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Filtering by Tag: teaching

Hopeful Mysteries

Callie Feyen

Line drawing of the Stratford grammar school drawn by Edmund Hort New. “Mrs. Feyen, do you like professional football teams?” This comes from George, one of my 8th grade students. He’s asking me about football because I’m wearing a Notre Dame t-shirt today. I probably shouldn’t be wearing it; it’s not very professional, but every so often I get dreadfully homesick for the Midwest and this morning as I got dressed I decided to pull Notre Dame over my head and feel a little of South Bend on me as I walked through the day.

I wore a cardigan and a scarf with it and figured nobody would notice I was wearing a t-shirt. George notices, and now he’s asking me about the NFL. While I like everything that has to do with football: tailgating, the stadiums, fall, old, grey depressed towns that transform into vibrant, storybook places for 48 hours, I know nothing about the sport, professional or college.

“Let me guess,” George says, shifting his backpack to his other shoulder. “The Chicago Bears.”

I smile. I never hear them referred to as “The Chicago Bears.” Just, “the Bears,” and the “s” is drawn out a bit. George reminds me where I am – in Maryland, in Redskin territory, in a classroom of 21 of the rowdiest, craziest, 8th graders I’ve ever come into contact with. Trying to teach them is like trying to keep the lids on 21 pots of boiling water. On better days, I call them hippogriffs. On the days they bring me to my knees, they are grizzly bears.

I shouldn’t take any of this personally: the eye rolls, the snickers, the talking while I’m talking. Most days, standing in front of them feels like I have my fly unzipped or toilet paper hanging from my butt. That’s how they look at me, if they look at me. Most of the time they are either looking at each other, falling asleep, or so zoned out I think I am teaching the dead. I usually drive home from school crying, trying to figure out where I went wrong.

They are my grizzly bears, though. As ruthless, conniving, and ridiculous as they are, I adore them. They make me laugh, they are dead silent when I read out loud to them, and when I can get them to trust me and themselves, they are poets. We take walks in a patch of woods behind the school and they write in the second person using all five senses. They can write a sonnet about baseball or their little brothers, all in iambic pentameter. Their writing is vulnerable and gritty. They can be lyrical and they can be stark. You’d never see it in class, though. It only comes out on paper, when they are writing with the lights off. Their preference. They are most comfortable in the dark.

“George,” I say as I erase the whiteboard. “I don’t think I can say I like the Bears, but I do root for them.” I turn towards him and say, “they break a lot of peoples’ hearts on Sundays in the fall.”

George laughs. “Yeah.” He leaves the classroom and I am by myself, looking around. Candy wrappers are everywhere. Assignments I took hours grading are balled up and lying next to the garbage can. There’s writing on the whiteboard, something about peaches. I think it’s a dirty, menacing joke aimed at a student in the class, but I’m not certain. I’m also not sure which student this is aimed at, nor am I sure how this got here in the first place. How did I not see a kid writing on the whiteboard?

As much as these students break my heart, I am addicted to the contrast they bring. I believe my faith lives in that contrast.

We are studying Romeo and Juliet right now, and day they meet Sampson and Gregory, they gasp in what I’m certain is delight when they hear Sampson talking about thrusting women against walls. When we get to the part where Gregory and Sampson contemplate the size and beauty of their reproductive organs, I feel like I’m conducting class in a frat house.

“I had NO IDEA how dirty this play is,” one kids says, delightedly.

When Romeo describes his love of Rosaline, “feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,” we discuss why the opposites contribute to the definition of Romeo’s love. “You can feel it more,” one of them says.

We try to do the same thing to describe the word, “crush:” perfect confusion, sorrowful happiness, paralyzing giddiness. They all smile, and I smile, too. I remember so well those days.

“Romeo kind of likes this mood, doesn’t he?” I suggest.

“Yeah,” they all say, knowingly.

“Now you try,” I tell them, handing them a piece of paper.

Loud secret is used for "mysterious," blurry focus for "art," and my favorite, hopeful mystery for the word "bless."

