Chalk Talk with Sarah Banning: The strange freedom of teaching during a crisis


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Published: 1/26/2021 1:04:56 PM

Earlier this year, I told my students that I was planning a lesson that would have something to do with peanut butter and jelly. Even over Zoom I could see the confused looks, and a few kids took to the chat to ask what on Earth I was talking about. How could peanut butter and jelly have anything to do with English language arts? I merely told them that the secret would be revealed on Friday. Ah, the joy of a cliffhanger!

That Friday, the ingredients for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were spread out over the makeshift desk in my living room, and I revealed to my students that they must each write me a recipe for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, because I have no idea how to do it!

Students began writing in their own directions, some writing lists, others paragraphs — some serious and simple, others long and dripping with humor.

Using a few of their recipes, I made several peanut butter sandwiches, occasionally scooping the peanut butter with my hand if no utensil was specified or just dropping a blob of jelly on the bread with no attention to evenness.

As my students watched my sandwich making (and eating), we discussed how our purpose as writers matters and who our audience is matters too. As a novice peanut butter and jelly maker, I needed my writers to be precise and thoughtful about what they told me, just as we must do in all writing.

Using lessons learned in this exercise, students were able to thoughtfully use Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” to inspire a unique piece of writing where they determined their own purpose and the audience. Never before have I seen so much excitement about writing, such creativity, and so many students proudly claim the moniker of writer.

However, this sort of joyful learning has not always been central to my practice. For too long MCAS, not joy, was central to my teaching. The significance of MCAS testing hung over me and my teaching like a dark cloud. The knowledge that MCAS alone determined if my students graduated or not often drove my decisions, and I chose to center my lessons on test preparation.

Instead of having kids consider their own reactions to a text or write imaginative narratives that pushed them to consider new perspectives, they would write standard five-paragraph literary analysis essays responding to an MCAS-style prompt.

When COVID closed schools, many of our families experienced uncertainty and loss, and students grappled with the intense and systematic social inequalities that plague our society; MCAS seemed so trivial compared to everything else in the world. Yet, I finally had the epiphany that took me an embarrassingly long time to have: that students will get much more out of their time in English class and in school if it is joyful.

My job is not to prepare students for a test, but to create space for exploration and laughter. It is for them to discover that they are indeed writers, thinkers, philosophers and advocates. Particularly in times of hardship, joy becomes even more important. I have found that by centering joy, I have greater engagement, significantly fewer struggling students, and more students who see themselves as writers and scholars. As students learn empathy and kindness, it helps me find joy in teaching, too.

Sarah Banning teaches 10th-grade English at the Springfield Renaissance School.

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