about the book and its impact.  In fact, our first reading will be author Richard Wright’s lecture “How Bigger Was Born.”  For me, the greatest challenge here will lay in transporting my students into the mind of a character uniquely defined by his time and circumstance.  I have a CD of 1930s tunes to help set the stage, and I will begin each discussion with a different track.  What do the lyrics reveal about the time?  What particular worries and dreams plague this character?  Is he fully formed, or just a fragment of some truth?  Only then will I ask them to articulate who and what Bigger might look like today.

Finally, the star of the week was my Debate II class.  We had a tournament on Saturday.  Ten schools participated, mostly charter.  A Youth in Government regional conference being held across town decimated the ranks of all the schools, and we began the day with a little under sixty debaters in total.  My top two senior teams had been excused to attend the conference, and I grew worried that my school would not do as well as it usually does.  Happily, my remaining debaters did not share my concern.

We debated three topics:  the possible effect establishing the Republic of South Sudan will have on civil unrest in the old Sudan; the practical implications (or not) of Mayor Vincent Gray’s “One City” campaign, and the efficacy of President Obama’s Race to the Top educational initiative.  This last topic is, of course, frequently in my thoughts, and I enjoyed watching the students examine issues ranging from selective funding and national criteria to standardized testing and nagging “achievement gaps” they had no idea existed.

While watching a few debate this topic in person, I grew fascinated by their ability to cogently attack many of the underlying assumptions guiding educational policy these days.  In the end, my debaters did just fine.  Watching their faces at the end as so many names were called to receive medals and trophies was a thrill.

I think these experiences build them in ways even I, their teacher, cannot foresee.  One young lady, a shy tenth grader, blossoms before my gaze into a confident strategist who will never be anyone’s pushover.  Another who sometimes sabotaged her logic with too much emotion is now a crafty debater who knows now how to modulate her passion as she frames her arguments.  When she took the top speaker award for the first time (defeating a perennial winner by two points), I turned to her mother (who arrived just in time to watch the final round) and nodded my head. The work was bearing fruit, and we both knew the sweet taste would only awaken her thirst for more.

Teaching is about lessons learned, especially the ones that linger long after the closing bell has rung.  Authentic assessments involving real life applications are, to me, the best way to determine what a student has or has not mastered.  As the young lady with the winning medal argued in her debate, “It is ridiculous to try to even measure all I have learned in high school by two three-hour, fill-in-the-bubble tests taken in the tenth grade.  My education is more than that'”

I cannot overstate my joy in watching my students rise to the occasion and the expectations placed before them.  As we near the end of the third advisory, I know the year will soon be done.  There seems to never be enough time to impart all you want.  There is always at least one chapter unread, one thing you meant to cover but could not.  But moments like the ones I enjoyed last week remind me that the true impact of my job would take years to measure no matter how I reached.

As I tell them, “I don’t know where life will take you, but, however you land, I want you to be the one people turn to when thoughtful action is needed and rallying words are required.”  They always grow quiet at that point, silently signaling how much they want it too.



About Mark E.P. Roberts

teachermandc is Mark E.P. Roberts, a middle-aged, high school English teacher entering his ninth year of instructing young minds. This blog is an attempt to capture the challenge of teaching and the essence of learning. At a time when DC has become the epicenter of educational theory, this blog will keep its preferred focus on students in an somewhat typical DC high school. I have taught in both public and private schools. To date, 95% of my students are of color. All names have been changed, and complaints about in-house politics will be avoided. Hope you enjoy.
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3 Responses to Lessons Learned

  1. This is the kind of post that makes me smile and remember why we do what we do…especially at the end of a very long day. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. hs says:

    Thanks for a refreshing post on urban education. I’ve been thinking about joining the force of urban educators and would really appreciate it if you can tell me how to be a successful teacher. Actually thinking about joining DCTF- any tips on how to be a good candidate?

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