If I could give new teachers just one piece of advice, it would be this:
Let the kids drive.
Yes, you’re the one with the degree in education. Yes, you’re the one who knows the Common Core standards. Yes, you’re the one who’s seen the blueprint for the flavor-of-the-week standardized test. But your kids are the ones who know themselves, and that might be more important. Trust them. Seize the teachable moments, and let the kids drive — the lesson, the unit, even the curriculum if necessary.
Here’s what that looks like in practice:
Last spring, I worked up the scope and sequence for our new senior English curriculum — a traditional survey of British lit. I’d hated Beowulf as a senior and barely tolerated John Gardner’s Grendel as an undergrad, so my curriculum allowed only two weeks for Anglo-Saxon literature — just long enough to read the graphic-novel version of Beowulf, hit some highlights from Gardner’s novel, and move on.
My seniors were outraged. They loved the graphic novelization of Beowulf, insisted on reading at least part of “the real one,” and dove into Grendel with an enthusiasm to rival that of my favorite professor, who was Gardner’s BFF in the ’60s.
Five chapters in, these rough-and-tumble ranch kids became obsessed with dragon symbolism. They got into heated debates about whether Grendel was an existentialist or a nihilist, tied the novel to everything from Norse mythology to anime, and speculated on why so many religions include serpent imagery in their stories.
I responded by blowing apart my carefully structured survey of British lit and reassembling it into thematic units that capitalized on the kids’ fascination with dragons, ouroboros symbols, and the brute existent. It might be the best Brit-lit curriculum I’ve ever seen.
Let the kids drive.
Last week, a reluctant reader in another class fell in love with a Saki short story. I’d planned to jump to another story next, but this student noticed an interview with Stephen King on the next page and wanted to read it.
I never deny a request from a reluctant reader. So we read, and King taught us the elements that make a story scary, and when we finished, I asked the kids to write their own scary stories.
My reluctant reader got so caught up in his storytelling that he finished 30 minutes early and used the balance of the period to read today’s story and write down any questions that came to him as he read.
He taught class this morning.
Stephen King wasn’t part of my curriculum last week. He is now.
Seriously: Let the kids drive.