Friday was productive. I didn’t plan anything special, but by about the middle of the day, I realized that it was a really good one.
After a simple error identification and correction exercise on the projector for a warm up (courtesy of Yahoo!), most of my classes were studying Oedipus Rex, which I’d perform aloud as they read along and stop two or three times per page to summarize in my joking, pop-culture heavy style (“So Oedipus is getting all paranoid and Tiresias just keeps throwing down sarcastic one-liners,” or “‘Get hence, ye scurvy, pockmarked, wrathful knave’? I didn’t know Paris Hilton lived in ancient Greece!”). Most of this goes over reasonably well.
The middle of the day was just a few minutes spent correcting an assignment from last week in class and a brief quiz over today’s Oedipus reading, then I checked that they had brought in novels for this quarter that fit my length and difficulty requirements (almost all did). The last half hour was given to letting them read on their own (a grade being given for staying on task), and those without books were given the first chapter of Anna Karenina to copy–the rationale being that copying work of such terrific quality is a decent exercise in itself (a language arts version of tracing, really; an elementary activity which we too often ignore because it’s not jazzy enough for the postmodern classroom), it’s the only way most of them will ever get to encounter this famous classic (“Every happy family is alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”), and the farily boring nature of the work should be an incentive to bring a novel in next time (though this sometimes backfires: some of the lowest achievers–those who tend never to bring books–actually love basic skills work, cherishing its lack of higher thought and engagement. Some remedial students would jump at the chance to copy the dictionary all day, every day, if it meant never having to think or do real work.).
Anyway, it was during the silent reading time of one of these classes that, as Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute was playing over king.org (which my computer speakers waft into the room most days), I realized what a pleasantly productive day this was. In class after class, nearly everybody was engaged in useful mental training. Too many educrats these days chant their lemming mantra that a class must be noisy and rowdy to be learning something, but I find that kids today are overstimulated, and creating a calmer environment is a necessary antidote; if work is mature and challenging, they’ll usually respect it and rise to the occasion.
I’m very happy with my classes this year: the kids look and act just as silly as their peers in recent years (in the early 90′s, my friends and I all understood that we’d look back on all this flannel and laugh; do these kids have the same kind of awareness about their dumb fashions?), but they respond to being managed professionally–not pandered to like babysitting clients, but not condescended toward like faux-equals. A firm yet personable hand does the trick. The only bells and whistles a good class needs are a teacher passionate about learning the subject, and a curriculum that pushes the mind to grow.
My other class Friday spent a lot of time on grammar, which most English teachers have abandoned because it’s even more foreign to teens now than a Latin-speaking algebra expert. Still, it’s a classic tool with an impeccable pedigree, and I walked the group through several book examples, improvised some funny ones of our own (“‘I kicked the freshman.’ What’s the direct object?”), and answered their questions with loaded, leading statements meant to draw them into figuring it out for themselves (don’t you hate jerks like that?).
I only confiscated one cell phone on Friday. Curses!
But back to that Mozart / silent reading moment, days like that are almost enough to make this frustrated cynic think that maybe, just maybe, some of this stuff is doing some kind of good for someone. I hope so, because good teaching is hard. OK, so it’s not a full contact sport, but after the last bell rang and everybody left, an exhausted Mr. Huston staggered into the English workroom and collapsed into his favorite chair, instantly passing out for half an hour.
But it was worth it.
Oh, also, a kid who was in my class a couple of years ago and who just graduated last Spring dropped by with a green chili bagel from Einstein’s for me. Yum! I love green chili bagels.
So here’s to hoping for more days like Friday!