I tell them I’m going to cry for how good they are. “Read mine! Read mine!” they say, reaching their papers towards me. I take their work, and they put their heads on the table, shy now. I always tell them good job. I always tell them I love what they write. It’s as close as I can get to saying I love them.

When Mercutio and Tybalt die, I have them make webs around their names and we write down all the things they were: inappropriate, angry, possessive, rude.

“Is that all they were?”

No, they say. Mercutio was hilarious and he was a good friend. Tybalt was fiercely protective of Juliet.

I tell them Mercutio and Tybalt were nasty and awful, but that’s not all they were. “If we believe they were made in the image of God, then nothing they do – nothing anything any of us do – can separate us from His love.” I stagger when I say this. I’m always stuttering and tripping over my feet when I talk to my 8th graders.

This class might give me nightmares. They might make me second guess everything I do, but they show me how to live in the contrast. I think it’s where the smiles are bigger, the laughter is heartier, and grace is at its most palpable.

We are cleaning up the classroom during the last five minutes of class. I’m trying to pass back papers, and kids are shooting baskets across the room with them. I get hit several times and realize they’re probably aiming at me. One girl has hip pinned another girl to the wall. Another kid is doing some sort of rendition of “Bring in the Noise, Bring in the Funk.”

George is sitting at his desk, whistling. He has perfect pitch, and I can hear him above all the ruckus. He is whistling the Doxology. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

George reminds me where I am. George reminds me of my blessings. George, and all his classmates, help me believe in the hopeful mystery.

Find the Story Inside You

Christina Lee

Word Fingerprint For as long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve been giving the same assignment. I ask my students to write a story about their lives, a “personal narrative.” And when I explain the assignment, I’ve always, always, met with a chorus of “but nothing’s ever happened to me! My life is so boring!”

At this point I always tell the story of Joseph, an English Language Development (ELD) student from my first year teaching, whom I can only describe as a 15-year-old curmudgeon. Interrupting my description of the assignment, he stubbornly yelled that he “had no stories in him.” (His words, as often happened, became unusually pithy due to the language barrier.)

I asked him if he’d ever been in trouble. His eyes flickered. And in almost one breath, he told a hilarious story of being three and nearly burning down his own house.

“Write that,” I told him.

“Okay,” he said. And he did. And when he turned it in, he grudgingly admitted that he’d loved writing it.

I’ve given this assignment for nearly ten years, so you’d think I’d be tired of it by now. But I’m not. There’s power in asking someone to tell you a story. And there’s something about my classes after they’ve submitted their stories: they stand taller. They participate more actively. In the years that I’ve made time for them to read their stories to one another, the change is even more pronounced. They are kinder. They listen to one another more willingly.

Because there’s something really good about knowing you had a story inside you, and even better about being able to give it to someone else for safekeeping.

Now, I’m making the whole process sound utterly dreamy. Of course it’s not. There were some dark days this year, grading 140 narratives. One boy wrote a three-page saga about finding worms in his kindergarten lunch box (this one lacked any decipherable moral and most punctuation, but was rich in figurative language). Another submitted a technically flawless essay about having the stomach flu, also rich with metaphors and sensory imagery (I suspect this to be passive revenge on me for assigning the essay in the first place, or else a far-too-literal interpretation of my “find the story inside you” pep-talk). One student misunderstood my prompt and penned a sweeping, 15-page elementary school memoir. He’d also missed the part of class where I imposed a page limit.

After they turned in their papers, I asked my students for a metaphor for the process of writing about themselves. Some of my favorites: “looking for the whitest flower in a field of white flowers,” “peeling back layers of skin, but not in a way that hurt” and “staring into a fun house mirror for a long time.” And of course, there was the “falling down a deep pit of despair.”

But even as I’m accused of inflicting despair, I consider this a noble task. And I consider this lesson perhaps the most important one I will teach: you have a story in you.

