Every year my middle school students ask me why I became an English teacher. They appear to respect my colleagues and me; one or two might even admit to considering teaching as a career, but the tone of the question is usually incredulous. They can’t fathom how anyone could derive satisfaction from making students feel as regimented and stressed as school makes them feel. They also imagine that a teacher must adore his subject to want to profess it day after day; one boy said that he pictured my house crammed with books and me reading constantly. I didn’t dispute the image—I do read a lot, though my local library helps keep my book collection in check—but was surprised to hear him tie my love of teaching to a love of literature. I told him that one has little to do with the other.
I’m always glad to turn kids on to good books or to reading in general, and equip them with writing skills, but these aren’t my primary satisfactions or motivations. Leading a discussion on a young adult novel, for example, I provoke and clarify, and it pleases me when a student offers an original insight about a piece of writing that I have taught many times. But it’s of secondary importance to me what the text is—I’m not there to promote or defend it, or convey my own passion for it as I would with, say, a Yeats poem in a college seminar. I’m there to be among sensitive adolescents expressing themselves in a spontaneous but structured forum. My students look puzzled when I say so, but my love of teaching comes less from my subject than from navigating their personalities.
I can think of other professions requiring contact with people that might satisfy me as much as teaching. If I liked to cook, I could be a head chef commanding a bustling kitchen; if I knew anything about acting, I could direct plays; if the opportunity arose, I could—and would, happily—become a full-time sports coach. This attitude may explain why I introduce so many activities in class that seem tenuously related to English. I do so either as a break from lessons involving grammar, vocabulary or essay structure, or as part of my credo that if my students look forward to the four hours a week that they sit in my classroom, I will have a better chance of teaching them English or anything else.
I think a lot about the anything else, which, given the amount of time we spend together over the school year, adds up to a great deal. The English part of my curriculum is straightforward: we read books, essays, stories and poems, and talk about them. The kids take quizzes to show whether they’ve done the reading and are absorbing its basic information as well as its subtleties. I draw up vocabulary lists based on the assigned books and quiz them on these. I correct their essays and rewrites, and preside over exercises requiring them to put a comma before “but” and a singular verb after “none.” None of these written activities is stimulating to them or to me, but I would be derelict in neglecting them. I’m probably derelict anyway in not spending more time on them than I do.
Within this framework of a conventional English class, however, much else breaks out—questions, complaints, jokes, anecdotes, quarrels. I’m no less willing than my students to veer away from a book discussion or grammar exercise onto an unrelated topic (though they think they’re sly for tricking me into letting this happen). I imagine that all but the most rigid schoolteachers, or those pressured to prepare students for standardized tests, tolerate and even welcome such digressions. Surely most middle or high school teachers found their way into their jobs because they like kids, and to my taste there’s nothing more invigorating than keeping up with the conversation of a roomful of adolescents.
Sometimes—after a quiz or an in-class writing session, or on a gray Monday in February—I’ll initiate the departure from our curriculum. I’ll give them half a class period to amuse themselves on the website freerice.com, where each correct answer to a multiple choice vocabulary question contributes 100 grains of rice to a developing country. Constructive and educational, yes, but not something they need to be in school or in my presence to work on. It’s simply fun, for them to do and for me to watch while circling the room making suggestions. When I worry that the time could be used more profitably, I remind myself that this is an investment in their goodwill and their sense of English class, and perhaps even English literature, as not antithetical to pleasure.
Then there are the songs. I love contemporary music—pop, rock and roll, and jazz—and I am, if not well informed about the music my students listen to, then sincerely curious about and eager to hear it. I probably earn more of their approval from liking the music and movies they like than from any other aspect of our relationship, though the older I get the more I worry that this looks like a popularity ploy. It feels odd to be a fifty year old English teacher discussing the merits of Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber with students the same age as these singers, and then downloading sample songs to my iPod when I get home. Yet my interest in my students’ music is genuine; in contrast, I loathe the wizard and vampire novels that many of them love, and don’t hesitate to tell them so.
Ten years ago, I gave an assignment for the day before winter vacation, when students tend to be distracted and hyper and there’s no point trying to accomplish anything serious. I told them to bring in their favorite song, one they would take to a desert island. To keep the exercise English-related (I always assume that parents will hear about my assignments and activities, and so avoid sponsoring anything I cannot defend), I insisted that the songs’ lyrics have some literary value—no “Mmm Bop” or “Oops, I Did It Again.” In class we listened to each song and they separately rated its lyrics, music, and overall quality on a scale of one to 10. Then we discussed their ratings.
The class was a hit; kids love expressing, proselytizing for, and defending their musical tastes. They also liked how the ratings let them give their initial opinions in numbers rather than words. My delight in their reaction was only tempered by my fear that a rigorous teacher would never condone this activity. Last fall my school hosted a teacher from a Chinese middle school. After attending my class, the visitor told me that he couldn’t imagine a Chinese teacher allotting time for desert island music picks. Nor, I suspect, would many American public schools, with their frequent teacher evaluations and lesson plans filed in advance, permit this deviation from the curriculum. Was I holding my students, my country even, back?
When the students begged to repeat the song project after vacation, I couldn’t tell whether they had felt genuinely stimulated or were angling to avoid more tedious activities. Unable to justify spending multiple classes listening to the contents of their iPods, I proposed that we rate a song once or twice a week as a reward for completing a more demanding task. Ten years later, this tradition is still going strong. When I introduce it each September, or am asked about it by colleagues or parents, I mention the poetry connection, but the real reason I continue it is that I believe it offers students an education as important as the one I am paid to provide. I have come to see the songs as no less productive than mid-class bull sessions, website grammar wars, or other aspects of my class that would probably appall the Chinese.
