Todd Whitaker has this little bit that he talks about in person (and he’s done it both times I’ve seen him) where he talks about teachers who say things like, “I’ve told Billy a thousand times not to do that.” His remark: “Now there’s a slow learner.” (After a few seconds, you start to realize that Whitaker’s not talking about Billy…)

Sometimes I feel like that teacher.

See, I understand that one of my jobs as an English teacher should be to relate literary texts to the texts that students consume everyday: reality. This intersection with the “real world” is crucial, and there’s a tendency to let the literary side of things run what we do. I’m guilty of that, definitely.

In trying to figure out where to go in my American lit class, I stumbled upon a possible connection from The Crucible, which we just finished, to Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” (mostly the devil-witch angle). And in thinking about the Irving story, I thought about the issue of greed, and immediately my mind went to Bernie Madoff. So I planned a lesson for students to engage the idea of greed, its cause, and its effects, using an article on how Madoff’s Ponzi scheme affected Elie Wiesel and his charitable foundation. In one section at least, it was a great discussion that managed to get some of the less interested students talking.

Previously, in the unit on The Crucible, I had my students do a role-playing thought experiment, asking them to imagine that they are living in New York City on September 13, 2001 – and they are Arab-American. Despite the fact that my students were still very young when 9/11 happened, they got it, and we had an engaging discussion about the sort of stereotyping and presumption of “terrorism” that was common at the time, linking it to both the Salem witch trials and to the Communism witch hunts that Miller is building from with the message of his play.

When I was doing a pre-student teaching internship, I taught a lesson on William Cullen Bryant’s poem “Thanatopsis,” and I took some time out of our discussion of the poem to talk about death and why we fear it. It was a great discussion of psychology, relating nicely to students’ own ideas and experiences.

Okay, I admit it: I’m a slow learner.

Again, it’s a hard battle to prepare things like this that really push us from the intellectual vacuum of the classroom into the greater sphere beyond, but I daresay from my own experience – and from what I have gathered from the experience of others – that the payoff is worth it in the long run.

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