Quick Tip Tuesday: Beginning to Teach

June 2nd, 2009

This week’s tip is not so much a tip as a story about when teaching goes wrong, when teachers struggle, when the best laid plans in the classroom go horribly wrong. In Oops: What We Learn When Our Teaching Fails Brenda Miller Power and Ruth Hubbard collected essays from teachers who share the pain, laughter, and lessons learned when their best intentions in the classroom come down in a brilliant crash.

It Silly, ‘Cuz It Silly: A Story of Beginning to Teach
by Jane Townsend

What rocked my complacency and preconceptions about teaching and learning was a group of multicolored high school seniors who had all failed English once before. It was my first day of formal teching, I had already conscientiously learned each student’s name, and I was determined to be innovative, engaging, and hip. My assumptions about English study — built on my own successful school career — was that the whole class would share a reading, we’d then discuss it thoughtfully, and finally, each student would write an essay. My students were mostly poor, mostly blacks and Hispanics. They’d resided on the edges of society’s privilege all their lives. They were used to filling in blanks and mimeographed sheets and passing the time. I wanted to make a difference in their lives. I wanted to help.

I was told to teach a lesson on persuasion and I decided to bring in music — I was going to do something new. It was the early seventies, Vietnam War protests were in my air, so I chose Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” a song that stirred my soul. I made a copy of the lyrics for each student, borrowed a portable stereo, and with nervous excitement began class. Standing in front of rows of students, I passed out song sheets and broadcast the music. When Dylan’s last guttural chord had faded, I looked expectantly at a sea of still faces, and my knees began to wobble. “So,” I said. “What do you think?” No one responded (probably not a question they’d been asked too often). My legs began to shake. “Uh, I’d just like to know what you think of the song,” I coaxed with a smile and a sinking heart. Blank faces. My body began a full-scale, dreadful tremor. More silence.

Finally, when I thought my heart must burst from apprehension, a large black girl in the back of the room — Amanda Lee Cannon, a young woman I’ll always remember — leaned back in her chair, and languidly raised her hand. My heart leapt with hope. “Amanda Lee,” I said, nodding encouragement in her direction, “what did you think?” Amanda Lee took her time and casually remarked, “I think it silly.” “Oh,” I gushed, hardly stopping to think about the importance what she was saying. “Um, gosh, that’s interesting. Tell me, um, what makes you say that? Uh, tell me more.” Amanda Lee looked me in the eye, stretched out her large, lean body, and replied, “I think it silly ‘cuz it silly.” And with that, she folded her ebony arms on the desk and put her head down. While I gaped, in a desperate dawning, one head after another went down. And I stood facing a class of students who said no with a firmness and a power that changed my teaching life forever.

I’ve blacked out the rest of that day’s class. I can remember driving home in tears, wondering how I’d find the courage to return the next day and feeling certain that teaching was not the job for me. I’m not sure what made me begin to think of the incident from my students’ point of view rather than wallowing in my own angst. If I wanted to energize these students, I knew I’d have to do something very different from what I’d expected teaching to be. I knew that these students had long ago — for many different reasons — been pushed or inadvertently shoved to the sidelines of school. Why they put their heads down with common determination, why they didn’t just humor me with empty responses, I don’t know. Maybe they sensed I wanted to do right. They didn’t expect much from school, but neither did they want to coddle some do-gooding white liberal talking about issues and ideas that had no apparent, real connection to their lives. If I wanted to help them feel the electrifying potential of reading and writing and talking, I’d have to find ways to begin with their concerns, their souls.

So, the next day I came in with more music — but this time, Jimi Hendrix’s song, “Changes,” which I hoped would signal my intention. And, again with my knees shaking, I organized an activity that I’d heard about in a methods class. I was breathless with anxiety as I walked around the room with an envelope full of folded-up pieces of paper. I asked each student to select a paper from the envelope, read what it said, and not show it to anyone else. “Then,” I announced, “when I begin to play the music, follow the instructions on your paper.” What I’d written on these piece of paper were mostly the small, forbidden acts of classroom life: make a paper airplane and fly it around the room, walk around shaking different people’s hands, draw on the blackboard, stand at your desk and count backward from one hundred, write a note to a friend, and so on. Each student had a different task to do. After saying that they were to freeze when I stopped the music, I turned on the record player and Jimi Hendrix started to groove. Chaos reigned for a few minutes as each student blossomed into movement. Then I turned off the music and told the students to sit back down. The kids had been having a big time, dancing around, talking, and laughing, but they sat down and turned curious faces toward me — a very different set of faces from the previous day’s — wondering what might be next.

I asked them to write down everything they’d seen while the music played, and the fascinating trick was that those who’d been moving around the room, interacting with other people, had seen far more, had indeed much longer lists, of what had been happening than had the students who sat at their desks, turned their backs to the room while at the board. Spontaneously, we began having a spirited discussion about the benefits of travel, open minds, observation. By talking — listening to different points of view, hearing one another’s stories, finding common ground — we began to establish a sense of working together to stretch out understanding. I was certainly stretching mine. “Let’s do it again, Miss! Let’s do it again!” the chorus of student voices resounded. I knew then that teaching wasn’t going to be easy, but it was possible.

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