Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Good Tension

In the early years of my teaching career, I wouldn’t have considered it a compliment if my classes had been characterized as “tense” or “tension-filled”, but my feelings have gradually changed. I guess I’ve come to see the positive aspects of tension, to the point where I purposely try to build it in to my classes. After all, the word derives from the Latin for “stretch”, which is exactly what I want my students to do to their hearts and minds as they read good literature and write good essays. I picture their thoughts stretching out almost (but not quite) to the point of snapping, and their hearts reaching out to far-flung horizons. Problem is, a tense English class, in a way, is the opposite of an enjoyable one. If my students are always "enjoying" my class, it might be because they are utterly relaxed, which might be because they’re not stretching. “Relax” comes from the root for “loose”, and I’m not sure kids can feel loose, at liberty, and stress-free, and still be stretching themselves. Interestingly, the word “enjoy” stems from the same Latin root that gives us “rejoice”, and I’m fairly certain that my students are not able to rejoice at the same moment when they are stretching beyond their previous boundaries. I hope a few might rejoice later when they realize what they’ve accomplished, but while they’re straining to understand what a Shakespeare sonnet is saying to them, or struggling to see the significance of a scene in O Pioneers, groaning is probably a more common response than rejoicing. Sometimes I compare teaching English to taking the taking the students on a strenuous mountain climb. Surely they would expect to be stretched when ascending a high peak, and just as surely they would not expect to always enjoy the experience. In fact, if it’s a truly arduous climb, there may not be much real enjoyment – surely not much rejoicing – until the summit is reached. However, we all know, or can imagine, the feeling of elation and accomplishment that comes when viewing a valley from a lofty summit that you have reached through your own brave efforts, and I hope my students can feel at least a little jubilation after enduring the tension that comes from stretching out – often way, way out – to reach the sometimes distant truths in the literature we read.

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