The Company English Teachers Keep

A few weeks ago, I attended an IB Conference at the United Nations International School in New York City.  I selected the IB English Literature workshop and eagerly became part of a room of English teachers from around the country.  Most had taught the course in the past; I had not.  I used the three days to learn about IB instruction and all the various components required for completion.  The IB English Lit arc is a two-year process divided into four parts.  Central to the entire process is the concept of what constitutes an ideal “IB” student.

I loved the emphasis on “curiosity” as a key ingredient motivating the IB student.  In today’s world, I am often befuddled by students who appear to have no interest in the things they do not already know.  Some remind me of diners who only order the same meal over and over again.  “Literature,” I remind them, “is a way to travel cheaply.”  Some, unfortunately, do not appear too eager to leave home.

It is a process of course.  Appearances have a way of surprising all the time.  It is one of the joys of teaching.  Throughout the week, as we learned names and shared stories, it became clear to me that English teachers are a unique breed.  Naturally, all teachers should have an ongoing love affair with their content areas, but English is something different, at least to me and, I suspect, my colleagues in New York.

“English is life,” I always tell my students on the first day.  “Yes, we will discuss grammar, vocabulary, diction, and syntax.  But the best part happens between the lines–in your heads.”  I ramble on about the essentials of communication, the power of writing (especially their own), and the cosmetic benefits of reading (readers have the best looking ears).  I do my best to sway them with my enthusiasm, one of my favorite words.

I felt that energy in the bright classroom where we met at the conference.  We shared notes, graded responses, and compared challenges inherent in reaching high school students.  I enjoyed listening to the other teachers read passages with such sincerity and passion.  I enjoyed earnest discussions about drama or poetry.

In one exercise, we formed groups of four using colors and then worked to select one of eight poems and turn it into a dramatic piece.  As we shared our interpretations, I thought to myself how much my students would enjoy that approach and promptly placed it in my bag of tricks.

English teachers are an interesting lot.  I am sure most of us have a novel-in-progress in our backpacks.  We read and read and read about everything it seems, always being careful to keep one eye out for technique while the other revels in beauty.

I will be teaching seniors this upcoming year (only three weeks away).  Many I also taught as sophomores, and I am looking forward to spending time again before they move on.  Our senior course is World Literature, which I did teach once before in my first year at my school.  I had fun with that class, although I do remember how “senioritis” became a factor in the room as the year progressed.

Still, I am enthusiastic about the year ahead.  Last week, I encountered one senior I will be teaching for the first time, though her legendary energy had made her something of a fixture in my classroom during breaks for some time.  I was on my way to karaoke, and I sported a straw hat, dark glasses, black and white shorts, and a black polo shirt.  My shoes were gray and black and new.  I was proud of myself.

We were both in the 7-11, and she had not noticed me.  She had on a school tee-shirt, and I correctly surmised she had just left cheerleading practice.  Our school’s squad has won a bevy of awards, and I knew how hard they all worked.

“So you don’t know anybody?” I asked, surprising her.  She stared at me briefly, adjusting her eyes.  I had shaved off the beard I had worn for three years, and she did not recognize me at first.  Then her million dollar smile kicked in.  “I’m liking this,” she said, pointing to my outfit.

“Thanks,” I said.  “You know, I’m teaching seniors this year.  World Lit.”

“Oh, I hope I’m in your class,” she said.

“You are.  I’m looking forward to it.”  Then I put on my semi-serious voice.  “Now I know you are going to come really focused this year, right?”

“I know, Mr. Roberts.  My mother and I were just talking about that.”

“Great.  I’m going to count on you to help set the right tone.  In fact, I want you sitting front and center,” I said, smiling.

She returned the warmth.  As I turned to leave the store, I said, “See you in a few weeks.”

“I know,” she said.  “Summer is going so fast.”

And it is.  I have started having teacher dreams again, especially the one where I have no plan for the day, left my book and notes at home, and students are chatting amongst themselves about something obscene some rapper I never heard of said– just as an administrator walks into the room for an unannounced observation.

I hate that dream, almost as much as I long for the conversations to come.  Like most English teachers, I will embrace the start of a new year, even as I cherish the last.

“Good morning, learners.  My name is Mr. Roberts.”

Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)

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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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