Join me for this innovative and highly educational webinar at…okay, perhaps not. Probably, if I could fully demonstrate how to do inspiring things with an uninspiring curriculum, I wouldn’t be blogging about it here. (Then again, maybe there’s a philanthropist in me somewhere – after all, I’m not in teaching for the money…)
I think most teachers, at least in the early rosy-eyed days of their careers, want to inspire students. (Some teachers may have lower expectations about how many students will realistically be inspired: the student who is inspired by integrals or conic sections might be rarer than the student who is inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the fiction of Kate Chopin.) Yes, education is our primary goal, and of course we want students to develop greater academic prowess, yadda yadda, but I think there’s a deep part of us – the student part – that remembers (if it has happened to us, and hopefully it has) being inspired by teachers to love literature, language, history, the human body, nature, chemical reactions, etc., and that “inner student,” until it is stifled by the outer cynic, sits on our shoulder whispering, Hey, you make these kids feel the awe of what you do. You gotta make them understand why you love what you do. Be that teacher.
And we all start out wanting to be that teacher. We know what good teaching is from having had good teachers, and (as an education professor of mine uncontroversially pointed out) no one goes into teaching wanting to emulate the awful teachers they had.
Okay, that’s good – make the students understand why you love what you do. But what if you aren’t inspired by what you’re going to teach?
I found out last night that I was having trouble finding my own Muse for a course as I was planning the first week of classes. (I find that poetry writing and lesson planning actually aren’t all that different – you have to have a grand vision, direction, and some creative drive in addition to the structure and execution of the thing. At least, you do if you want to be inspiring…) With all of my classes, I started off saying, “Where is this course going in the long run, and what would be the best way to get us started thinking about it?” For my senior world lit, the answer was culture; we will be doing an autoethnography project in the first few weeks, and there is a lot of analysis of our own cultures to get us thinking about how culture and literature intertwine. For my sophomores, the idea was to invoke universal themes, facilitated by my (somewhat) inspired idea to have students discover the sort of themes that emerge through a more approachable medium for them: songs. (Think about themes that transcend musical genre: Do we only hear about unrequited love in country songs?) Even for my juniors (perhaps the most difficult of the three), the idea of challenging notions of what makes literature “American” provides a jumping ground into Native American creation stories.
And then I got to my novels course and thought, Wait, what direction do we have? We’re reading a bunch of mostly unrelated canonical novels…
And my inner student whispers, Hey, just because it’s an elective doesn’t mean these kids don’t deserve to be inspired…
And I wonder how I will find my Muse in material whose only substantial connecting thread is the length of the works.
Like so many things in teaching, I don’t think there is an easy answer to my proposed idea. It’s hard enough to inspire even a majority of students with the most inspiring material – some students just aren’t easily impressed – but doing it with a lackluster curriculum presents an additional handicap. Maybe there’s a reason why the wizened cynic starts shouting down the inner student; maybe it’s easier that way.
All I know is that there’s an insistent voice still urging me on, and the only thing I know how to do is to listen – and think.