Thursday, April 22, 2010

What Would Mr. Kotter Do?

Most of the time when I talk about my students, I tend to talk about my "babies" -- my speech and drama kids who work their butts off and bring such creativity and charm to the classroom. What I often don't talk about are some of my other students, the students who represent the opposite end of the student spectrum. Besides teaching speech and drama and debate and freshman-level English, I also teach a class called "English Fundamentals." (Or is it Fundamentals of English . . . I just call it Fundamentals.) It is a junior/senior level class designed for those students who need four years of English to graduate, are most likely not college bound, and who probably did not do particularly well in their English I and II classes. It is, quite honestly, a class often filled with the kinds of students who often drive me crazy in a classroom -- the apathetic, the lazy, the disruptive, the disrespectful. These kids aren't in my class because they are particularly passionate about what I have to teach. They're in my class because they have to be -- there's nowhere else for them to go. They are my Sweathogs though not nearly as funny and lovable as John Travolta and the crew.

When I took the class over from a retiring colleague a few years ago, I made the decision to do some major renovating to the curriculum. I cut the film units. I got rid of some of the kind of dated novels. I amped up the literature aspect of the class. I added some challenging literature like Fahrenheit 451 (to sneakily get kids to realize that MAYBE reading isn't such a bad thing and that books MAYBE have a value). Last year, we read Tom Sawyer. This year, we tried The Old Man and the Sea. I've already decided next year to try The Catcher in the Rye with them.

Oftentimes, I am mostly teaching to a sea of disdain. Some kids can barely conceal the contempt they feel for education and, by proxy, me. It can be a little depressing. It was with great pessimism that I recently launched my most recent unit with the kids -- a drama unit. There was an opportunity through a local theatre company to take students to a free matinee showing of The Crucible at a local, beautifully restored theatre. I intended to take my Drama Club students for our annual field trip. (I try every year to take them to at least one theatre production.) I decided to add the Fundamentals kids to the list for a couple reasons. On a purely crass level, by having a curricular tie to an actual class, I knew it would be easier to get approval for the transportation. On a more benevolent level, I thought to myself that this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity for these kids -- to see live theatre in a gorgeous venue. I wanted them to have this experience.

Of course, I was incredibly nervous about actually reading The Crucible with these kids. They've pretty much hated everything we've done all year long. I wasn't sure I could handle them hating The Crucible. I spent a couple days introducing them to Arthur Miller. They were vaguely interested to learn he had been married to Marilyn Monroe. I spent some time talking to them about Joe McCarthy. A couple of them thought hunting down Communists seemed like a good idea -- and didn't understand why people would ruin their careers by not turning people in. The first day or so of actually reading the play was kind of tough. Miller's language is challenging and the kids struggled with the structure. The first part of the play can be a bit dry, and these are not kids who do dry well.

But then, like storm clouds parting, something changed. The kids started becoming engaged in the text. Okay, I will admit that I played up the adultery angle a bit more, but as discussion went on, the kids started getting into the issues at the heart of the play. They could not believe people could treat their neighbors this way. They struggled with the notion of confessing to something you did not do in order to save your life. They were stunned as we finished the play and they witnessed John Proctor, the play's complicated protagonist, choose death over saving his own life because saving his own life would cast a shameful shadow on his friends.

As the final moments of the text sunk in, I asked a simple question: "What do you think of Proctor's decision?"

One student sat back, tossed his book down, and said, "That was bullshit!"

It was one of those moments as a teacher that you both relish and dread. This kid had a really strong emotional reaction to the text. Brian was furious with what had happened to a character that had all grown to care about. He verbalized his frustration with the only words he had available. Unfortunately, those words were what may be considered "profane." Just about any other teacher in the building would have given Brian a detention. Some would have probably sent him to the office. As soon as Brian said it, the eyes of his fifteen classmates were on me, waiting to see how I would react to it. Would I yell? Would I kick him out? What would I do??

Now anyone who knows me well and has spent much of any time with me in a "casual" setting will know that I am not above a good profanity-laced monologue. To me, a word is a word is a word. To me, no word should be off limits if it's the word in your heart. "Bullshit" was the word in Brian had in his heart at that moment. If I punished Brian for his word choice, what incentive would he ever have to be engaged in literature again? The message I would be sending him would be that his opinions were acceptable only if couched in acceptable language. To me, his reaction was more important than his language.

So what did I do? After that moment of pause, I joined the others in the class with a small chuckle and said, "You know what, you guys? Brian is right. What happened to Proctor and the others WAS bullshit!" And the discussion moved on from there. Brian had found the perfect word to capture his emotions. He just had the balls to actually say what the others were feeling.

Brian was mostly right. What happened to John Proctor (and Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey) was not just bullshit . . . it was fucking bullshit.

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