I need to get this out of the way. One of the greatest honors in my life was being asked to write for this blog. I mean it. What better way is there to spend my time than writing with excellent writers about teaching with excellent teachers who are writers? And yet, I haven’t written a single post this school year. Not one… I’m scheduled for the last Friday of each month. It’s on my calendar, a tangerine block on my google calendar that inquires how I’m doing on Thursday and then calls me horrible names come Friday afternoon. Why? Well, it’s one part life being life, one part poor habits, three parts excuses, and five parts self-doubt.
This has been a hard year for me, long before a virus forced us all to distance ourselves. I was convinced I was a few trick pony–and thus what could I possibly write for a blog that would be remotely useful to much better teachers than I? Go back to my previous blogs and they all fall into the category of talking to students. I am the teacher who lays prone on the floor and muses about whether Edgar Allen Poe and Maya Angelou would drink wine, tea, or whiskey if they had a moment together–all while my students are taking notes and wondering if this is test material. I’m the teacher who teaches random twitter threads because I once argued that the whole of Twitter counted as a poem. I’m also the teacher who kids come to when they are hurting, and I am proud of that. But being passionate is only a piece of what we do, craft matters too, and I just haven’t felt like I’m qualified to speak on teaching this year. I’ll leave it there.
Here comes the but: The students have been reaching out to me, as they must be to teachers all over the country, talking about how grateful they have been for the humanity of my teaching while we are online. They have been telling me how grateful they are that I quickly shifted from vocab quizzes on Thursday to “write to me about your day and I will write to you about mine.” I am feeling validated again, and honestly proud of what teachers really do.
So why am I sharing all this? Partly this is my apology letter to all the readers and administrators of this blog. I have slacked and I feel guilty. I have felt lost and I finally feel like it is okay that I was lost.
There is another reason, a pedagogical reason. I made the mistake of thinking that learning occurs in a classroom, usually on a dry erase board and a Google Doc. I forgot that learning really happens in the spaces between and around people. A lesson I taught this week reminded me of this–I’d like to share the story.
I challenged my English 10 students to write a piece of flash fiction about someone stranded or isolated. (Think island or prison.) The goal was for them to take their emotional expertise on the subject and apply it to a work of fiction.
I like flash fiction because it forces us to use constraint in prose–a skill I think very few people practice at. I am certainly overly wordy–evidenced by this sentence that doesn’t need to exist.
Almost every entry was amazing, but one student wrote a poignant and beautiful story about an astronaut listening to a podcast about space while stuck, alone, on the international space station. She included the podcast–an episode of RadioLab titled “Space.” I recommend giving it a listen, it is a lovely blend of science and philosophy.
The student left me the note at the bottom of her submission asking me to listen to the podcast while reading the entry. She said she was listening to it while writing the entry. So I did. But, it seemed an odd request. The podcast didn’t really help me understand her story better, and I could have listened to it before or after reading. She, however, asked me to listen while reading because she wrote her story while listening. So I put the podcast on as background noise, made myself some coffee, and read her six-hundred-word story three times. Forgive me, but it really helped me create a space. I felt connected to the student. I felt connected to the story.
I was reminded about a moment I had over the summer. Full disclosure, I would rather donate my organs to the witches in Macbeth than read Titus Andronicus. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a workshop over the summer with the Folger’s Shakespeare Library on Hamlet. It was an amazing experience. I would have shared about it if–you know–I was writing blogs regularly. Anyway, I found myself reading some of Titus for the workshop. I was on the Folger stage and alone. I could feel something stir inside me, something that yearned for connection with history, connection to Shakespeare and theater, and art. I read a scene from my least favorite Shakespeare play and I have never felt more in love with Shakespeare. It was odd and surreal. It was pleasant. All I can think is that space matters, it connects us to the past and to other people. It reminds us that art is a magic trick where distance and time become here and the present.
I had the same, albeit less surreal, experience reading my student’s story while listening to a podcast she listened to while writing.
So for my next assignment, I asked students to write a journal free-write while listening to a song. They had to post the song they listened to while writing. The follow-up assignment was to choose a classmate’s writing and read it while listening to the song they posted. Afterward, we met in a video conference to chat about the experience. We laughed, we cried, we learned. I felt like a teacher. I felt connected. The advantage of a physical classroom is we get to share a space together. I have somehow forgotten how important that was. And yet, in a time when I can’t be in the same physical space as my students, I was reminded of this by one of my students. It made me feel good inside, and I wanted to share.
Before I go, you should totally check out the streaming production of Macbeth through the Folger Shakespeare Library. It is awesome, and it is what I have on while I write this.
WVCTE is wondering how connected you feel to your life, your students. How are you keeping the feeling of space alive with your students?
Speaking of, if you have an idea for a post, a great activity or no fail lesson, if you have words of wisdom or a reflection you’d like to send into the world, drop us a line by email at email@example.com.