It looked impressive on the document; objectives set in stone, agenda items on the tidy tables and essential questions well-crafted to provoke deep thought. I had a clear prophetic picture of the classroom interaction and in my head they were quiet and either smiling or working diligently with furrowed eyebrows and pursed lips and a look in their eyes that conveyed the sense that their education was a matter of life and death.
The vision seems accurate at first when they first view our Social Voice blog.
“Students did that?” a boy asks.
Another girl says, “That’s amazing!”
It starts to resemble a badly filmed informercial, but I relish this rare moment when eighth graders offer praise.
When we transition into a brainstorm, the students look confused. “You told me to talk to my neighbor, but he’s not even in this class,” a student explains, straight-faced and unaware of the power of idioms.
Others get lost in the concept of clock-wise verses counter-clockwise. Perhaps digital natives need a lesson in analog. I stop the entire class and say, “I’m sorry. I forgot to teach you how it works. This is my fault.” (A boy later tells me that apologizing makes me sound weak and I tell him that admitting weakness will lead to strength and he stares at me as if I am talking about wood gnomes and dragons.)
The entire lesson goes this way. None of the class is able to connect the concept of a social voice to a passage from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. During math, we stumble through lessons again and my lack of clarity becomes obvious. We trail away from the sample problems and into a scenario of planning a party for a large family. While the students seem engaged, I am left with the lingering question of whether or not they actually learned a new concept and whether the concept fit with the standard and whether I would be judged if they failed the standardized test.
I leave the day with the sense that I had never really written anything in stone. It was more like an Etch-A-Sketch board. The truth is that I don’t know what I’m doing. There, I put it out there. I don’t know if I should have gone with more rigorous algorithms or if it was too early in the year to share the story of my friend who committed suicide in the eighth grade and whether or not that would actual help or hinder their personal narrative about a powerful memory. I’m not sure if I should have focussed so much on the skill of reading when the story itself demands a loud cry of social justice.
I don’t know.
When I worked my first “real job,” I always knew what to do. I had to get items into a grocery bag with a simple binary option of paper or plastic (and the occasional granola option of canvas). I learned the job in a day. Make sure cans don’t crush eggs and meat doesn’t leak onto crackers. Simple stuff. I was bored with the task. However, as a teacher, I am rarely bored. Each day is written in Etch-A-Sketch and the challenge is to make a cohesive, memorable picture within the human chaos of a classroom. I thrive in this sense of meaning and challenge that is inherent in each moment, but sometimes it is exhausting.
That’s the beauty of teaching. For as much as I try to construct lessons that last, the true sustainability is what happens outside of the classroom. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll continue to plan. I won’t abandon the lesson planning process. But I’ll remember that it’s not set in stone. It’s written in awkward, clunky letters on Etch-A-Sketch.