Monday, September 29, 2008

Differentiating Between Your Interests and Theirs

There are plenty of things you have to teach, and few of them your students seem interested in learning... how do you bridge this gap?

We were right in the middle of a unit on 19th century American Romance Poets and though I was smitten with the topic it was clear to everyone present that things couldn't get much more dull. I might have celebrated the calm classroom control I was experiencing if it weren't for the fact I had to physically wake half the class up each day when the bell rang. This was not going well.

The fact that Rodney wasn't finding beauty in these words we poured through each day did not surprise me. Nothing had captured his interest all semester so this seemed par for the course. But Rodney ended up saving the day for the whole class, and me, when one afternoon he came up after the bell and handed me a cassette tape. "What's wrong with this stuff you're teaching Ms. Fournel is that it's not speaking to any of us. If you want to hear real poetry, listen to this."

And that's how I met Tupac.

It took me awhile to learn how to listen to Tupac. I was not used to this kind of music and I hadn't developed an ear for hearing more than a repetitious beat. But when I took the time to really hear what Tupac was saying - I could appreciate what Rodney meant. This too, was poetry. And my struggle to reach that conclusion opened my eyes to the struggle my students were experiencing.

From that day on Tupac became part of my curriculum as did countless other musicians, spoken word poets, family storytellers, and visual texts that we will probably never see in the textbooks we're asked to teach.

My students learned more about meter and rhyme, simile and metaphor, irony and symbolism using texts that interested them - than they ever would have using solely the texts that interested me (or my school system).

Sure, I had to photocopy more - and that was a pain because there was never any paper (so I bought it myself). And I sometimes had to justify the music blaring from my room when the principal walked by. But if your ultimate goal is to make sure your students learn, eventually you realize there's no easy way to accomplish that.

You can tap into your students interests by formally surveying them early in the year, or you can simply listen to their conversations and ask them questions to learn more about what they read, what music they like, what natural phenomena they're fascinated by, what their jobs are, where they want to visit, what cultures they're curious about...

Students are so used to us dictating the content they're exposed to in school that they begin to take it like medicine - without much question as to whether or not it's good (or useful) for them. But it doesn't have to be this way and the true fun of teaching comes when it ceases to be a one-way operation. You may very well have a Rodney in your class who has as much to teach you about poetry as you have to teach him.

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