Selections from Subject Methods
What Inspires My Students
March 5, 2018
After reading the two pieces for this month’s activity, I decided I wanted to have an open discussion with a group of students rather than just one, so that I could do more learning myself. In my class of six students, an ungraded “Talk” section of eighth-grade boys that meets once a week to discuss both ethics and current events, I asked the students what inspires them, with no added qualifiers or explanation. As these students know I am often doing work for graduate school, one of the boys immediately asked whether this was for Penn. When I said yes, the boys set down the iPads or pens in their hands and locked into eye contact uncommon for this group. It was as if I had flipped a switch that signaled I wanted their honest answers and participation. In the discussion that followed, two clear themes emerged. The students were inspired by lifelong devotion and by perseverance. At the center of everything though was family.
The first student to speak offered an eloquent ode to his grandparents. He said specifically, he is inspired everyday by the way his grandfather continues to learn and do research, even into his eighties well after retirement. His grandfather, a former professor at Davidson College whom I had the pleasure of getting to know while a student there, is affectionately known as “Old Man Library” for showing up every day without fail at the library as it opens so that he can read and continue to learn. When I pushed this student as to how that inspired him, he said he was inspired to keep learning both as to honor his grandfather’s hard work that earned him an esteemed professorship emeritus and as a way to match the intellectuality that has come to define his family.
The next student spoke similarly about family. He told the class the story of his father, who, in his words, grew up with nothing. He spoke of the challenges his father needed to face each day to even get to school and have an opportunity to learn. In order to attend college, my student told us, his dad had to earn a full-ride scholarship. The work ethic to get there carried him through college, law school, and has helped him create a life where his children have the whole world in front of them without any limitations. When telling the story, it was clear the boy deeply admired his father. But from the tone of his voice, it seemed like he had not often had to put into words the gratitude he felt for his dad. He told us in conclusion that what inspired him most was the perseverance his dad showed that he had not yet needed to muster in his own life. When I pressed him about why he found that particularly inspirational, he said seeing somebody go beyond what he has ever needed to do in order for him to have it easy in life drives him to want to do the same.
While the next four students were much more reticent to speak with that amount of emotion, all of them chose a family member’s story to tell. One was inspired by a now deceased grandmother, another by his mother, one by his sister and the last by his father. Each of their testimonies involved a relative working to such an extent that they received opportunities for success that they might not have otherwise. In most examples, it was relentlessness and passion for a subject or for a career that produced the inspirational work ethic. But for all of my students, they said they felt more inspired to work hard in school because of the examples set by relatives.
It is hard to know whether family is truly at the center of all of these students’ webs of inspiration. With two students starting with such passionate testimony about family members, I am sure the other students felt compelled to continue down that road. However, I imagine for most of the students I teach at Gilman, a wealthy private school in the nicest part of Baltimore, they do realize the sacrifices past family members have made in order to arrive where they are. This particular group of students has talked to me previously about how lucky they feel to be given the opportunity to attend the school, for they believe nothing they did as children earned the spot. Their primary inspiration, then, seems to be the people who gave my students the privilege of being where they are.
This conversation suggests my students understand school to be a system where where they should work hard in order to gain opportunities later in life. They readily acknowledge that if given the choice, they would prefer to succeed academically than grow intellectually. Yet given where their inspiration comes from, all six of these boys seem to hope to eventually learn for learning’s sake. While they are not there yet, they are all inspired by traits that produce lifelong learners and the people that embody those traits.
February 14, 2019
I. The Past
The notion that I was going to be a Language Arts teacher rather than an English teacher sat uncomfortably with me the summer after I took the job at Gilman. When people asked what I was going to teach, I always replied, “English.” Looking back, I think I saw the name diminishing my potential to impact the boys’ lives beyond skill-building. It signaled a position of instructor, not guide. I could not neatly fit my early vision for an ideal classroom - one where I sat in an armchair and posed big questions - into a middle school LA teacher.
In wanting to do my duty to the school, I initially filled the role of instructor as shown by my mentor and others at Gilman’s Middle School. At the urging of coworkers, I became a nitpicker, a teacher who used rules and routine to create a certain class culture from the opening minutes. They told me that as a young teacher, I needed to demand respect lest the class turn into unrescuable chaos. Most of the time last year, I felt entirely disingenuous, pretending to be someone other than myself to fit what I thought it meant to teach Language Arts. Desiring to play a more meaningful role for the boys, I relied on interactions outside the classroom to build the relationships. I divided myself into two distinct characters - my warm persona in the hallways and in my office stood in juxtaposition with a demanding presence inside my class. I was both warm and demanding, as Penn urged us to be in our opening session, but never at the same time. A few of my first students say hello a year later, and many have told me how well they are doing in eighth grade grammar as a result of learning with me. But in the sets of eyes that go down as I pass, the limited long-term impact of my classroom reflects back at me.
