I went and visited my old AP Lit teacher, Mr. Hoffman, today to observe his ninth grade English classes for EDUC 275. I was excited, of course – I love Hoffman, and I loved the two classes I took from him. But today I also met his student teacher, Melanie, whom I have heard a little about but never actually met. When he finally introduced us, she looked at me and said, “You know, you look really, really, really familiar.”
Turns out we have met before. Five years ago, Melanie and I were in the same Speech class. I taught her how to make origami cranes after I gave speech on origami. Apparently neither of us have thought of that in years. When I finally placed her face, I mentioned it to her and she screamed. Literally covered her mouth and screamed, “Oh my God, I remember!! I make cranes all the time, not even kidding!”
Anyway, once Melanie calmed down enough to be coherent again, the three of us continued a conversation Hoffman and I had been having about teaching, and they shared a couple of stories with me that I’d like to now share with you.
The first story is about assumptions and ability. The second is about powerplays.
It’s been 11 years since Hoffman has taught a regular English 10 class, although he has taught Pre-AP 10 for that many years. He and Melanie assumed that regular sophomores would be equipped with the same knowledge and tools to understand the same books he usually taught to his Pre-AP kids. They started first with Lord of the Flies, which went well enough, so then they were going to teach Macbeth next, like he always does. Yet, after a few days, he and Melanie agreed it would be best to pull the plug.
Naturally, I asked why. Was it the language or did the kids simply not care? Hoffman leaned toward the language; he said that, as soon as the kids began to struggle, they gave up on reading. They believed there was just no way they could understand it (not, at least, without lots and lots of work put into it), so most of them quit. Because they weren’t learning anything except to hate Shakespeare, Melanie and Hoffman agreed that it would be best to teach something else.
Macbeth failed in the regular English 10 class because Hoffman and Melanie overestimated their students’ skills. I don’t mean to imply the kids were too dumb to get Shakespeare, because that’s not it at all (also, that’s a stupid assumption). It’s just that those kids have probably had little to no experience reading Shakespeare before this class. I read Romeo and Juliet in Pre-AP 9; therefore, I was already experienced with the language and better prepared to read and understand the language and what Hoffman was asking me to look for. If these kids didn’t read Romeo and Juliet, it would be pretty intimidating to be asked to read one and then analyze it.
Personally, I don’t know if I agree with this choice. Then again, I wasn’t there, so it’s difficult to decide for myself whether I agree that this was the best option, or a cop-out. I just don’t know.
Which brings me to my next story. Hoffman prompted Melanie to share a student-teaching horror story about powerplays. The moral: never engage in them.
So Melanie was teaching the class while Hoffman was sitting at the back and observing. It was still the Lord of the Flies unit, but that day they were reading a poem called “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. And there was this kid in the class. He was an upperclassmen retaking the class, and he was obnoxious and clearly didn’t want to be there. You know, the kid who breaks budding teachers without breaking a sweat.
Well, on this particularly day, he was playing catch with a kid across the room, a kid who’s normally a good student, who works hard and does well and all that. This is distracting and a hazard, so Melanie told them to stop. They did, but then the kid started twisting his waterbottle with the cap on, trying to make it explode and stuff. Melanie decided to call out the kid and ask him to read.
Ironically, this was the day after Hoffman and Melanie had had a talk about those kids that are distractions in the classroom. “Don’t feed the bears,” he told her. So you can imagine the mixture of shock and horror Hoffman felt as his poor, unassuming student teacher called out this student.
The kid looked at Melanie. And he shook his head. “No,” he said.
Melanie said, “Yes.”
Melanie folded her arms. The kid folded his. Epic staring contest. Then, Melanie said something she immediately, instantly regretted:
“We can just sit here and do nothing.”
Worst decision ever. Melanie had backed herself into a corner, but there was nothing she could do. If she took it back, if she asked another kid to read instead, then the students would lose their respect for her authority, which would cause utter chaos. But she couldn’t keep arguing or have a staring contest forever. Eventually one of them would blink, and it wasn’t going to be that kid.
Luckily for her, kids are impatient. After a few minutes of complete and utter silence, some of the kids start saying, “Just read already.” The kid still refuses. It’s a good old-fashioned Mexican standoff.
And then someone starts reading. Surprisingly, it is another repeat student. And Melanie can’t help thinking, Oh thank the Lord, I’m saved.
But not emotionally. When class ended and she went next door (it was lunchtime), she saw another teacher.
“So how’d it go?” And Melanie burst into sobs.
Even though it was one of the most traumatizing experiences Melanie has had as a student teacher, both she and Hoffman agreed that she had learned and grown from it. She didn’t melt into tears or start shouting or simply give up her position. Although it wasn’t the best decision she’s ever made, she was lucky that her students backed her up, and thus a catastrophe was averted.