Chalk Talk: Working alongside students

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For the Gazette
Published: 11/20/2019 9:19:16 AM

I had an experience in a recent professional development workshop that reminded me how vital it is for teachers to be placed in students’ shoes. In a session on teaching poetry, the presenter asked some leading questions as we discussed a poem, and when there was a lull in the room — that palpable silence between an instructor’s question and a student’s response — I decided to share my thoughts. I was confident in my initial answer, but I was taken aback by the instructor’s follow-up question.

I had nothing.

In my classroom, I struggle to stop talking about a poem, but things can feel much different when I’m surrounded by 20 other English teachers. I stumbled through an answer, insecurity encroaching on my speech. After delivering my less than coherent thinking, my stomach tightened, and I’m sure my face reddened a bit. It took a minute or two to recover, and I was struck by how quickly a classroom can make a student feel this way — self-conscious, self-doubting, uncomfortable. I felt the repercussions that can result from speaking up, the discomfort of feeling put on the spot.

When I returned to my own English classroom the next day, I shared this story with my students, and of course, they commiserated with me. We had a good conversation about the potential for awkwardness that the classroom can create. I proceeded with the day’s lesson on Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” the famous “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” poem, one that I’ve been teaching for nearly two decades. I resumed my role as instructor, as questioner. Our discussion of the poem wasn’t much of a discussion at all; few students shared their thinking, and I did most of the talking.

The issue became clear: my line of questioning was guiding them to understandings I had determined they should arrive at, and it really bothered me. I stopped the lesson. I wanted to talk this out with them. I shared my perspective, explaining how inauthentic the process felt — leading their experience of a poem they were encountering for the first time and one that I’d taught so many times before.

Students shared their reasons for being intimidated by poetry — their fear of being wrong, their feeling that the writing is unnecessarily cryptic, their preference to wait for the teacher to tell them what a poem means. We agreed that, moving forward, it would be useful for us to look at poems as first time readers, together, to explore texts none of us has encountered before. I thought about that workshop I had attended, about the benefits that could result if I were to return to that vulnerable, awkward student state right alongside them.

After consulting colleagues in a Facebook group for AP Literature teachers — a wonderful community I often turn to — about their favorite poems to teach, and sifting through the barrage of responses, I chose three I’d never read, one for each of my AP classes. I went with “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” by Adrienne Rich, “Anorexic” by Eavan Boland, and “Spelling” by Margaret Atwood — three poems that turned out to be great choices.

What followed were two of my favorite teaching days this year. In each class, day one was spent working through the poem on our own, applying strategies we’ve learned to make meaning out of a text. We annotated and wrote a brief paragraph in response, aiming to capture the essence of the poem even if we didn’t understand every line. I stressed to students that we were interested in the process, not an answer.

Seated in a student desk among them, I felt a sense of camaraderie as I glanced around the room with pride to see that we were all marking up these challenging texts, doing our best to put together a reasonable interpretation in a short time. A few of us had trouble remaining silent, blurting out sounds of frustration and enthusiastic epiphanies along the way. “Oh, that makes sense!”

The second day was fun and revealing. We began by reflecting — writing about moments that had stalled us, moments we struggled with and overcame, and questions we still had. As we began sharing out, it was obvious that, unlike our analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnet, we were all genuinely working this out together. Students shared moments of confusion, and I shared mine. Students shared moments of discovery, and I shared mine. We commiserated about the challenges the texts presented. We listened attentively to each other’s unique takes. We agreed and disagreed. We pushed each other to support our perspectives by pointing to language in the poems. Like my students, I didn’t present my ideas as if they were “right”; this was a work in progress. We shared the honest thinking of real, active readers trying to make their way through difficult texts.

I wondered if the lesson felt different for students; it certainly had for me. We debriefed. Because I had surrendered my role as the authority in the room, students shared that they felt liberated to disagree with me, to share how they saw things differently. Students no longer felt pressured to come up with the “correct” interpretation. They were more willing to take risks as they saw me doing it, as we dwelled together in the realm of not knowing. It was refreshing. It was real. I had transformed from the authoritative questioner to the curious participant, from revealer to seeker. Our shared vulnerability created an authentic space.

I’ve striven over the course of my career to find ways to create a more student-centered classroom, and this experience has led me to the conclusion that a useful approach is, as often as possible, to become a student in the room myself.

Christopher Rea teaches English at Ludlow High School and is a teacher-consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.

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