“Statistically, if you’re reading this sentence, you’re an oddball. The average American spends three minutes a day reading a book. At this moment, you and I are engaged in an essentially antiquated interaction. Welcome, fellow Neanderthal!”
― Dick Meyer, Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium
My last year as a classroom teacher was by far the best in terms of seeing children not just grow academically but mature in ways that you just can’t accomplish through tests and worksheets. No piece of paper or list of skills or set of standards could have prepared me for what my students needed that particular year in that particular setting. And I owe it all to two things: passion and literature.
I write today to remind myself, as I embark on a new journey of homeschooling (not my own children), to let the process take precedence… to allow the journey to mean more than the end result. For in that journey, the intended end result will be accomplished.
When we (as teachers, or just humans for that matter) allow ourselves to get bogged down in the details, we miss out on the big picture. I’ve always been one who sees the forest, rather than the trees. I’ve always been more of a “let’s look at what we want them to get out of this instead of how we’ll get there” type of gal. And for that reason, I have seen the rewards: a child who never read a book on their own suddenly wanted more books, a child who couldn’t understand why an author would choose such tragedy rather than comedy becomes keenly aware of our need to see tragedy in order to preserve the comedy.
Because I know the forest well… today I am making a list (against my usual beginnings) of all the trees. I’m making this list to remind myself of which trees produced that beautiful forest. Forgive me for speaking so metaphorically. I just see it no other way.
1. I will begin the year teaching and cramming in as many skills as I can so that my students can use those skills through the remainder of the year. – When the crux of the information is given first, then those elements can be drawn upon and discussed as I enter my literature. For example, if I’ve already given a foundation of what irony is, we can then look to literature to find the irony. We can stop reading and discuss when we see it happening.
2. I will begin the year teaching how to properly write a summary. – I feel that summary writing is crucial and paramount… Before diving into essays, I need to help my student(s) develop confidence in understanding a story well enough to write a catching summary. I have never been fond of the summary written to just tell the main points. I favor the summaries that give away the moral, lesson learned, theme. I favor summaries that force the writer to really ponder and stew over what the author is trying to say to their reader. I have found a formula that works well in teaching great summary writing. And although I tend to stay very far away from formulaic writing, I have come to realize that this formula forms the foundation for deep analysis.
3. READ, WRITE, READ, WRITE. – Hand in hand these two go. You can’t have one without the other. I will remember to read ALOUD and write TOGETHER until it is mastered. Every skill I want to teach, every social issue I want to discuss, every historical time I want to explain, every life lesson I want to impart can be found through story. But I can’t end with just story. I must allow my student(s) the opportunity to voice their beliefs, opinions, agreements, and disagreements. I want my student(s) to argue with me. I want them to be filled with enough passion after reading a life changing story to stand up and tell me they see it differently. I want their minds to be bursting forth with so much thought, they have to let it explode onto paper.
4. I will let the process take over. – I must remember that when a lesson takes longer than I want, or a discussion happens more hesitantly than I’m expecting, or a topic sentence just can’t be created, that these times are for pause and reflection rather than haste. I must remember to allow my student(s) to set the pace. I’m not teaching myself… I’m teaching them.
5. Most importantly, I will be present. – I will rejoice and grieve with the characters in my stories and with my student(s) so that empathy can be seen. Students know the difference between a leader who is really there with them, and one who simply needs to get that skill or topic checked off for the day. The best lessons I’ve ever taught are the ones that weren’t planned…They were the ones that were a result of student led discussion. I will wait with anticipation for those conversations to happen.
One final reminder to myself comes from the words of Jim Trelease, a guru in the world of reading aloud:
“People do not learn by information. Story is the basic fabric for intelligence because it determines how we think and behave. Stories give life to past experiences. Stories make the events in memory memorable to others and to ourselves. It is story that focuses our attention, helps us make sense out of the world around us. The politician or preacher who stands before an audience and says, ‘That reminds me of a story,’ has its attention immediately. If all we are doing in school is teaching students how to answer the calls they’ll someday get on their beepers [dating my book, here] or emails, then the curriculum is wasted. The most important calls will not come on beepers; instead they will be the daily calls for love, justice, courage, compassion. IQ and HQ (heart quotient) are both important. When we begin to focus exclusively on paper scores, we need to be reminded that the most educated nation in two thousand years led the world in math and science in 1930. It also produced the Third Reich. The Holocaust could never have happened if the German heart had been as well educated as the German mind. Science and math are important but they only address the IQ, not the HQ. Have you ever heard of a child crying over the end of a math book? I rest my case.” – Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook