By: Toni M. Poling
Recently I was thumbing through my social media (as one does when one is avoiding schoolwork) when I came across this stanza from Mary Oliver’s “Sometimes”:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
I sat there staring at the screen in my hand reading those last three lines over and over. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. There they were, the keys to teaching, summarized in an Instagram meme.
In the middle of October, I embarked on what is essentially my annual journey with my kids through Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a play I immensely enjoyed teaching the first 20 or so times through it. This year, however, I found myself dreading my trek to
Denmark with its dark prince. I just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm I knew I needed to get the kids through this unit, but I also knew if I wasn’t excited about Hamlet then no one else would be either. That’s when I found my way to Mary Oliver. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
When I teach seminal pieces year after year, it can be easy to lose connection with the students andthe text. I can easily forget that my kids are seeing this for the very first time, and they don’t already know the outcome of the play (except that it’s a tragedy and, as one student told me, that means “everybody dies”). But, when I started paying attention to my students instead of the text, I could see. I saw eyes light up when they made a connection. I saw furrowed brows when the confusion set it. I saw the student who leaned over to a neighbor for a guidance, and, when they neighbor was helpful, I was able to offer praise and an ‘air five’; my reward was a big smile. If we pay attention to the students when we are teaching, we can receive automatic feedback without an assessment that takes us hours to grade. Our kids’ faces can be the best formative assessment tool we have.
This year marks my sixteenth year in the classroom. Sixteen years, three schools, five principals, and almost 2,000 students. Sometimes I feel like I have seen it all, right up until I realize I haven’t. After more times reading Hamlet than I can even remember, the play doesn’t hold any surprises for me. My students, however, still do.
I have a colleague’s son in my class this year. A few weeks ago, the parent texted me a photo of his son asleep on the couch in the middle of a Sunday afternoon with my copy of Hamlet in his hand. The following text said that his son is not a “fan of the bard” and that he commented to his dad that he doesn’t understand my excitement over the play. I have to admit that everything about the exchange made me smile. I replied to him that it’s not the play that has me excited, it’s witnessing the kids’ learning. I’m more than okay with the students thinking I’m a huge Shakespeare fangirl, but the reality is that I’m their fangirl; the students are what astonishes me.
Tell About It
This is the part of teaching I feel often gets left behind, the telling about the good things that are happening. I feel I do a good job of praising students in my classroom, giving ‘air fives’ and happy notes on graded papers. As a high school teacher, I do not always do a good job of connecting with students’ families and making sure successes are celebrated there as well. This year, I’m trying to change that. I’ve been trying to write a positive note home for at least one student in each of my classes each week. It’s usually a few hurried lines on a card where I share a moment for a student’s day with their families. I drop them in the mail and then I often forget about them as I’m on to the next item on my seemingly never-ending to-do list.
At this year’s annual fall Parent-Teacher Conference, however, I was reminded of how important those notes are as parent after parent mentioned them during conferences and thanked me for taking the time to share a piece of their child’s day. It’s such an easy thing: a note, an email, a phone call, a LiveGrades message. When your students are amazing (and mine are every day), tell about it.
WVCTE is wondering how do you pay attention? How are you astonished? How do you tell about it?
Toni M. Poling is an English teacher and department chair at Fairmont Senior High School. Mrs. Poling is the 2017 WV State Teacher of the Year.