Remember that line from “The Music Man“?
It came back to bite me.
After state testing finishes, all teachers, regardless of if we should or not, feel a weight off their shoulders. Some teachers even remark, “Now I can start teaching!”
During the fifth grade intervention time, my awesome team of coworkers decided to spend the last few fragmented (assemblies, field trips, traditions…oh my!) weeks of school doing book groups. We left the structure open – allowing each of us to choose a novel and a group of students based on our hearts – not data. Gasp.
I had a group of hybrid ability-levels and interests. I chose Jerry Spinelli’s, “Maniac Magee.” If you’re not familiar with the story, it involves a runaway boy who deals with death, racial tension, and family. It’s a great one-of-the-first-coming-of-age-books kids should read.
Long story, short: as we read the book each day, we discussed some of the more mature, underlying themes in the story. One major issue, race, kept coming up. With one African American student in my group, it was a very significant issue that needed dissected. At one point in the story, we had a few “heavy hitter” racial-based paragraphs – the kind that put a lump in the teacher’s throat as he’s trying to read aloud. When I finished the chapter for the day, the room was silent. With ten or so minutes left during the intervention period, I asked the students to take out a sheet of paper and gave these instructions:
“Wow, that was some heavy stuff! Why don’t you take a few minutes and write a reflection of how these paragraphs made you feel?” Just a general reflection on the end of the chapter will be fine.”
I walked toward my desk.
“Huh?” “What?” “What are we supposed to write about?” “What do you mean?”
The questions erupted from the previously shell-shocked group.
As all good teachers do when students ask clarifying questions, I repeated the instructions, verbatim, only louder.
The students must have sensed the frustration in my voice and began to [attempt to] work. I collected the papers at the end of the time, paper clipped them, and stuck them in my take-home bag to read that night.
As I sat down to read them that evening, I was excited to see how the chapter had impacted the students. I was excited to hear from their hearts. I was excited to see them freely write about their emotions, their depths, their values. And here’s what I got:
“The main idea of this chapter was mainly about…”
“I know that this chapter was mainly about Maniac because in the story it said…”
“The chapter is mainly about Maniac. I know this because…”
“The theme of the chapter is about feelings.”
“Maniac Magee is the main character in the story. I know this because…”
For the second time that day, I got a lump in my throat. I had failed my students. They didn’t reflect. They didn’t think. They didn’t feel. They performed. And it was disgusting.
It was a bad day, make no mistake. But hopefully, through the lesson that they taught me that morning, I can change how I teach – maybe even change why I teach – and provide for my future students what it is that I want them to receive: passion.