There are days when students ask you, “Why did you become a teacher?” and, even though you’re thinking, “Great question!” or, on those very special days, thinking, “I HAVE NO F’ING CLUE!” you come up with some sort of coherent response about helping students and your love of lifelong learning. You’re able to respond calmly and with a smile because you’re a professional teacher/actress/motivational speaker/wizard. It’s not exactly a lie. It’s just that the innocent question brought about an existential crisis for which you were not prepared and, well, the lesson must go on.
Today was not one of those days.
It was a different kind of day. Not a perfect day (I’m not sure those exist when you work with 140+ teenagers), but a wonderful day (which do exist and tend to happen more often than you might think when you work with 140+ teenagers). Some good things happened in the morning, but I was mostly happy just to get through it unscathed–a special mission (sometimes impossible) when your students are seniors and you’re inching ever-closer to the end of the year and graduation. Now, the afternoon…the afternoon was when the magic happened.
Students in my English 12 Literature courses are sharing their final exam presentations. I call it “Two Minutes and a Takeaway.” Students have two minutes to share how and what they learned through consideration of three self-selected texts explored throughout the semester and they give each of their classmates a tangible takeaway to help remind them of the lesson shared. It’s my favorite way to end the term. It’s one last chance for students to demonstrate their skills, express themselves, and take part in the learning community we’ve developed throughout the course.
The initial reaction when I roll it out is always similar. Students get it. Two minutes? Easy. Bring something for the class? Okay. They get it. And then they don’t.
What are we supposed to say?
What do you want to say?
What are we supposed to give out?
What would make most sense?
What exactly are you looking for?
I’m looking for you to share your thinking and learning.
Can we just write an essay or take a multiple choice exam?
But this actually makes us think.
That wasn’t a question.
What I didn’t know the first time I assigned this was what would happen. What would students share? What kind of tangible takeaways would they give out? Would this even work?
Oh, it would. It did. And it does.
Every semester I am surprised, impressed, and heartened by these presentations. They’re personalized and, often, very personal.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s always 100% buy-in.
At the end of yesterday’s class, a student said, “Yeah, I won’t be ready tomorrow.” “You’re scheduled to present tomorrow,” I said, doing my best impression of even-keeled Captain Obvious. “Yeah, well I haven’t even started.” “You can do it!” I said, now morphing into my obnoxious academic cheerleader persona, “You have 24 hours!” “Yeah, well I work tonight so we’ll see.” “You can do it!” I said, now just a nerdy parrot. And I walked away.
I knew he could do it. I had no idea if he would do it. That conversation wasn’t anything new. He and I had had various versions of that same back and forth throughout the semester. I make it a point to never get into a battle of wills with students, but he had pushed me to my limit more than once over the past few months. We had also had a couple really good conversations. Although he rarely volunteered to share or discuss in whole class settings, we had some really thoughtful one-on-one reader conferences. I was hoping he would share, just this once, that same insight and perspective with his classmates.
I didn’t know if he’d even show up today, but he did. And as we got ready to start presentations, he said, “Do you have a plastic bag?” Without asking what he might need it for, I went into my teacher cabinet of crap and pulled out a miscellaneous bag. “Will this work?” I asked. “Yeah.” And then I saw them…his takeaways. “Oh, is this for your takeaways? So you can pass them around?” “Yeah.”
My heart lifted like I think my yoga instructor intends when she says, “Now lift your heart.” Done. And we got started.
He didn’t volunteer to go first or second or fifth or sixth. But he was ready to go when I called on him to present seventh. He shared what he had prepared. He talked about the book he read with his book club, and a series of books he read as a kid. He talked about music and a little about his relationship with his mom and his overall message: everybody’s unique. He said he thinks we often forget that, but encouraged his classmates to think about that as they finish up this class and graduate high school. And to help them remember, he was passing out unique quotes. Then he passed the plastic bag around and each student pulled out a slip of paper with a different quote.
When the bag got to me, I was giddy. “This is like a fortune cookie. I love it!” I said as I reached into the bag. “Make sure you mix ‘em up,” a student said. I did and I pulled out my fortune. “Read it out loud!” said another.
“Definiteness of purpose is the starting point of all achievement,” I read. “I like that,” I said, “And we were just talking about the importance of purpose in another class. It’s like it is my fortune.” I turned to the presenter. “Really nice job.”
We wrapped things up with one final student presentation, and soon after that the bell rang. I told the group to have a nice day and started getting ready for the next period. In the in-between-classes shuffle, that student came up to me. “Here’s a quote more personalized for you,” he said. He handed me a slip of paper and walked away before I could read it. “Thanks!” I called out as he walked out the door. Then I read it.
“Life is about making an impact, not making an income.”
I could’ve cried right there. (I’m crying right now.) Another student walked up to me. “I thought he hated me,” I said before I could stop myself. I meant it. I really did. I thought he hated me. Or English class. Or both. Sometimes the two are, understandably, indistinguishable. Maybe he did. Maybe he does. But, this.
It was one of those days. One of those days that reminds you exactly why you became a teacher.