A Little Experiment

Brad Fruhauff

NL-351235-2 At Relief we’re always interested not just in great writing, but in getting that work into the hands of ordinary church-goers—no English degree required. But while plenty of people think of themselves as novel readers or even nonfiction readers, very few people think of themselves as poetry readers; the poetry people are always presumed to be in some sort of world of their own. But this summer I decided to try a little experiment and run a church small group on reading contemporary Christian poetry.

The good news is that it worked. Mostly. Some of what didn’t work wouldn’t have worked with another kind of small group either. But the fact that it worked at all was, frankly, a little surprising. As I think back on the experience, I’ve learned a few things I’ll try differently next time:

  1. Go for it. I just submitted the idea without asking anyone. The church leadership was very open to it, and a lot of people were pleasantly surprised by it.
  2. Set the bar high and your expectations low. That is, aim for as many people as you can hold, and ask everyone you can, but don’t be surprised if there is more enthusiasm than commitment — especially during the summer months.
  3. Meet somewhere comfortable and quiet. A café can be nice but still noisy, and people are more likely to come out to someone’s home, anyway.
  4. Choose a convenient weeknight. Most of us, including myself, had a hard time making every Sunday evening, for a host of reasons. Folks are a little more likely to be in “go” mode on a Monday through Thursday.
  5. Find the right pace. This will be slower than you want to go and probably a little faster than the group thinks it wants to go. Hopefully this means most people will have the time to read during the week and that you’ll usually leave feeling like there was more to say (which will be true). We usually read 12-20 poems per week and actually talked about 3-4.
  6. Empower your group. We began with Tania Runyan’s How to Read a Poem as a nonthreatening entrée into reading poetry, but anything you can do to permit people to respond honestly and candidly is important. I tried to model honest inquiry and authentic enjoyment as well as openness to ambiguity and mystery. It wasn’t easy for everyone, but we generally avoided the anxiety of the “right”
  7. Don’t teach, but do lead. I didn’t come each week with any real agenda other than to help folks enjoy poems I also enjoyed and to learn how they responded to new poetry. Thus, I didn’t feel the need to lecture at them, though I sometimes did explain concepts or trends when relevant. What I did try to do, however, was to hold us all accountable to the text. I’d let us wander on a tangent inspired by the text, but if I felt someone was misunderstanding or getting a little loose with their reading, I’d call us back to the text to make sure we had solid footing. Occasionally, I’d see that I was misreading.
  8. Our Community Life pastor always reminds us that small groups succeed when their leaders pray. Pray of course for the needs of your group, but pray, too, prayers of praise for the beauty of the written word.

(Painting by Edward Coley Burne-Jones)

Jesus as Teacher

Melissa Reeser Poulin

maxresdefault During Lent, on the advice of a friend, I read my way slowly through the book of John. I had told her I wanted to meditate on the mystery of the cross. I found a short commentary -- A Simple Guide to John by Paul J McCarren -- and tucked it into my bag along with my Bible, and I read passages during my light rail commute to downtown Portland, where I work as a language teacher.

Unexpectedly, I found myself meditating on the role of Jesus as teacher. Again and again, the sensitive writer of the commentary drew my attention to the many ways in which the book of John is the story of Jesus’ tireless, endless work as a teacher. John is the story of Jesus’ brilliant success, in his triumphant lesson on the cross, but it is also the story of his many failures. True, they are not his failures so much as his students’ failure to learn. Yet as a teacher myself, I found profound comfort in knowing that Jesus had mostly hard days in his classroom on earth.

Reading the gospel of John sent me into my own classroom each day with new eyes. I’ve often prayed before class, asking for Jesus to calm my nerves and keep my focus on him and on my students—not on myself. But with the words from John fresh in my mind, I started seeing teaching itself as an act of faith.

On page after page, I was seeing Jesus with new eyes. Jesus learning (learning, like us!) at the wedding at Cana. Jesus repeating the same lesson over and over again, with infinite patience. Jesus using stories and miracles to teach—metaphor both physical and verbal. Jesus teaching without degrees, without permission, without accolades and publications. Teaching in the midst of danger. Teaching in the midst of his own grief, loneliness, fear.