In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks suggested that young people benefit from an education besides the academic one that occupies most of their time in school. The first kind of education, Brooks says, is formal and supervised: “information walks through the front door and announces itself by light of day. It’s direct. The teacher describes the material to be covered, and then everybody works through it.” The second kind, which Brooks calls “emotional education,” is “unsupervised and haphazard”:
The knowledge transmitted in an emotional education … comes indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards and through the vents. It’s generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious.
According to Brooks, his second education began on the night in 1975 that he first heard Bruce Springsteen’s music.
Over the next few decades Springsteen would become one of the professors in my second education. In album after album he assigned a new course in my emotional curriculum… From that first night in the winter of 1975, I wanted the thrill that Springsteen was offering… Once I got a taste of that emotional uplift, I was hooked. The uplifting experiences alone were bound to open the mind for learning.
Brooks implies that this alternative education is acquired outside the classroom—“We all gather our own emotional faculty—artists, friends, family and teams. Each refines and develops the inner instrument with a million strings.” But in my experience the “inner instrument” is also receptive to what happens in school, especially when the focus shifts from tests and drills to material that reflects actual experience. Like Brooks’ emotional education, my departures from the official curriculum were “a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious.”
If the lessons my students learn from sharing songs cannot be tested or graded, neither could those imparted to Brooks on that night in 1975. To measure the benefits of an emotional education, one requires “data” such as the reaction of Brooks’ 15-year-old daughter when he took her to a Springsteen concert 35 years after his own epiphany:
She had her hands clapped to her cheeks and a look of slack-jawed, joyous astonishment on her face. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing—10,000 people in a state of utter abandon, with Springsteen surrendering himself to them in the center of the arena.
My own measure of teenage abandon is my students’ habit of tapping their feet as they listen to music. A few years ago, I began predicting their ratings of the songs their classmates had brought in. My accuracy amazed them until I explained that their bodies were tipping me off as to who found the song catchy and who remained literally unmoved. Other signs of constructive absorption are when they stop yawning or looking out the window or whispering to their friends, or when they wave their arms to indicate their eagerness to talk, or skip the waving and blurt out comments, or when reticent students suddenly have something to say. During song discussions, class participation increases to 100%. The comments touch on lyrics, music, and on how the students felt while listening. Their thoughtfulness bears out Brooks’s view that “the uplifting experiences alone were bound to open the mind for learning.”
A certain amount of non-academic education occurs in all classrooms, no matter how aloof or task-oriented the teacher. Any adult who oversees a group of teenagers every day for nine months can’t help but serve as an emotional “professor,” as Brooks calls Springsteen, and students enrich their inner lives in the company of their classmates just as they do at home with the bedroom door closed. Judging by what I retained from high school, classes and books were a pretext for me to undertake an extended study of personality—my own, my peers’, and my teachers’. The fact that my most valuable and lasting lessons from that time were personal ones makes me less inclined to stick to academics in my classroom. “To educate for the future, one must educate for the moment,” the essayist and teacher Samuel Pickering wrote. “Classes should sprawl beyond particular subjects. In digressions lie lessons.” Fortunately, the private school where I work encourages independence, so as long as my students receive their first educations, I’m free to tend to their second ones.
Brooks confirmed what I already knew, that to allot every minute of every class to “information that walks through the front door and announces itself by light of day” would shortchange my students as much as neglecting their writing, reading or thinking skills. Teachers need not possess rock star charisma to achieve a Springsteen-like effect; they do so by virtue of their authority and daily presence in their students’ lives. My fulfillment comes from exploiting this power rather than keeping it secondary to the course material I have been hired to impart. Cultivating my students’ personalities and passions allows me to educate them in a way that transcends academics, and is no less profound for being intangible. When a song is playing, feet are tapping, and someone starts fingering an air guitar, I know I am watching characters in the process of being formed.
Michael Milburn teaches high school English in New Haven, CT. He is the author of a book of essays, Odd Man In, and two books of poems. A new book of poems, Carpe Something, is forthcoming this summer. His published essays can be found online at michael-milburn.com.
Love this! I have turned the.song idea into a project. I give them.definitions.of what a poem is -like Emily dickinsons and they have to defend how a song of.their choice fits the definition. They loved it 🙂
Great essay. I used to have my eighth grade students evaluate the literary worth of a favorite song. I don’t know why I stopped. I love your idea and plan to use it. Thanks for fighting the good fight!
And it continues even beyond those years. I taught college freshmen for many years and am now a “lecturer” one quarter a year in a professional certificate program at a large university. Though our time is very limited, the adult professionals who take my grammar-based technical writing class are often surprised at how much “non-academic education” during discussion actually enhances their experience with what they would normally consider dry material. It opens up the pigeon holes.
I thoroughly enjoyed this essay, Michael. I can sense your love of students and their engagement of the gear wheels of inspiration in each paragraph. You’re tuning them into life and love and so many wonderful concepts beyond the classroom. I admire this.
I, too, worked as a teacher for nearly twenty years. As an art teacher (for many of those years) my main motivation was to mine and witness the developing taproot of creativity as it lit up in so many students’ eyes. As they learned to appreciate their own artistic skills their whole world seemed to open up and wasn’t that sensational, the real perk of my job.
Thank you for a fine essay!
Thank you for that encouraging comment.