Twenty years ago, when I accepted a part-time job teaching ninth grade English at the Foote School, an independent school in New Haven, CT, my plan was to remain for a year while applying for positions at local colleges. My education and background (I had majored in English and attended private schools myself) suited me for the job, but I couldn’t imagine spending my career moderating discussions of young adult novels and quizzing students on grammar and vocabulary. In my first year at Foote, I did apply to several colleges, and for the next few years supplemented my salary by teaching undergraduate writing courses in the afternoons as an adjunct instructor. Though I assumed that I would eventually make the transition to full-time college teaching, I enjoyed my work with the ninth graders too much to give it up.
This surprised me because most of the literature that my Foote students like is too adolescent for my taste, and the instruction that they require in grammar, vocabulary, and critical writing too elementary. Even in their creative writing most of the ninth graders are too young to see the point of revising their work, so my comments consist of encouragement and open-ended questions. The appeal of the job, powerful enough to have kept me in it for twenty years, lies not with the content of my course, but with the students themselves. In addition to enjoying their irreverent personalities, I find their responses to literature passionate and unpredictable, which motivates me to discover books that they like and to compose lessons that hold their interest. Having achieved these goals, I tend to stick with what works.
This reliance on past preparation, which I suspect many veteran teachers share, has its drawbacks. Not only do I use many of the same books year after year, I ask the same questions and often extract the same insights. For example, each fall I conclude our unit on the young adult novel Speak, about a ninth grade girl who has been raped by a popular senior boy, by writing on the board several words and phrases, including “brave,” ”risky,” “mature,” and “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” When I ask which of these best characterizes the girl’s decision to report the rape, most students choose the last, balancing the need for accountability against the likelihood that the boy will deny the crime and convince his classmates to shun her.
The first time that I did this exercise it taught me a lot about how my students view their age group’s social and sexual mores. A decade later, Speak continues to provoke vigorous discussions, but these no longer hold many surprises for me, tempting me to retire the book in favor of one that rewards me as much as it does my students. The same redundancy has sapped my interest in two other favorites, Looking for Alaska and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. After years of having students design and defend their own dustjackets for Alaska, a novel about hard-partying boarding school friends and a fatal car accident, I have come to expect artful collages of vodka bottles and twisted wreckages. A writing assignment on Curious Incident asks them to propose future professions for the thirteen-year-old protagonist, who appears to have Asperger syndrome. Their essays articulate the social and intellectual demands of different occupations, but I can predict which jobs will be recommended (software designer, mathematician) and which won’t (massage therapist, traffic cop).
A well-funded and exclusive independent school, Foote gives me full autonomy to determine my curriculum, freeing me to create lesson plans and choose texts without administrative interference. If I wanted to try out a new book in my class, I would fill out a purchase order in the business office, and within a week the desired number of copies would show up at the front desk, their cost included in the students’ tuition. Compared to the way things work for two friends of mine who teach in public schools, this system is luxurious. At different points in their careers they have had to compile their reading lists with an eye to state standards, or to confine their choices to the books that happened to be on hand in the stockroom. My wife, who teaches English in an independent school comparable to Foote, is able to choose and order her own books, but must do so before leaving for summer vacation. More than once she has returned in September to find herself assigned to a different course, with a different teacher’s book choices waiting to be unpacked and taught.
Clearly, if anyone should be able to keep his curriculum fresh, it’s me. But the alternative of regularly renewing my syllabus isn’t as obvious as it sounds. It’s hard to find material that a majority of fourteen-year-olds will like and learn from. Over twenty years my discard pile has become littered with books that students complained about and avoided reading. That kind of negative response can poison the atmosphere of a class and turn writing assignments into drudgery. In addition, I’m reluctant to replace effective books just because the discussion of them feels predictable; after all, each new class comes to them fresh and uses them to develop its literary taste and critical skill. Revising a successful curriculum just to keep myself motivated seems selfish, secondary to my pedagogical purpose.
Two years ago I did make one change, swapping a moderately well-received memoir for Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, a novel that students adored and made me promise to keep on the syllabus. That adjustment gave me, for the first time ever, an entire year’s worth of popular books and a comparable number of productive writing projects and quiz and discussion questions. My years of trial and error had paid off, and I looked forward to the teacher’s equivalent of cruising on automatic pilot. But my triumph was short-lived. In October, after a few weeks of drawing on my files for Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life, which has been on my reading list since the beginning, I realized that the sameness of my classes was making me dangerously bored. After so many passes through Wolff’s book, it had become impossible to find new questions to ask or subtleties to point out. Avoiding the old ones would have diminished the quality of my teaching. I worried that I was growing restless in my job at an age (I’m fifty-seven) when I had at least a decade left before retirement.