Over and over in John, Jesus invites those who would learn from him to admit their ignorance, and then to pay attention to their lives and their thoughts. He invites them to notice the gap between who they are and who God is, between their behavior and what they say they believe. “If you want to learn from me, you’ll have to follow me,” he says (12:26). In this way, though he is human like us, Jesus is the perfect teacher. Who he is and what he teaches are one.

Since March, I’ve continued to reflect on Jesus as teacher. I think about the slow apprenticeship of my own hard heart, the years of my wary approach to the cross and to Jesus, and how at first, I protected myself from the painful beauty of the cross by regarding Christ as one teacher among many. “I think he was a great teacher, like Buddha or Ghandi,” I said then. “He was one in a long line of prophets and teachers.”

It seems short, small, the distance between these arrogant, fearful words and the confession of faith I made years later. But the distance is huge. A canyon, a chasm. It’s an impossible journey I could not have made on my own. Grace carries me across this distance daily, nestling me into the strange reality of Jesus as both teacher and lesson, as both God and human. How grateful I am to be a perpetual student of Christ.

What they never tell you about teaching...

Alissa Wilkinson

DSC_9529_1_t670 “What they never tell you about teaching,” I say to my colleague as we're climbing the steps from the vestry to the sanctuary, “is that graduation is the worst.”

He nods knowingly. Graduation is the worst. Not because it means melting into grossness underneath a scratchy cap, billowy robe, and velvet hood every year right as the weather is going from warmish to hot—though a few hours beneath the hot lights has, on occasion, made me curse silently and wish for a popsicle.

No, to me the reason is simple. I always hated my own graduations because they were sad, and they involved all these awkward goodbyes where you said “see you later” but what you really meant was “maybe I'll see you some day, and maybe I won't, but I don't want this to feel too final.” I hated the feeling of being dropped off a cliff, of missing all the structured life from the past four years, the comfortable circles of friends, disappearing into thin air as if they never existed outside pictures and some scattered memories.

But what I discovered when I became a professor was that you have to do that every year.

The college I teach at is small and we have only four majors, and I teach some of the core courses in our largest major. So by the time they reach their senior year, some of those students have had a class with me every semester since they were freshmen. And freshmen are funny, especially where I teach: they're new to New York City, usually a little on the hopelessly clueless side, scared but bright-eyed and ready to take on the world.

Over the course of four years, I try to unseat their world a bit, help them root out some of the things they never thought about, hold them up to the light, turn them and look at them from every angle, and then help them build a more solid foundation. I see it happen over and over, and I see them — in some real way — grow up. Then I see them at graduation and realize: they're adults. They may still be 21- and 22-year-olds, with all the attendant weaknesses and insecurities, but they're not children anymore, and I had a part in that.

It makes me feel responsible, and lately it makes me wish I had more opportunities in my life to stop and ceremoniously look at the people around me and notice that they've changed. And that I've changed. That we are changing each other.

The Ridiculous Boat Called English

Melissa Reeser Poulin


I am teaching more these days than I have at any other time in my life, and every time I walk into the classroom I am visited by the same butterflies. They’re probably the same species of nervousness that visits everyone, but they’re also in on a secret. I’m a teacher, and I have no idea what I’m doing.

When I first began teaching English to speakers of other languages, I felt like a tightly wound ball of rubber bands. I suspected I didn’t know enough. I didn’t know my grammar well enough, and I certainly didn’t know enough of the pedagogy particular to teaching English language learners. Conversations in the staff room only confirmed my suspicions. I didn’t know as much as the other teachers did, and no one could find this out.

So I got myself a good grammar textbook and a survey of contemporary linguistics, and began studying at night. It seemed only fair, since that’s how my students spent their evenings, after five hours in the classroom and however many English-tinted hours they spent commuting home from school. The more I studied, I thought, the better armed I would be in the classroom, against their terribly trusting stares and the questions I was convinced I would be unable to answer. I needed to master English, so I could shake out all its tricks into a smooth set of operating instructions.

