Back to School? Back to Action

Back to school. Tell myself I am going to implement all the new ideas from the summer, and keep all the old ones that worked last year. Follow through with the writing conference plan, the reading conference plan, the socratic seminars, the film unit, the nonfiction readings that connect perfectly with the literature.

I will have three glorious weeks–students on good behavior, myself carving time at lunch to meet with anyone who hasn’t brought homework in to share, at night to respond in student logs–before I begin to doubt.


Then around week four I turn to look behind me and realize that my start-of-the-year plans have shifted, and like Young Jerry in A Tale of Two Cities I am running like mad to get back home to comfortable, predictable terrain while every moment I keep watching over my shoulder for the casket’s approach. The upended casket chasing me down is the death of my goal to reach the ideal. I look ahead of me and realize that there are still many months ahead in which to make things right and achieve a balance. I will fix it later, I tell myself. For now it is best that the students are utterly engaged, there is momentum, variety, …but could it be better? Always.

No matter what specific plans we want to implement at the start of the year, something will cause us to question our pace, our expectation.

What can I do now to prepare for that panicked feeling of being chased down by the dire coffin of standards, lockstepped curriculum, unpredictable students, and self-doubt?

Enter Quality Control.

There are a few things I can do to help ensure peace of mind before, during, and after tumult. Listen.

Listen to the voices of those trusted colleagues with whom I share a Tweet, a prep period, an interest, or a professional goal…

Hear the voices ringing with divine authority in my early morning reading–The Psalmist, The Revelator, the robin, rain, and mockingbird outside my window…

Surround myself with prophetic and quotidian detail and texture, from Shakespeare’s poetry to the rattle of a cereal spoon, from Art Pepper’s jazz recordings to paintings by Bill Reed and Noah Buchanan.

Step back in order to honor, serve, and acknowledge the most significant voices that shape my life, beginning with my wife, Sara. Trust that my parents or guardians, sisters, family,teachers, mentors and friends do not suddenly lose their influence when I step across the threshold into the claassroom, but that in a mysterious way I become an extension of them: they become my students’ teachers.

These are my quality controls, a powerful webwork of capillaries and conduits that are my feedback system and nourishment.

And yesterday I was reminded of my most immediate monitoring system: the students before my eyes and ears at any moment in the day. Pat, who will be a sophomore when classes begin next week, took a moment after having organized a bookshelf display for me, along with another volleyball team member, to tell me her writing goal for the next three years and to ask my help in reaching her goal.

I can thing of no stronger inner impulse to directly affect my teaching than students striving for personal goals. Such goals provide a focus for writing conferences, not merely a schedule; and when students see those conferences as intrinsically rewarding because linked to a chosen purpose for learning, my own satisfaction with them will result in increased attention to, insistence on, and frequency of scheduled goal-oriented instruction.

Detractors might argue that literature study needs no articulated goal, and that pragmatism and poetry must be far removed. They might also say that a sophomore is unlikely to stick to a single goal for any extended time. But they would miss the point that at every minute of our teaching day we have such voices speaking into our lives, and that to give such voices authority in our classrooms is to give us direction and feedback that informs our instruction. That students have such goals: this is what I want; there need be no fear that I will neglect the “uselessness” of literature. It will be celebrated in my classroom with cakes and ale until they drag my bones from the portable, still clutching a worn copy of the Pelican Twelfth Night.

Immersed in a secret pool of divine, human, and oracular voices I may escape the dire fear that threatens to drown my best intentions in self-doubt. Who are the voices speaking to you, sustaining your practice and your vitality?

[Image: Cruikshank’s illustration, scanned by Allingham, at Victorian Web, http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/2cities/13.1.html%5D


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