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Learning to Teach/Teaching to Learn

By John S. O'Connor

Last weekend my son announced that his 6th grade class was about to start a poetry unit. I thought I knew what this meant, having done guest spots in my kids’ classes since they were in nursery school. So, I asked my son to give me some lead-time to arrange my schedule for a visit. But this year would be different, I quickly learned. This year, HE was going to lead the class.

This was not cockiness on his part by any means. It was just that he’d seen me lead workshops before (in earlier classes and at local libraries), and it hadn’t frankly seemed so hard. So, he volunteered, and his teacher gamely agreed. He would lead two classes back-to-back.

I was insanely thrilled, of course, but also a little nervous. What if things went badly? What if he decided there really wasn’t much to this teaching poetry business after all? The night before the class we ran through some possible lessons he might try. We chose fun, short exercises that involved the whole class and steered away from projects that involved a lot of handwriting on the board.

We settled on a descriptive writing exercise and an acrostic poem. I tried to give some pointers – make sure everyone speaks, be patient after asking a question (silence often means thinking), and above all be encouraging. I was trying to model this advice with him as we prepared, but he seemed ready.

Since I was dying to find out how it went, I asked right away before even saying hello. The first class was great he said, but the second class was a pretty rough. “Has that ever happened to you?”

“No, never,” I said, “but I’ve heard of other people having such problems.” Of course I copped to similar difficulties. I admitted that I rarely make it through a day of teaching 5 classes without feeling that at least one – and sometimes all 5 of them – could have gone better.

But this is what I love about teaching. There’s no way to “get everything right.” If there were, the job wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Every time anything changes — different students, different texts – everything seems to change. It’s like the sudden twist of some giant kaleidescope – and the fun part is creating coherence and finding beauty in the new pattern of ideas that emerges.

I’m not sure my son has any interest in teaching or writing. (Last I heard he wanted to be a double agent or a short order cook!) But I can’t imagine a more fulfilling life than creating art and making meaning with other people every day.

Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, December 6th, 2009 by John S. O'Connor.