Most teachers know a colleague and most students have had a teacher who, out of habit or financial necessity, has worked past his or her enthusiasm’s expiration date. I have been teaching long enough that I am alert to signs of burn-out in myself. For most teachers, this condition is caused by overwork or the wear and tear of dealing with kids every day. But my independent school classes are too small and my students too cooperative to be truly frazzling. My depletion comes from the repetitiveness of my job—that is, from the system I worked so hard to create of rehashing my once-fresh books and projects.
Fortunately, no sooner did I celebrate the completion of my repertoire than I began forgetting to consult it. I composed new lessons where existing ones would have sufficed. The duplication annoyed me until I realized how much of my pleasure in teaching comes from thinking up classes. It’s the part of the job that feels the most like creative writing to me. I like to think of class periods as blank pieces of paper, needing to be filled in a way that will appeal to others, always involving the risk of inscrutability or failure. This is particularly true when I teach adolescents, who thrive on offbeat projects and have little tolerance for being bored. Last year, my antidote to the onset of burnout was to ignore my files and re-invent my course a class at a time.
At first, this took the form of changing my approach to books that were already on my syllabus. For example, I had always struggled with the graphic memoir Persepolis, about a young girl growing up in Iran in the 1980s. The first half of this book requires a good deal of historical and political context, which threatens to overwhelm the author’s story. To mitigate this problem and convey how much inventiveness is required to make literature from pictures, I sent my students off to take creatively posed cellphone snapshots of each other around school. After uploading these to our class website, they selected, shuffled and added captions to create their own graphic short stories. The project suited the adolescents’ love of technology, imagery, and anything that departs from traditional learning, especially by getting them out of their seats.
In planning the Persepolis project, for which my students needed access to computers, I benefitted from Foote’s recent initiative encouraging technology use in the classroom. In September I had moved into a room equipped with twenty laptops, which enabled me to use the internet as a resource for lesson planning. A colleague who heard about my laptop windfall e-mailed me an article about a short film contest sponsored by YouTube, with a link to the finalists—a dozen two- to five-minute-long animated and live action films—wondering if I could work them into an English-related project. The school librarian proposed a blog as a way for kids to share written responses to the films, which I realized would allow them to produce writing without my having to correct and grade it.
I wasn’t trying to shirk this duty—I assign and comment on copious amounts of writing and see this labor as an essential part of my job—but I had always wanted to be able to assign more writing without always having to factor in correcting time, and without students anticipating a grade every time they wrote. Whatever was sacrificed by the lack of input would be made up in the freedom and pleasure they took in writing. In his essay “How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading,” John Holt argues that students don’t always read the corrections on their papers, and even when they do, they don’t necessarily build the teacher’s suggestions into their writing. Having seen this in my own classes, I agreed with Holt that English teachers should encourage their students to write as much as possible without necessarily marking everything.
In any English class—certainly any large English class—if the amount the students write is limited by what the teacher can find time to correct, or even to read, the students will not write nearly enough. The remedy is to have them write a great deal that the teacher does not read….What most students need above all else is practice in writing, and particularly in writing about things that matter to them, so that they will begin to feel the satisfaction that comes from getting important thoughts down in words and will care about stating these thoughts forcefully and clearly.
“How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading”
From the start, my students approached their writing for the film blog differently from their essays on Speak and The Book Thief. Avid users of Facebook, they associated online posts with spontaneity and informality, typing away happily as I strolled around the room reading over their shoulders and reminding them not to lapse into the abbreviated language of e-mails and texts. It didn’t surprise me that they loved watching and discussing films online in English class, but I hadn’t expected to enjoy the project so much myself, not just reading their posts to see which films they liked, but selecting the films and thinking up writing prompts. I felt intellectually and creatively stimulated in a way that I would never have thought possible when I came to Foote, and the film blog gave me a welcome respite from the more repetitive aspects of my job.
The blog’s success inspired me to think up other projects that would vary my classes and give my students a change from our year-long study of books. That many of these projects involved film is due partly to my love of that art form and partly to the fact that good films depend on good writing, qualifying them for an English curriculum, particularly if one incorporates screenplays, criticism, and even biography. For example, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs follows the development of the Pixar animation studio, which Jobs purchased in 1986, from its rudimentary first film, the two minute Luxo Jr, through the increasingly sophisticated installments of the Toy Story series. Knowing that my students had watched Toy Story recently enough as children to remember it fondly and be curious about its creation, I assigned the Pixar chapter of Isaacson’s book. In class we watched Luxo Jr, followed by Pixar’s second attempt at a short, Tin Toy, and finally clips from the three Toy Story films. Having familiarized themselves with cinematography and editing technique for the blog, the students discussed these processes knowledgeably. This led to an essay analyzing the development of Pixar’s art.