On my first Parent Night, I promised the parents a hitherto unseen commitment to their sons’ writing abilities. I gave every homework, every quiz, and every essay back within a day, complete with overzealous feedback. I wanted to show my commitment to my students in order to ask for more from them. This transactional approach seems rooted in retrospect in a desire to prove myself, both to parents and to Gilman. While that approach has its merits, and I still hope to carry much of that preparation through my career, I have come to relax many of the structured routines to allow for the students to guide more of the classroom. Counterintuitively, I began connecting with the boys more as I eased my adherence to the so-called rules of teaching as communicated by colleagues and the literature I was reading.
Revisiting a passage I shared from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, I see the question: how does one measure the success of a life in teaching? It is not, I realize, through the daily successes of students that a teacher achieves fulfillment. While quiz scores, homework completion, and good behavior can show some levels of success, skills, mindsets, and relationships communicate longer-term impact. We cannot judge ourselves until we see who these boys become. In looking at my past self, I believe I did my duty for the school in getting my students prepared for the eight grade. But I missed opportunities to prepare these boys for life. In striking a balance in the classroom between skill-building and relationship-building, I can serve the boys in the present and the future and one day rest as Ishiguro’s protagonist does not, content that I have positively affected the lives of others.
II. The Present
In my days as a student, I hated English classes that restricted learning to the books on the table. The books seemed too often irrelevant, their messages antiquated and deemotionalized. I could connect to John Knowles’s A Separate Peace and to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye when I felt an emotional link to the characters, but struggled through Shakespearean histories and Reconstruction-era exposes, unable to find a way inside. Eventually, I fell in love with English through writing personal narratives, and later in college when I could choose my angles into the stories being read, I began to appreciate again the act of reading. Given the freedom to analyze non-traditional texts such as film and asylum poetry, I pushed towards deeper learning. When I first encountered Mary Helen Immordino-Yang & Antonio Damasio’s 2011 cognitive neuroscience research on the role of affect and emotion in education, I found affirmation for what I had long suspected. They wrote that “emotional processes are required for the skills and knowledge acquired in school to transfer to novel situations and to real life,” highlighting the crucial connection between student engagement and emotion (p. 120). As a Language Arts teacher who does not love reading as much as people expect, I am not as ideologically tethered to the classic novel as most. On account of my own experiences and the literature into teaching popular culture that I will explore here, I try each day to infuse my lessons with cultural and emotional relevance in order to maximize student engagement. Using popular culture to support the curricular novel rather than supplant it, I can create an English classroom that engages my students in relevant and meaningful conversations while maintaining adherence to institutional aspirations.
Although it comes from across the world in Australia, Megan Bowmer and Jen Curwood’s 2016 research into teaching popular culture alongside course material nearly matches my ideal approach. Operating under the sociocultural framework that “learning occurs through interactions with people and their environments,” the authors examine the effects of teaching Romantic poetry in tandem with popular culture (p. 141). In class, they used James Cameron’s Avatar alongside environmental analysis of John Keats poetry just as I have opened discussions about Disney’s The Lion King in tandem with forays into theme and character. While I have thus far only introduced and discussed popular culture as a way to access deeper connections to set course material, Bowmer and Curwood go so far as to assess students’ understandings through “remixes” in which they combine a Romantic poem of their choosing with a song of their choice. As students followed personal paths of interest, they demonstrated complex applications of poetic language and form and an understanding of Romantic ideas, something that otherwise might have been painful. In reflections on the activity, a student commented that “this task enabled [her] to conceptualize the legacy of Romantic concepts through a deeper and more personal lens” (p. 147). The success of this project stems largely from the scaffolding in class, where the teachers merged traditional and nontraditional texts before they asked the students to do so, modeling the ways texts can communicate across centuries before releasing their charges to the creative task. However, I particularly enjoy this activity because it does not forsake Romantic poetry altogether. Recognizing its relative inaccessibility, the teachers found an engaging and relevant way into it for their kids without sacrificing deep analysis. “Popular culture is a complement to,” they write, “not a substitute for, traditional literature” (p. 148). The teachers could have easily abandoned Keats, but instead they found ways to connect students to him emotionally through their own interests.
Scott Storm & Emily Rainey (2018) similarly try to engage students emotionally in their English classrooms, though they do so with the explicit goal of “[equipping students] to both participate in and critically interrogate [the discourse communities of their lives] with the aim of developing a more just world” (p. 95). In highlighting systemic injustice and asking students to participate in making change, these teachers are indeed making the English classroom emotionally relevant. Like the Australian classroom described above, they utilize popular culture, here only on Fridays, where students participate in “#LitAnalysis4Life,” an exercise where students bring multimodal texts to present and critique for the duration of class. The teacher cedes the floor to the students entirely here, something that requires an older group than I have, but crucially establishes the focus on the deconstruction of texts rather than generic readings that dot many classrooms. I admire how they espouse teaching “a plurality of texts that are meaningful to [students,]” as it will breed buy-in and encourage complex engagement (p. 100). Once a week, the teacher leaves the content behind to build relevant skills and mindsets that the traditional class texts cannot allow. While I think the partition between the two styles of class would still work, I wonder why they choose not to interleave them together, as it presently might push students away from the work they do not have an emotional connection with, suggesting a divide naturally exists. It might better serve the students to link these texts more explicitly to the course material, building a bridge to make the other four days more emotionally relevant.
