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Why We Should Challenge Our Students–And Ourselves

I’ve recently found myself in a learning situation I’ve rarely experienced before–a classroom where I am the slowest, lowest, and neediest learner.  The one whose work is nowhere near the level of everyone else’s.  The one who asks the dumbest questions.  The one who is silent and stricken after asking the dumb question.

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My own messy attempt at a poetry exercise

Those of us who grow up to become English teachers are skilled readers and writers, for the most part, and we were generally successful in educational settings.  We loved reading, we enjoyed writing papers, we received positive feedback from our teachers about our work, and we got good grades.  This is eminently true of my own educational experience, so I’ve never been able to truly empathize with how my struggling students might feel about our class time together.

The work of learning is tough in general, but standing out as the worst learner is a pretty unsettling feeling, I’m finding out.

The poetry workshop I’m involved in, which has shattered my confidence as a writer (while simultaneously strengthening my writing skills) is taught by award-winning poet Mary Ann Samyn.  This Bolton Professor for Teaching and Mentoring is the leader of our little band of misfit poets, and has been “poem-ing it up” for decades.

Mary Ann’s resulting ease with the language of writing and teaching poetry is obvious to witness.  She has clearly internalized and automatized much of the vocabulary of poetry–she tosses out phrases about meter and iambs and syllables and line breaks with such grace that I can tell she’s been thinking and talking about poetry for years.  “A line of poetry is a unit of measure,” she said.  I hastened to write down that line, marveling at its simple wisdom.

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My classmate, an MFA student, scrawls her own messy poem

It occurred to me, as I jotted down that poetic utterance of Mary Ann’s, that this is how I must sound to some of my students–as though I’m speaking another language.

As I sit in the workshop on Thursdays, surrounded by MFA students who have years of experience as real writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, as well as teacher-poets who have published their own verse, I feel so lost.  I am in a world I don’t feel I belong to–I do not yet identify as a poet, but I feel surrounded by them, trying to do the work of writing poetry and reading poetry and thinking about teaching poetry.  I wonder if I’ll ever get to their level as they gently question me about my writing, trying to make sense of my meaning, and give me suggestions about my work.

Regardless of how I view myself in the group, one thing is clear during the workshop–I am part of the community of poets, for 90 minutes every other Thursday.  I give and receive feedback in the same way the other writers do.  I participate in the exercises everyone else does.  I write poetry within the same time constraints as the others.  I am treated as a poet, even if I don’t think I am one.

Being part of a writing community with such rigor is hard, but it’s valuable.  I would never use the word “fun” to describe my time in the Bolton workshop, but I would argue that perhaps the best learning is not fun.  I find myself determined to write poetry alongside those real poets, even as I dread reading my words aloud to them moments later.  In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink argues that my drive to do this is innate to all learners:

“We have three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy.”

I make an effort to improve as a poet because I need to feel competent, much like our students work to improve as readers and writers because they desire competence, too.  In all educational situations, learners perform not because of the dangling promise of a grade, the threat of failure, or the pressure to comply with a controlling teacher.  They perform because they want to prove competence to themselves.

I asked a few students about this topic.  This summer, Shailyn read the Pulitzer-winning All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  She said the vocabulary was difficult, the book was long, and the writing style was strange–it was one of the toughest books she’s read.  “Why did you have the confidence you could read it?” I asked her.  “When you encountered those challenges, what made you say, ‘I don’t care.  I’m gonna read this anyway.’?”

“Because I have goals.  I like to feel challenged, and when I finally figured out how [the protagonists’] stories came together, I felt satisfied.  And I felt like I learned a lot from that book when I finished it,” she said.  Shailyn wanted to know that she was a competent reader–comprehending that book showed her she was.

Hunter, too, recently finished a book that challenged him.  “I hate this book,” he told me in the midst of Lone Survivor.  “You can abandon it,” I reminded him.  “No!” he said, forcefully.  “I’ve gotten two-thirds of the way through it.  I’m not giving up now.”  Hunter finished the book of his own accord, exercising his autonomy.

Lakynn agreed that learning is intrinsically motivated.  “You feel better about yourself when you’re more educated about a topic,” she told me.  “If you’re not knowledgeable about something, you can’t relate to someone more educated.  You want to learn about things so you can have those conversations with people about them,” she explained.  The social aspect of a learning community is evident and powerful here–Lakynn sought information about the Republican presidential candidates to fulfill her relatedness needs.

The more I talked with students, the more I discovered that what I thought was frustration with my difficult learning experience was actually profound satisfaction.  Yes, my confidence was crushed–I thought I was a good writer.  But knowing that I had so much room to grow created a hunger for more knowledge–I needed to learn, to belong, to feel competent again.  And so, I leave the Bolton workshop energized, confused, and with my mental wheels turning, every time.  The rigor of that learning–the toughness of it–is what makes it so satisfying.  I’ll remember that the next time I sit down beside the accomplished poets in my class, and every day I design lessons for my students.

Our students flourish when we create an authentic, rigorous learning community for them to be part of.  Difficult books, intimidating writing pieces, and high expectations combine to create an ideal situation in which autonomous learning can occur.  The beauty–and the learning–lie in the challenge.

I’ll leave you with a gem from one of Mary Ann Samyn’s collections of poetry, Beauty Breaks In:

Beauty breaks in everywhere.
Welcome to the wind-powered poem.
Like the ocean or the woodcut of the ocean.
I heard the hardest thing and listened.
Syntax says, you first. Shimmer half-scolds.
I said, I am loved. Sometimes a correction happens.
Fear made it one full week. A human action.
I stopped making it worse than it was.

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3 thoughts on “Why We Should Challenge Our Students–And Ourselves

  1. […] engaging, provided we are capable of achieving the skill with guidance, effort, and practice.  I challenge my students regularly to take risks, attempt new skills, and make a habit of pushing themselves. […]

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  2. […] to connect with these fine folks through the Bolton Writing Workshops, which were a fantastic challenge for me to participate in.  And my students were lucky enough that several of the program’s […]

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  3. […] and investigate,” I follow up.  I pass out the following options, lately garnered from my incredible poetry seminar with Mary Ann […]

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