Monday, February 08, 2010


…that pathless coast,--
The desert and illimitable air,--
       Lone wandering, but not lost.
 -- William Cullen Bryant, “To a Waterfowl”

In the above quote, the poet is talking about a bird, not a 9th grade English teacher, but I often go back to this poem as I try to find my way along the “pathless coast” of teaching teenagers. Of course, a visitor to my classroom might see me as the opposite of a “lone wandering” soul. I dress quite formally and try to present myself to the students as an erudite and skilled educator, one who knows precisely where he’s going and how to get there. I come to class equipped with a comprehensive lesson plan, and I do my best to march the scholars through the steps with a reasonable amount of coolness and clout. However, the fact is that I usually feel more like a bird gone astray in a “desert of illimitable air” than a self-assured, proficient educator. There’s actually a lot of make-believe in my teaching: making believe I understand these kids, making believe I know what I’m doing, making believe I’m poised and self-assured, when in fact I’m just a befuddled rover in the great labyrinth of learning.  After 40+ years in the classroom, the “coast” of teaching, as I journey along it, seems more pathless, more incomprehensible than ever. Yes, I’ve learned a thousand tricks, techniques, tools, strategies, and tactics, but the grand mystery of it all remains. Indeed, it’s a fabulous enterprise we teachers are involved in – fabulous meaning literally like a fable or a legend.  I often feel like I’m laboring in the old storybook world of Theseus as I find my way through the labyrinth of English teaching. I know there are holy grails hidden in this work we do, and I’m still loyally seeking them, but sometimes, the closer I get, the farther away I feel.  The task of teaching kids how to read deeply and write stylishly sometimes seems as “boundless” as the sky in Bryant’s poem, through which the waterfowl flies toward the sunset.  However, amidst the vague and unsure vastness of the world, the bird’s flight still seems strangely “certain” to the poet. That word is prominent in the poem – certain, like no doubt about it, assured, definite. The bird will get where it needs to go, and so – if I’m patient and keep making those detailed lesson plans – will I.

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