Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Today Reminded Me Of Why I Do This

You can't ever really predict how well a lesson will go. You can pretend: you can rehearse in your room, plan to use a timer, plan all your questions and objectives, print your handouts on colored paper, and go over and over your plan in your head thirteen times. But the plain fact of the matter is that sometimes it works and sometimes it just doesn't.

But today? Today, it worked. And really, I'm not even that sure what I did. But it did, because today was awesome. It was a bright spot in an otherwise fairly hellacious week for me (in my personal life, at least) and I really needed it to remind me why I freaking love what I do.

It all started with an article.

See, I was scoping out the New York Times opinion section for some persuasive articles to use for an APEL activity on Tuesday (that also went well, actually) and came across this article. I almost used it for that activity, but ended up using it in Speech and Debate instead. But then I decided to use it for APEL today as a warm up. To be honest, I wasn't really sure how well this article would be received. It's mostly logos-based with some ethos thrown in, which I knew my students would understand and appreciate, but even I was unprepared for the sheer number of nuances ready to be discussed by a room full of inquisitive and opinionated juniors.

We're working on rhetoric and argumentation, so I won't go into everything they had to do with it before we discussed it (hooray for the Toulmin model), but today was without a doubt the best discussion my APEL classes have ever had. Kids that almost never participate were practically falling out of their desks trying to have their voices heard, and though some of what they said was just completely weird (such as suggesting an organ harvesting machine that would allow the inmate to remain alive whilst the organs were extracted ... ick), it was just the best thing ever. I'm sure that for most of the discussion, I just had this huge beaming smile on my face (well, when I wasn't hiding behind my cardigan at some disgusting suggestion) because I love it when they're smart. Well, they're always smart. I love it when they embrace it and let their guard down and really dig deeply into what it means to be human and live in this world with other people. I would have let them keep talking the whole period -- and they would have been able to keep it going -- if I had had the time to spare. They kept coming up with new facets to the conversation -- and I was even able to work in a connection to Antigone. (This blew their minds. At which point, as we moved to the next mind-blowing activity, I told them to cram their minds back into their heads so they could be re-blown.)

But today's discussion -- and the following activity -- reminded me of why I love being a teacher. I love seeing them vulnerable. I love ripping into a moral dilemma through some kind of text and pushing kids to see both sides and hold them up next to each other and see that the answers aren't as clear as we'd like them to be. I love listening to kids think on their feet. I love watching kids' arms wilt as they wait desperately to share a thought that has occurred to them. I love poking their small experiences with the sticks of my not-much-bigger experiences and forcing them out of their comfort zones. I love that I get to teach English, this beastly monster of a subject that also allows me a wide latitude to throw an article in their face, under the guise of looking at how the article is built and what makes it effective (which we also discussed) when ultimately my true purpose is to spark critical thinking. Hold it up. Look at it. Tell me what it is. Tell me what it isn't. Tell me something else. But what about this? Or this?

Teenagers are smarter than we give them credit for in this overly-tested educational life of theirs, and somehow, this article, weird as it is, struck a chord with them and they just absolutely burst into a kind of nuanced thoughtfulness that you can't predict. You can't model. You can't capture. It just happens. And I just feel so blessed and lucky that this was my day today.

Today was magic. Pure, unpredictable, productive magic. And I hope they felt it, too.

And, amazingly enough, my sophomores just added to the magic by embracing the vocabulary story competition activity that worked so well two years ago, but fell completely flat on its face last year (... last year's sophomores ... ::shakes fist:: ). They were so focused (you know an activity is going well when your timer goes off and EVERYONE begs for more time).

Essentially what I did was have them, in groups, write a vocabulary story using as many vocabulary words as they could from their 90 from the semester. They needed to use at least 10, but every extra word added is extra credit. And, to make it more interesting, I told them that I would have someone in my life -- mom, brother, boyfriend (and boyfriend becomes a very distracting word to use in a sophomore classroom. ::facepalm::) -- to read them. This year's kids did what my students two years ago did: they asked GREAT questions about their audience. What does your mom like? Where did your mom go to college? What about your boyfriend? Do they like pirates? Ninjas? Star Wars? It was completely and totally hilarious and awesome. And the stories are priceless. There was even a Charlie Sheen story. Winning!

And then they didn't completely fall apart when we got to Antigone. They're getting it, it seems. They discussed when I asked them to discuss, they answered questions. Overall, really, it was just a really rather awesome day.

And now, it's 8:15 pm and I am completely and totally exhausted but I am just still feeling so completely and totally happy that today was such a career-affirming day.

I really needed it.


  1. Ms. McMills,

    I suppose that it may be your sheer awesomeness, your perky personality, or possibly your vast intelligence, that makes you such an amazing person, and teacher. I know that every day, despite my attitudes, I will leave your classroom in lighter spirits because your passion for what you do is so intoxicating. Today’s lesson was memorable to say the least, and I respected the amount of patience you had with us as we brought up solutions to a “problem” and yet played devils advocate when the argument got too one sided. I think that perhaps there is a level of intelligence that is over looked in my generation, and I know that I do not stand alone when I say that we appreciate you, for seeing us.

    You love to teach, and I can tell by your use of parallel structure and varying syntax that you are just as exited to teach us things (That word sounds very vague…) as we are to learn them. I hope that one day I too can inspire children, or teenagers, to want to go to class. Your class is a treat every day McMillan, just remember that the next time you have a bad week, because you have a class of forty-two APEL students waiting to share their next Winning moment with you.
    Thanks for everything you do.

    P.S. no trolling was involved…I promise, to prove it my favorite Christmas Movie is It’s a Wonderful Life

  2. This post made me smile :) Poway Unified is blessed to have a teacher like you!