Energy. That’s the first thing it takes to teach a high school class, and it’s the last thing I have at 7:45 a.m.
That was the unreasonable hour at which I stood in front of more than 50 Northview High School students recently, guest teaching a lesson on writing. I had two cups of coffee in my tank and a laptop by my side. But getting my brain in gear – and engaging these sleepy students — was quite another thing.
We were all gathered in Northview’s Max Colley Performing Arts Center, where in reporting for School News Network I had covered a school jazz band workshop and a performance of “The Miracle Worker.” Now I was center stage, the guy expected to make it all happen and hopefully teach a few useful things along the way.
Could I hold their attention for the next hour? Could I generate thoughtful discussion? Could I help that girl in the third row stifle her yawns? These questions secretly nagged at me while I tried to look cool, confident and professional. I also hoped I had remembered to comb my hair, but it was much too late for that. I was the performer, they were the audience and it was show time. You’re on, teacher!
I had been invited to hold this workshop by Audra Whetstone and Nancy Hoffman, who teach Advanced Placement Language at Northview. For their unit on non-fiction writing they asked me to talk to their students about what writing is really like when it’s what you do for a living. I was happy to oblige, seeing this as a chance to spread the gospel of what a rewarding profession writing can be, even if you have to flip 1,000 short-order hamburgers to get there.
Students Talk Softly, Write Eloquently
I also saw it as an opportunity to learn more about what students think about writing and how today’s teachers teach it. I had taught college courses before but never high school. My hope was to help these students become better writers, and maybe inspire one or two of them to be writers.
In the process, I gained even more respect for the tremendously challenging task that teaching is. Writing is hard work, but you can always walk away and come back to it. Teaching demands you work hard constantly, and walking away from your students is not an option.
I came with a rough outline of what I wanted to cover, to support the teachers’ focus on essay writing and memoir. Auditorium director Mike Franks had obligingly cued up laptop links to MLive and School News Network so I could project recent examples of my work. Helped by a nifty pointer I highlighted passages emphasizing the importance of specific detail, vivid imagery and pithy quotes.
Was I getting through to anyone? Hard to tell. No one was nodding off but no one was raising hands to my questions either. Those who spoke did so quietly. I finally picked on a guy in the front row, who answered perfectly well. I took that as my cue for future questions: Don’t ask everyone, just ask one.
But despite their general reticence, the students were attentive and respectful. And when it came time to write, they did so thoughtfully and eloquently.
I played a soothing guitar CD and invited students to write freely about what it evoked in them. Their responses were fascinating. One student said it sounded like the episodes of a lifelong romance. One said it sounded like music for a funeral visitation; another was reminded of wedding music. For one young man, it brought forth images of childhood, playing toy golf with his dad and wanting to be like him.
Wow. So I really can learn something from these students about writing.
Then I showed them images from ArtPrize and asked them to write what they saw and felt. Pencils and pens moved busily. This was a pleasing sight. To watch a student gaze into space, then transfer that thought onto paper, may be the simplest act of learning one can witness. And let me tell you, it is really cool.
The Reward of all that Energy
The first session ended with not enough time for discussion. Then in came a second group of 28 students for another hour. I refined my strategies from the first hour, adjusting on the fly for what seemed to work best. I included information on memoir this time. I tried to leave more time for discussion, but still not enough. The students filed out and I exhaled. I guess I wasn’t terrible. Whetstone said she would give me “a solid A, not on a curve.”
I appreciated her compliment. I also appreciated that she teaches this class five times a day, and I was winded after two.
I later learned from Nancy Hoffman that students discussed some of the key points of the sessions, such as the creativity that can enliven nonfiction. I was gratified that much of what I said seemed to have actually taken root in their minds.
Where does these teachers’ energy come from? Now that I reflect on the experience, I think I might have a clue. Maybe they get their energy from watching students learn.