ONE YEAR WITH AN ENGLISH TEACHER
Day 53, Tuesday, November 20, 2007
In the 8th grade classes today we discussed three poems having some relevance to thanksgiving, and I was surprised by how completely different the reactions were. In the first class, the poems were greeted with more than a little puzzlement and only muted enthusiasm. There was almost a deadened, soporific feeling in the air when I finished reading each poem. In this class, composed of very bright kids, getting a conversation going about the poems was a tedious affair, and keeping it going was a task beyond my ability. I was a bit discouraged at the end of the class, but that lasted only until the next class arrived. With these kids, who are no smarter than the other students, the poems made a surprisingly profound impact. After reading one poem, a girl quickly said, “Oh, I really, really like that poem”, and an impressive discussion commenced. As I read another poem, a girl sitting beside me quietly exulted over one line and then proceeded to lead the lively conversation about it.
Same poem, two groups of bright students, two opposite reactions.
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Once again, especially in the second class, I was impressed by how astutely the kids carried on the discussion with very little help from me. I managed, as I’ve been trying to do this year, to “step back” when I had the urge to jump in and clarify something, and each time I did, the students made their own more than adequate clarifications and carried the discussion smoothly forward. It makes me ask a simple but scary question: Have I been underestimating the abilities of my students for all these 40+ years?? Why has it taken me this long to realize how much literary wisdom lies latent and ready to sprout inside my students? Why have I been the autocratic CEO of my classes when I should have been more like a gardener cultivating and encouraging unbelievably fruitful plants?