Monday, January 9, 2012

More Tales From School


A conversation I sank into and the real role of teaching.

There are times when, after the fact, I can ask how I let myself get drawn into a thing in the classroom. In the moment, however, it's all I can do stay afloat. I had just such an event today when I got started down a conversational road with a student and should have immediately turned off and gone somewhere else. I didn't have the presence of mind to realize it then, but I see it clearly now. So it sometimes goes.

The students were all working on different pieces of writing. Frank (not even close to his real name) had written a piece entitled "What is a Coward?" In the piece Frank chose to ask the question over and over in different forms rather than answer it. I crouched by his desk reading it and seeing the similarities with every other piece he has written. Frank poses questions but steadfastly refuses to answer them. I thought, here's a teachable moment, and prepared to move Frank toward answering something.

Yeah, that all sounds like a good idea, but the wheels came off the cart pretty quickly.

Frank doesn't believe that anyone has the right to make pronouncements as to what a coward is or isn't. That, he says, has to be left up to God because we have no right to judge. Ah, I said. Yeah, but we're going to give ourselves the permission to at least try and define the concept for ourselves. Before he could argue the right or wrong of such a permission I said that what he was trying to do in exploring cowardice is to fundamentally understand something about the human condition and that reflecting on that was good stuff. I knew that we were already going to bad places and hoped that I had just put us back to a productive discussion. I was wrong.

Frank moved from the power of God to determine what is right to the unsuitability of judges to render verdicts and then, through some twisting and turning I have forcibly forgotten, onto most every conspiracy theory that has existed in his short lifetime and a few that precede his birth. MLK was put down by the government. Tupac and Biggie too. And those towers in Manhattan were also brought down by "The Feds".

I should know better than to engage. I do know better than to try to argue the other side. Instead, I tried to get him to consider the language. He kept saying "they" did this or "they" did that and then when I pressed him on who "they" are, he could only say that "they" are "The Feds."

By this point he was long gone and shocked that I believed that Michael Jackson's doctor wasn't working for The Feds when he purposely killed the singer to keep the black man down.

And by this point, I too was long gone. I had lost the teachable moment because I had allowed myself to be sucked down the rabbit hole of the argument. Hell, I had jumped in head first. I was way too wrapped up in winning the game we had between to notice that I was losing the much larger game I'm supposed to be playing. In other words, I lost a chance to better teach the kid because I was too busy trying to school him.

The bell saved us but he left the room shaking his head at my ignorance while I was shaking my head...at my ignorance.

Now, the point of all this is not to carry on about how I failed today. I didn't do any harm and I may have done a little good. The point is that the role of teaching is to help kids learn. I do that best when I plant seeds and allow them to grow. I don't think I do my best work when I plant a seed and then dig it up every five minutes to see how it's going. Frank didn't need me to win that argument today. In fact, he needed me to let him win it. Along the way I could have planted the seed of converting "they" into "The Feds" and from there to something tangible.

This is how school goes for me. I think I've learned a lesson, but then a test comes up and I get lost in the question, thinking and rethinking it. In a few minutes I'll write Frank a letter explaining how I was wrong to cram my ideas down his throat and that it's no wonder he coughed them up. Keep thinking, I'll tell him, and keep writing your ideas down. Keep asking questions, Frank, but I'm going to hold you to at least the shadow of an answer. Most of all though, I will tell him to write on.