These film projects so rejuvenated me that I began thinking again about replacing one of my successful class texts. I had already found ways to integrate film into my teaching of literature—showing clips from the movies Rain Man and Temple Grandin to illustrate autistic behavior in conjunction with the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime; and using the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds, featuring an oleaginous Nazi, to illustrate the seductive face of evil as portrayed in Forgotten Fire, a novel about the Armenian genocide. Class discussions of these scenes referred so often to their dialogue that I began looking for a full-length screenplay that would both entertain my students and lend itself to literary appreciation.
My son, a film school graduate and omnivorous movie fan, suggested Good Will Hunting, written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck when they were not much older than my ninth graders. The students could compare the written script to the performances, read the film’s eloquent monologues aloud in class, analyze clips, and write an essay on how the troubled Will Hunting helps his therapist Sean to face down his demons as much as vice versa. Preparing for this unit energized my summer planning and spurred me to attempt more—and more risky—curriculum updates, making me a less complacent and, I hope, more imaginative teacher. I haven’t abandoned all the old standbys on my syllabus, but at least now they are interspersed with fresher material.
My success in diversifying my curriculum showed me that students occasionally benefit from their teachers’ selfishness. While I hoped that my ninth graders would enjoy watching and discussing the films, my main motive in incorporating them was to keep myself engaged by working with material that I love. To have tried this with books would have meant assigning the kind of demanding writing—Shakespeare plays, Moby Dick, Modernist poetry—that already populates my reject pile. Some teachers have a flair for making such canonical works exciting to adolescents, but I do better with contemporary young adult fiction. Fortunately, it turns out that the films that are close to my heart also appeal to fourteen-year-olds. Tailoring my curriculum to my affections ended up being as rewarding for my students as for me.
In an interview, the long-time Harvard professor Walter Jackson Bate explains the importance of affection to good teaching:
Students, by and large, will forgive almost anything if they think that you love the subject. They go away talking about the enthusiasm—the enthusiasm is almost always contagious, or at least you can say that without enthusiasm nothing is going to catch on. Unless you are a superlative actor, you have to love the subject, I mean really love it, love style, love poetry, love the novels you’re talking about; really care about them.
Bate, who won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of Keats and Samuel Johnson, taught a popular lecture course called “The Age of Johnson” at Harvard from 1948 to 1986. After taking the course as an undergraduate in the mid-1970s, I remained in Cambridge for ten years, working in the university library. Seeing my old professor around campus, I wondered how he was managing to keep his classes fresh after more than thirty years. Even if he shuffled their organization or content, there was only so much improvising one could do in presenting writers who had been dead for two centuries. One day in the early 1980s, I re-visited Bate’s class. Too much time had passed for me to tell if his lectures had changed, but his spiritedness in speaking about Johnson’s life and quoting his writing would have held my attention no matter what he was talking about.
My short-lived plan to return every year to the same classes and books not only stifled my interest in my job, it deprived me of a creative outlet that I hadn’t appreciated. I have drawn on my teaching experiences in my writing, but didn’t realize that the influence flowed the other way, too. Planning classes utilizes the same part of my brain as composing and revising rough drafts. One proof of this is that I put the most energy and inventiveness into my teaching when my writing is going poorly. And as strictly as I adhere to my writing schedule, I welcome the end of a session if an idea for a good English class clamors for my attention. The prospect of risk, novelty, and surprise is as stimulating in the classroom as on the page, and the absence of these qualities just as deadening. Today, as I screen new films to add to the original YouTube contest finalists, and look for another screenplay to eventually supplant Good Will Hunting, I know that renewal rather than repetition will be my teaching mantra from now on.
Though I will still print out an existing lesson plan if I’m tired or return home late on a Sunday night, and remain reluctant to replace the most beloved books on my curriculum, I recognize the folly of automating my teaching. No matter how many hours I save or uncertainty I avoid by repeating successful projects, it’s not worth giving up the spontaneity that keeps me looking forward to each new class. Now at least, if I do succumb to burn-out, it will be when my students’ personalities become predictable—collections of attitudes and reactions that I have seen too many times before. I hope to get in another ten years of teaching before that happens, ushering me to a timely retirement. Until then, each new class beckons as a new page, each student as a rough draft to be realized.