What Teachers Do

What Teachers Do

Well gentle readers, it’s that time again. August 22, 2016, will be the first day of the new school year, for the kids that is. I’ve been at it, formally, since the 10th, and informally, for much longer. For the remainder of this week, I’ll be experiencing the usual interminable in-service training sessions, which cause enormous brain damage. Then if I recover over the coming weekend, I’ll be meeting seven classes of new kids, kids it will be my responsibility to help educate for the better part of a year. I will do that by providing, every day, the best educational opportunity my abilities and resources can provide. I will encourage them to take advantage of that opportunity, but I know that some, being 16, won’t.

This year is special. For the last 14 years, I’ve been teaching Sophomore English. This year, and for the foreseeable future, I’ll be teaching Junior English–American literature. I am glad, beyond explanation, to no longer have to focus most of my attention on the state mandated, high stakes English test. It has been the bane of my existence for 14 years. But I am delighted to have the opportunity to convince my kids that if they were born in America, or if they have become Americans, they have won life’s lottery. If they’re not patriots by the time I’m finished with them, they have no hope.

Come with me, back to the 1400s, back to when you began your eleventh grade year, and meet your new English teacher.

credit: ntnu.edu

credit: ntnu.edu

First order of business: check your schedules. This is English 11, Mr. McDaniel, room 306. Are you certain you are supposed to be in this class at this specific time?

Yes? OK, let me see that schedule…history, room 206. That’s where you’re supposed to be right now. Do you know where that is? Do you have me at any other time? Let’s see…right, 7th period. Off you go to History and we’ll see you again 7th period!

Anyone else? You’re all sure you’re supposed to be here? Great.

As I said, I’m Mr. McDaniel and I have the honor of being your English teacher this year. Show of hands: how many of you actually like English?

Usually, 5-6 hands go up. 

Uh-huh. Well, we’ll fix that. By the time this year is done, you’ll like it.

Laughter and stares of disbelief.

You see, I believe that learning must be fun. It’s often work, sometimes hard work, but if you’re doing it right, it’s fun, and we are going to do it right. I’m going to have fun every day in every class. You may as well come along for the ride.

Show of hands: how many of you like to read?

Usually, 5-6 hands go up. 

Well there you go. There’s the reason. Reading is enormously important. See that sign above the blackboard, the one the reads: “read, read, read, read, read?” Reading well is the foundation of modern life. Good readers have enormous advantages. Mark Twain said that people that don’t read have no advantage over people that can’t read. Readers are better thinkers, better spellers, better writers, better at everything in life.

English, you see, is a skills class. How do you get better at any skill? How do you get better at playing basketball? That’s right: practice. But not just any practice, correct practice, practice with a purpose.

How many of you like to write?

Usually, 3-4 hands go up

We can fix that too. I can’t guarantee that I can help you all to become great writers, but I can, if you pay attention, and if you do the work, help you all to become better writers.

One of the fun things about this class this year is you get to answer important questions. Did you know that Europeans used to make fun of us? They were certain that America would never produce writers as great as their writers. Keep your eyes and ears open and we’ll answer this question by the end of the year: were they right or wrong?

Remember that the skills you learn and improve in this class apply to every other class you’ll take in high school, college and the world of work. You read and write virtually everywhere else, don’t you?

English, particularly reading, is the study of human nature. The more you know about human nature, the more successful and happy you’ll be in life. Guys, wouldn’t you like to better understand girls? Girls, wouldn’t you like to better understand guys?

Some girls always say “no,” which provokes much laughter.

That’s why we study Mark Twain more than a century after his death: he knew human nature so well. You’ll see what I mean.

Now, a question, an important question. Why are you here? More specifically, why do you have to take English and Algebra and History and Science, and all the other classes you’ll take before you graduate–if you graduate?

More laughter, and common answers.

No, no. You take all those classes to build bigger, better, brains. Will most of you actually use the equations you study in your math classes in the rest of your lives? But that doesn’t matter, because studying those equations builds neural connections in your brain in ways that studying English can’t. Studying music builds neural connections in ways that studying history can’t. Reading and writing and analyzing literature builds your brains in ways that studying science can’t, and all of those connections combine to make you faster, smarter, more flexible, more capable, better in every way.

Credit: National Geographic

Credit: National Geographic

Let’s say we have a baby sitting here, and we pop open it’s little skull and take out its brain (appropriate motions and noises). What does it look like?

“All gray and slimy?” “Gross!” 

Not quite. It’s pinkish-gray and mostly smooth. But, if we pop open my skull and take out my brain, what does it look like (appropriate noises and motions)? Yes, it’s all wrinkly! The word for that is it’s convoluted; it has convolutions. Why?

Many guesses…

Because there is only so much room in our skulls. But our brains grow. Our heads don’t get bigger when we get smarter, do they, but our brains become more convoluted, so more matter can fit in the same space. The point is, we study many different things to make you more wrinkly!

From this point on, I just have to mention bigger, better brains, or making them wrinkly, and they enthusiastically leap into whatever we’re doing–most of them anyway.

OK, another question: what’s the most important thing I’ll teach you this year?

Many guesses.

No, it’s above the blackboard.

More guesses.

Yes, that’s it: “be in the instant.” What does that mean?

More guesses.

Pay attention. Be in the instant, be here, be thinking about what we’re doing, what’s happening in front of your face, this instant. This is something, if we’re wise, that we work on our entire lives. It’s difficult, but it’s absolutely necessary.

Show of hands: how many of you, even as we are speaking about paying attention, find your attention wandering?

About ¾ of the hands go up.  Much laughter.

How many of you are, at this moment, in another dimension?

More hands and laughter.

Here’s why this is so vital, and why I’ll remind you about it constantly. How much of your life do you spend unconscious?

Discussion, confusion, guesses.

One third. The average person sleeps eight hours a day, 1/3 of the day. Most of you are 15. You’ve already been unconscious for five years. If you live to be 90, you will have been unconscious for 30 years. How much more of your life are you willing to miss just because you can’t focus your attention long and consistently enough to be aware of what’s happening right in front of you? Time is precious, your time most of all.

credit: circleofdocs.com

credit: circleofdocs.com

Epiphany! For many, this is the first time they ever understood why paying attention is important. I also take the opportunity to explain what an epiphany is (a sudden burst of insight or understanding). Education is mostly about paying attention to the little things in life.

Enough theory for today. For the next 15 minutes–and you can work in groups–we’re going to take a test. Yes! That’s right! You get to take a test on your first day in English! Aren’t you lucky? Oh, quit whining! This is the fun part!

This is literature test. It’s matching. Match the famous American authors with their equally famous works. This will be extra credit; one extra credit for each question you get right. I don’t expect you to know all of these answers–now. But you will see this material again when it counts. Let’s go to it!

I walk about and help, and I’ve now conditioned the kids to expect to work every day in class–which we do–and to expect to have fun doing it, which we do as well.

What are some of the questions? I’m glad you asked! Who wrote the Gettysburg Address? The Declaration of Independence? Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? The Constitution?

That, gentle readers, is just the first 44 minutes I know these kids. I can’t wait!

Oh: Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, James Madision