Friday, October 22, 2021

Let’s Commit to Letting Our Students Get Carried Away

All teachers, I hope, have these stories:

Instead of the two-page paper you asked for, a student hands in 10 pages. Instead of reading a chapter, a student stays up all night and reads the whole book. Instead of showing up with one discussion question, as they were expected to do, a student shows up with five, a couple of which they can’t contain themselves from asking the second they walk into the classroom.

Sometimes, in other words, our students get carried away.  

Rather than the bare minimum, they exceed what in our minds was the maximum output. These moments, of course, are wonderful—maybe even more so when the student who gets carried away is not an “A student.”

Two years ago, a student who up until then had only been doing okay in my class let me know that rather than write the assigned short story, he’d decided to write a whole novel. He shyly, proudly riffled through his notebook to show me it was filled with words and chapters. “Would you be willing to read it?” he said.

I’ve come to believe that it’s only when students go above and beyond that we have any real idea of what they excel at or when they could use our academic assistance.

I told him I couldn’t wait, and I meant it—both for his sake and my own. Sure, I wanted to encourage him and his artistic ambitions, but this notebook that he was now handing to me would also allow me to accurately diagnose his writing strengths and weaknesses. In fact, I’ve come to believe that it’s only when students go above and beyond that we have any real idea of what they excel at or when they could use our academic assistance.

From reading his novel-in-progress, I got a much better sense of his understanding of plot, character development, foreshadowing, etc. than I had in any assessment I had previously devised. Because of course I did. He’d thrown his whole writerly self into his notebook—his pride quite literally made his hand quiver.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing inherently inadequate with doing just enough. Sometimes, just enough is all we can muster, and it’s therefore more than enough. I’m not advocating here for high achievement at the expense of anyone’s, student’s or teacher’s, health.

But I am saying that our pedagogy would benefit from a pretty profound shift. Instead of thinking of the carried-away student as a pleasant aberration, we could (should?) think of them as the norm. Especially if we’re going to stick with a standards-based curriculum.

If we want to know which standards to emphasize, we need to be able to say with confidence which standards our students thrive at and which ones they don’t

If we want to know which standards to emphasize, we need to be able to say with confidence which standards our students thrive at and which ones they don’t—and we simply cannot trust the (lack of) evidence that a quite-possibly-phoned-in paragraph or paper provides.

What’s more, we need to see our students get carried away in their work as quickly as possible. We can’t plan—backward or forward—with any precision or dynamism if we don’t know what gets our students typing or talking.

I know, I know: it’s the end of the year. Can’t we think of this stuff after the summer? Yes. Of course. In fact, the kind of teaching I’m plugging here requires that teachers and students are feeling refreshed and revitalized.If we don’t have fuel in our tanks, we can’t get carried away—not very far, anyway.

If you are still in school, maybe going back through the greatest hits—those times when students surprised you, delighted you, did more and better than you had bargained for—will replenish the tank. If your school year has come to a close, this cruise down memory lane can wait until the fall.

Whenever we get back to school, let’s commit to creating assignments—lots of ’em—that give our students a chance to over write, over talk, over think—to overdo it.

It’s only then, after our students have gotten carried away, that it makes much sense to get carried away in our own curricular planning. 

Photo by Getty Images Signature via Canva.
Patrick Hueller
Patrick Hueller is an author and high school English teacher. His most recent book is a dystopian novel for teens called "Read at Your Own Peril." The goal of the book is to practice what he preaches in this article: to make reading seem as thrilling and even dangerous as it really can be.

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