| May 17, 2011
BY LAWRENCE BAINES
May 17, 2011
Pretend that you are going on a first date. You like the person and hope that the first date will lead to a positive long-term relationship. You spend hours getting ready, making sure that your clothes look good and that your hair is in place.
Your date knocks on the door and you open it. Before even saying hello, your date grabs you with both hands and attempts to thrust a tongue-jutting French kiss hard on your lips. You back off, aghast, as you realize that you do not know this person at all. You begin to wonder how you can opt out of this date and rid yourself of the maniacal French kisser.
The pressure of standards and accountability—initially at the state level, now with the Common Core—has turned some teachers into the academic equivalent of overly-aggressive, tongue-jutting, French kissers. Rather than try to interest students in a text by allowing them to “get to know” something about the topic and letting them “play around” with a new idea, they attack as if students are already interested and eager. Unfortunately, they are not.
A teacher’s interests, as well as a student’s interests, would be better served by romancing the topic. Recently, I worked with a teacher who wanted her students to read and analyze Edna St. Millay’s poem “Dirge without Music,” whose first verse is as follows:
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Rather than jump immediately into teaching the poem or delving into a lecture on the characteristics of twentieth century poetry, she asked the class, “What happens to you when you die?”
After a few moments of silence, students began describing their conceptions of heaven and hell. One student in the classroom mentioned that three members of her family had technically “died,” and been brought back to life. She said that all three of her relatives had described death as a falling away from waves of bright, white light into utter darkness, followed by a rush of serene contentment.
The extent to which the student was accurate in her descriptions of the near-death experiences of family members is superfluous. Soon, students began to run with the idea of the mysterious realms between life and death, and the entire class became engrossed in trying to figure out what poets had to say about heaven, hell, and the spaces in-between.
Next time you begin study on a new book, story, poem, or topic, remember to give students the time to “get to know” the topic first. The initial introduction is the first date in what will eventually be a life-long relationship between the student and the text. Don’t blow it by coming on too strong. Lawrence Baines is a professor of English Education at The University of Oklahoma who has worked in over 350 schools. Baines is obsessed with the peculiar art of teaching writing to adolescents, and co-wrote the book Going Bohemian: How to Teach Writing Like You Mean It (published by IRA) with his buddy, Anthony Kunkel. Visit him on the web at www.lawrencebaines.com.
© 2011 Lawrence Baines. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. Teaching Tips: The Reading Makeover Putting the 'Fun' in Reading Fundamentals