Friday, March 03, 2006
a rare moment of child-like wonder
Being a high school English teacher is a strange thing. Each year I am charged with the task of instilling an appreciation (and hopefully a little awe and wonder) for writing and literature to over 150 14-16-year-olds, many of whom couldn't care less about symbolism and foreshadowing and complex sentence construction. It's not that these kids never cared; nearly all of them entered kindergarten thirsty to learn and explore their world, but somewhere along the line learning turned into a chore that they had to be bribed into participating in with the promise/threat of grades that supposedly make or break their futures.

But it's not just the kids that see learning as a stale chore. After five years of teaching the same two classes, I have essentially stopped learning anything new about my subject matter. (I challenge anyone to try teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to 16 different classes of 9th graders and still be able to find new things to appreciate about the novel.) It's not that I'm not learning; I learn plenty about how I interact with other people and what the true limits of my patience are, but I must admit that after five years of teaching the same books and stories it's hard to summon up the passion that I had when they were new to me.

I say all of this not to complain, I actually love my job, but to provide a bit of background to help explain why today was such a powerful day for me. Today I, along with 55 of my students, took two hours out of the day to learn something for no other other purpose but to learn, and I'm a bit shocked at how incredibly refreshing that was.

One of my students' fathers is full-blooded Native American (a hodgepodge of five different tribes) and, almost as an afterthought, he asked me if his dad could come in and tell us about his culture. I hesitated at first because these are the AP students, and taking a day out of their very full syllabus always makes everyone a bit tense. I was also weary because so many presenters are so very boring, and the kids get squirmy and obnoxious so very quickly, but I agreed. What I didn't realize at the time was this man travels from school to school with two of his "blood brothers" putting on very very organized and professional presentations. I sat amidst my 55 teenagers and watched, awestruck, as these men prayed with us, sang to us, danced for us, shared their stories with us, and joked with us. There's no way that I could recreate the experience here, so I won't bother attempting to, but it was amazing. The kids asked refreshingly naive questions and were more engaged than I've ever seen them.

There was no "point" to today's lesson plan, and that was the point. It wasn't in the curriculum, we'll do no final project and there will be no test. We all learned together for no other reason but to learn, and I realized today just how much I missed being that five-year-old who didn't need a report card or college admission or career opportunities to entice me to learn something new.

Perhaps that came off a bit sappy, but today's not a cynical day. I promise my next post will be deliciously sarcastic so the universe will return to its proper balance.


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