Let me start by acknowledging the following : We all work hard.
Day in, day out, passionately, for hours outside the classroom, over breaks, through the night, in the summer, at the expense of our own health, sanity, and in some cases children, tirelessly, endlessly, hard.
We wrestle with accountability, making the right choices, bankrupting our personal finances, moving in new directions, providing substantive feedback, reinventing our curriculum, and capturing that often elusive “I’m making a difference” feeling.
And all of these opportunities, obstacles, maneuvers, struggles, negotiations, blessings…are well worth the effort. We know this to be true.
We grow. Students grow. The world brightens.
This week, however, a week of extra meetings, assigned readings, professional development planning, ACT Interim test data analysis, sophomore research papers and practice AP tests in all of my classes, has me feeling cranky, irritable, and disenchanted with the whole thing (and apparently listy, because I’ve got a lot of lists rolling here).
But it’s not all of these “bonuses” to my week that really have me in a funk.
It’s the quiet.
The file in and file out of my classroom.
The silence of compliance.
My students have not been talking the past few class periods, and the absence of their ideas has me crankdified.
While it might seem nice to have a “break” to work while kids complete practice tests and independent study, it didn’t feel nice. It felt…empty.
It hit me last week during a discussion of Scott Brown’s “Facebook Friendonomics.”
We’re in a unit on community in AP Language and wrestling with the following:
What is the individual’s responsibility to the community?
I had just read the piece aloud, asked students to respond to it in a quick write, and was now listening to a discussion on the author’s use of allusion. Brown suggests that the natural evolution of friendships is corrupted by social media.
The discussion was not initially brilliant. Students wrestled with some examples of allusion that meant nothing to them (the author details contacts in a Rolodex, quips about watching 90210, and references Garbage Pail Kids), so I suggested we try to update references, eliciting an enthusiastic walk (dance) down memory lane for my seventeen year olds, back to Pokemon cards and “Soulja Boy” (Ahhhh…2007).
As I listened to them reminisce about cultural touchstones in their lives, I had to smile.
“So, what is this author trying to tell us about community?” I asked.
Our discussion continued for another few minutes, encompassing author craft, the existence of Finsta (I am suddenly SO old), the unnatural qualities of social media “friends,” and the duality of both fake and fulfilling relationships through online communities. I sent my students back to their notebooks and they reflected a bit further on how discussion had expanded their understanding of the ways this piece answered our essential question.
And I…was happy.
I had listened, mostly. Invited a few students into the discussion who hadn’t shared. Pulled us back to the task at hand.
But I had let them talk. No agenda. No time limit. No right answers.
Now, I’m not here to suggest that having a discussion with your class is revolutionary. Obviously it’s not, but it occurred to me:
My individual responsibility to this community is to keep my students talking.
And while I’m on this soapbox (it’s not my preferred method of communication, thankfully, but I sort of like it up here), I’ll say it another way:
We need to listen. More.
Educators the world over, both seasoned and virginal, know, but all too often forget (so guilty myself), that the talk in our classrooms that is most vital to engagement, progression, retention, and overall enthusiasm for learning, is not our own.
Facilitated and guided by the teacher – yes.
Framed by objectives, teaching points, and standards – of course.
Aimed at gradual release – ideally.
Supplemented with our insights, passions, and ideas – I certainly hope so.
Talk to their small groups, talk to the class, talk to me, talk to their notebooks, talk about talk. It’s all talk that can promote discovery.
We need students talking, not just to check comprehension (flashback to the initiate, respond, evaluate cycle of classrooms I grew up in), but far more importantly, to develop their thinking.
My modeling and guided instruction is far more beneficial in the long run, as the goal of each is to get students involved in a way that has them taking the torch and forging ahead on their own.
That’s where the emptiness of this past week had come from. We weren’t involved in anything together, and I felt the absence of the interaction keenly.
With the testing behind us and the research papers waiting patiently for another hour (or seven hours, if my calculation for that stack is correct), I conferred with several students during reading time, to selfishly feel better myself. During our quick write, I sat down at a table with my kids and wrote, as opposed to staying at my desk. I started several writing conferences during workshop time with, “Tell me about…”
I’m not in any sort of denial that what I’ve written here is new or different in any way, but I am certain that the reminder did me good. I hope it does for you too.
Let’s talk about talk in the comments below. I’m a good listener.
Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of English educating gods and goddesses at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She loves to listen to the Decemberists, the call of redwing blackbirds, and audiobooks read with British accents. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum