24 September 2005

Spontaneous Teaching

My morning freshmen English class is much more obedient, but less engaged. Now that I'm getting used to the energy of my afternoon class, I'm finding I prefer the talk to the silence even if I have a headache by the end. Yesterday something magical happened in the morning class. As we moved through the final vignettes of "The House on Mango Street," which traverses ambiguous scenes of rape and domestic violence, I asked my students to complete the graphic organizer I'd created which included a box for them to write what the vignette reminded them of in their own experience (activating schema) and another box for them to draw a depiction of the vignette (accessing multiple intelligences while helping students visualize what they read). I was completing a model of this on the board as we went along. Problem is that I'm a terrible drawer. Even my stick figures are pathetically disproportionate. The normal thorn in my side, the student who two days ago told me he wanted me to go to another school where I could give other students nightmares, the one who makes farting sounds every time I try to lead the P.E. students in stretches, he was absent yesterday. There was no one to make fun of me, but me. So, I did. For perhaps the first time in this class, I was laughing at myself. I was relaxed and at home in my own teaching skin and it worked in my favor. Instead of belaboring over my pathetic drawing of a clown, I put my dry erase marker down and said, "Alright. Someone has got to come up here and save me." Immediately, one of the students who rarely participates positively came up to save the day. The clown he drew was pretty close to Crusty the Clown and a much better rendition of the one I drew. Of course, I used this opportunity to walk around to all of my students and see that there were working on their own drawings. Sure enough, everyone in the class was on task, and I got to see what fabulous artists I have in my classes. For those who weren't fabulous, I could encourage them by saying, "Look at my drawing! It can't be any worse than that!" We moved through the vignettes like this for a good half hour without my losing the focus and attention of my students. It just so happened that the principal had come in and seen all of this, too. I glanced at her every once in a while to see that she had a big smile on her face. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, a female student who is a great writer and a smart cookie but who prefers to put on an edgy front and often pushes buttons, blurts out (as she usually does), "Ms. Barrett, you are so nice!"

But the best part of the whole period was still to come. At the very end of class, I passed out a poem called "Empty House" by Rosario Castellanos. The poem is a perfect extention of the book we'd just finished. I began reading the poem to the class, not really sure what I would do with it besides read it and ask them to somehow connect it to the book, but I didn't have to figure it out because by the second stanza two boys started reading the poem aloud with me. We moved through it in perfect unison, as if riding a tandem bicycle for three. Their somewhat deeper and quieter voices matched with mine had a harmonizing effect. I am not exaggerating when I say that the atmosphere in the classroom was magical. All thirty-one of my students were on the edges of their seats and several students whispered to others, "Woah, do you hear that? That's cool. That's creepy." When the three of us finished our reading, the class burst into excitement and wanted to talk about the poem and the effect of the multiple voices. My mind immediately leapt to thinking about what a great lead-in this was to the dramatic reading of Romeo & Juliet we'll begin in a week. What's most amusing to me about this is I believe the boys who joined in on the reading really were trying to get at me at first; they thought it would make me mad or derail the reading. I don't think they expected me to keep reading and certainly not to love it. When the class finished exclaiming how much they liked the poem, I said, "That was great! Who wants to do it again?" Overwhelmingly the class wanted to do it again. This time I asked anyone who wanted to to read it aloud with us. The second reading, of course, wasn't as good in sound quality as the first, but it was exciting nonetheless that the class was willing to do a spontaneous choral reading of a poem. Magical, really.

This is clearly one of the best teaching days I've had yet. What made it so good, apart from one truly disruptive student being absent, was my comfort and confidence with the class. I was having a good time and I cared about what we were doing. The night before was Back to School Night. I spent 12 hours at school and by the time I got home, I was too burned out to put much energy into my lesson plan for the next day. I knew we needed to finish the book and I knew I had a poem that worked well at the end of the reading, but I spent less than twenty minutes on my lesson plan and said to myself, "I'll just figure it out." As a teacher, I'm all about careful planning and even scripting out some of the things that I need to say, but I also value the spontaneous moments in the classroom. At the beginning of the year, and with my students the beginning of their high school career, the emphasis is on structure, routine, and the expected. It's been hard for me because despite my very organized and somewhat methodical ways, I fell in love with teaching when I taught poetry for Upward Bound. I set a daily structure for the class, but I had the students supply the class with poems. I never knew what the class topic would be. If a student brought in a poem that exceptionally modeled the use of line breaks, then I did a mini-lecture on line breaks and then spontaneously created a writing assignment for them dealing with line breaks. I loved that class because I didn't know what to expect, because my students were providing the curriculum as much as I was, and because it felt as if it served my students where they were rather than from some place of my solitary ideals for them. Yesterday reminded me of my love of this organic teaching which comes from an organized classroom. There were moments for personality, real stories, and connection in class yesterday. I even found a moment to pull back from the scheduled curriculum and tell my students about the value of applying to private universities, to tell them that they should never let a price tag keep them from applying. I wrote out numbers on the board and spelled out for them my own experience of believing I couldn't afford a private education only to find out that in reality it was the public one I couldn't afford. And even then, they listened attentively. It might sound like a tangential thing to discuss, but it fit in perfectly with the quickwrite prompt to write about what they wanted to happen in their futures and how our protagonist overcame her own poverty and position in society. Education. Writing. Poetry. If this isn't an argument against the scripted textbooks being imposed in impoverished districts across the country as an off-shoot of the Bush Administration's "No Child Left Behind," then I don't know what is. I can hear my favorite mentor whispering,"We don't teach English. We teach people."

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