Though the preponderance of current pedagogical research on the English classroom offers innovative strategies to push English instruction into the 21st century, scholars rarely articulative the potential conflicts with school missions, something I struggle with. For while cultural consciousness can benefit the students’ abilities to analyze the world, a course focused on developing mindsets as Storm & Rainey suggests does not always align with the mission statements that teachers must follow. At independent schools with long histories, missions tend to evolve glacially, as competing institutional priorities keep conversations about change in unending gridlock. Explicitly “college preparatory” schools, for instance, must stay beholden to the essay, to AP curricula, and to the parents atop the social ladder who fund the schools’ annual funds. As long as these schools rely on the money of those in power, select few independent schools can afford to risk their whole existence in veering away from the established models that have shuttled the students to the Ivy League. Even as administrators embrace “woke” pedagogy in professional development sessions, teachers must still balance that with the expressed mission statements that parents sign their children up for.
The research on popular culture that speaks to me can work within existing independent school frameworks, allowing the teacher to introduce new ideas for engagement to better access the literature and skill-building the schools require. The best English classrooms engage students’ interests and affections by allowing their identities and interests to reflect on the material being learned. They give the students agency and choice. Through assessments that mix traditional texts with nontraditional texts or with self-governed deconstructions of popular culture, students can consider themselves in wider contexts, a main goal of my English classroom. By leveraging my students’ interests to bring them closer to texts, I can create a space for impassioned, deep engagement.
III. The Future
Earlier this week, my class spontaneously started compiling a list of “favorite class moments” on the board after a grammar quiz. Where my previous self would have quieted them, ushering them into a study hall, I watched intently from the back of the room as the whole group gathered around each other, shouting specific memories from the class to be included. The list ranged from a student saving my sweater from a marker stain to a student’s Freudian slip to a popular culture-infused grammar lesson even to this particular day when we all celebrated my half-birthday with a rice cake. In this moment, I saw exactly why I wanted to be a teacher. In every smiling face spending this Thursday in February reminiscing about our class, I saw a love for each other. Though the group contained many who would not talk outside the door, inside they were bonded.
Where my past self aspired to fill students’ toolboxes with writing tips and effective study habits, I see my future self tethered less to content. I firmly believe that feelings and dispositions will last far longer than any trick to find indirect objects or quotations from Animal Farm. Making more use of popular culture elements and ceding much of the power to the students can cement those feelings and memories. Each minute need not be structured in class. I will make sure there is space in the curriculum and in each lesson for time to develop a particular class camaraderie. Encouraging my students to share their own interests and bringing some of mine to the class can in turn develop trust between teacher and student. With that trust, something I am now beginning to see the fruits of, students want to be in class. Their heads are up, they respect me enough to listen when I speak, and they engage, trusting there will be reward at the end.
Pedagogically that trust will allow me to move away from instructor towards guide. In ceding my absolute authority in front of the room and empowering student voice, I can more authentically be myself in the classroom just as in the halls. When I use my mantra “work smart, not hard,” they will know I say that to them looking out for the long-term interests beyond their immediate grades in my class. I hope that trust will allow students to conference with me more freely in my office and in the hallways about their writing, for I believe personalized, verbal writing instruction delivers more immediate and lasting results than written feedback that may or may not be read. In embracing relationship building and deemphasizing the immediacy of the content, there can be a longer arc on the year that allows for more growth.
When I leave Gilman, I want my students to remember Mr. Faust as a teacher who made them feel loved and capable. I want them to know I cared about them first and foremost as a person, and expressed belief in them when they needed it most. Sure, I hope they attribute a disdain for semicolons to me, but I understand the content from the course will soon be replaced with deeper understandings of literature from future courses. What will linger will be those memories they are already working to fortify. Now I do not know how many of my relationships with these boys will continue after I leave, as I know I am in the minority for keeping in regular communication with more than a dozen of my old teachers. But whether they remember me or not, I hope they will appreciate the camaraderie we built together.
Bowmer, M. E., & Curwood, J. S. (2016). From Keats to Kanye: Romantic poetry and popular culture in the secondary english curriculum. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 60(2), 141-149.
Immordino-Wang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2011). We feel, therefore we learn: the relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. LEARNing Landscapes, 5(1), 113-131.
Storm, S., & Rainey, E. C. (2018). Striving toward woke english teaching and learning. English Journal, 107(6), 95-101.