where the writers are
Not in the books

 

Years ago a teacher-friend advised me to never teach material that I was in love with, or that I was personally invested in. You'll only be broken-hearted and let-down when your students are dismissive or, worse yet--bored, she said. I've never really been sure whether I want to believe in that advice, though. It's true that I have felt very let-down at times when students dismiss material that I'm excited about; yet, I also firmly believe that students need to see their teachers passionate about what they teach--just like kids need to see their parents passionate about their work, or their hobbies and dreams.

But I thought about my friend recently, on Veteran's Day, as I prepared to teach my English class. I've been struggling with this group of students all semester long. I can't seem to connect with them, or raise up their energy levels, or get them to show enthusiasm over anything. I had high hopes, though, for class that day. My students had been assigned to read "The Things They Carry" by one of my favorite writers, and I thought Veteran's Day would be the perfect day to watch Tim O'Brien talk about his life and his writing. I found this clip on YouTube and played it for a skeptical class. As they watched, I looked around the room. Some students were listening, others clearly weren't. One student had his head down on his desk, lulled to sleep by the dim lights and the soothing (?) voice of O'Brien. Another student was surreptitiously texting in her lap and smiling as she did so. I had already previewed the clip, but not in its entirety. I listened to O'Brien recount a moving tale from his childhood--the death of a nine-year old classmate--a girl he loved in only the way a child can, and talk so honestly about his own relationship as an older father to his young son. He spoke about the writing process, and the magic that happens when we make people live again through words.

The clip ended before we could talk about it much, so the next class period I passed out discussion questions. Several people hadn't been in class the day we watched the YouTube video, so I told the class that they could find the link on the student portal online and watch it later.

"Please make sure you do watch it," I told the class. "It's so worth it." 

"No it isn't," Student N. said from the front row, just loudly enough for everyone to hear.

My years of combined parenting and teaching practice have taught me the art of deep breathing and patience. I asked Student N. to talk to me after class. He's not a bad guy, and I knew he hadn't said what he'd said in any mean or snarky way. He's one of those people who fancies himself a class clown--a jokester--and as such, often says what's on his mind. He lacks filters, Student N. does--but, then again, I'm all too familiar with people who lack filters.

"Let me give you some advice," I told Student N. after class. A small group of students had also gathered around, waiting to ask me about other concerns. "There will be many times in your life when you do things you don't like, or aren't interested in. Many, many times."

Student N. nodded, but a little uncertainly. Where was I going with this?

"Appearances," I continued, "are sometimes everything." Then I told him what we sometimes have to tell L.--you don't have to say everything that's on your mind; sometimes you just need to think the thought, and not say it out loud. Would you tell your boss that you think her idea is dumb? Or that you dislike your job? Or that you'd rather be in bed than at work?

"You mean," he said, "I should look interested at all times, even if I'm not?"

I nodded. Student J., a student who was also standing there next to me began nodding furiously at this. He leaned forward, fist extended, and gave me a bump of understanding.

Then Student N. nodded, too--a big, wise nod. His eyes gleamed with an understanding I hadn't seen all semester. He leaned forward, fist extended, and fist-bumped me, too.

"I gotcha, Professor M.," he said. "I gotcha."

It was a one of those moments that are sometimes rare in both parenting and teaching: when you feel you've gotten through; shared some wisdom, made an impact. After weeks and weeks of trying to reach the students in this class, pulling out assignments and creative group activities; sifting through video clips and podcasts, trying everything in my bag of teaching tricks, it had culminated there, that afternoon, with a fist-bump.