The more I learned and continue to learn about this language, however, the more ridiculous the idea of mastery seems. It’s like naming myself captain of an ancient, unwieldy paddle boat and assigning the students seats, then showing them how to operate the vessel.

What I’ve discovered is that learning alongside my students is exactly where I want to be. I don’t want them to be idle passengers, expecting me to shield them from every wave and iceberg. I want them with me at the wheel, figuring it out as we go. While a little bit of protective filtering is helpful, it’s extremely useful for them to see how native speakers wrestle with language, too.

I love this ridiculous boat called English. I’ve made my life in it. Teaching language is just one more phase in my love affair with the words I’ve been drinking in since birth. That’s the only thing I can really say I “have” to teach. I want to keep learning, but I am trying to let that be a means to an end rather than the end.

A Tough Few Months for Populists: The Loss of Howard Zinn and Ray Browne

Stephen Swanson

Stephen Swanson departs from initial post on the meaning of “union” and various queries into whether it has “a state” regardless of speeches in order to highlight the passing of some ones who have been vitally important in shaping his beliefs about voice, art, and culture: Ray Browne and Howard Zinn.

The losses of Ray Browne, who died last October, and Howard Zinn, who died on Wednesday, provide me with a chance to write something that’s been on my mind for three months. Zinn and Browne shared a view of America starting at the bottom and working up, rather than the more traditional top-down. It’s so often that we highlight the fastest, biggest, richest, most beautiful, and most powerful things as the best, but these men made their lives’ work emphasizing the popular, average, and normal, and turning those words in assets not reasons for derision.

Ray Browne, it’s Ok to Study the Popular…

Calling Browne the founder of popular culture is a misnomer. People have been interested in and examined popular things for some time, but Browne, at least in the American academic system, pushed for the acceptance and respect for popular culture in academics and criticism. For example, his book on Lincoln, Lincoln-Lore: Lincoln in the Popular Mind, argues that understanding Abraham Lincoln as a literal, real person limits the citizen’s understanding of the role that Lincoln has come to hold in American minds, words, and ideals. And that one must examine thing of Lincoln that reach beyond facts and words of him as a man. His work and the works of those who he influenced have spread to the point to almost make what was once unthinkable, almost normal, that we can and should think about our common world and the things we “like” as a part of our intellectual lives.

Howard Zinn, We Must Listen to the Popular…

I am in no way the most devoted to Zinn of my friends, in fact one of my cohort literally made the movie, and so must leave detailed discussions to them. In almost everything Zinn wrote over the past 30-plus years, he emphasizes the need for citizens of America to seek out and actively listen to the voices of the average Americans from throughout our history and through all points on the political spectrum. During the times of my post-secondary education (1997-2007), American popular culture has trended toward the assumption of a nearly blind acceptance of authority that we agree with and rejection of those with whom our beliefs conflict. This period has shown increased reliance on pundit/mediators to break down and keep the gates of our physical, intellectual and spiritual lives, and regardless of whether one agrees with Zinn’s politics, the need for a citizenry to educate themselves on the realities of our collective histories and current place presses on my mind daily as I encounter students with huge gaps in the most basic geographical, historical, and cultural knowledge necessary to make even basic political opinions.

To Me…

The underlying assumptions in Browne and Zinn’s works revolve around a respect and need to understand those that have been labeled mundane or ordinary. These days it grows harder and harder to convince my students, and even my peers, that they have something worthwhile to learn, consider, evaluate, and express, and that they should not also look to the simple or obvious sources for these knowledges but should dig deeply and sift carefully, testing themselves and their environments throughout their daily lives and into their futures.


Stephen Swanson teaches as an assistant professor of English at McLennan Community College. Aside from guiding students through the pitfalls of college writing and literature, he spends most of his time trying to remain  aware of popular culture, cooking, and enjoying time with his wife and son. He holds degrees in Communications (Calvin College), Film Studies (Central Michigan University), and Media and American Culture Studies (Bowling Green State University. In addition to editing a collection, Battleground States: Scholarship in Contemporary America, he has forthcoming projects on Johnny Cash and depiction of ethics in contemporary film noir.