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Pivot doesn't mean compromise

I've been an English teacher about thirteen years now. I came into education wearing rose-colored glasses. When I was training to become a teacher, I envisioned lit circles and spirited conversations about the messages between the lines. Then my fantasy met the demands and needs of the students.


Students weren't about that life. They did not want to read about the impact that secret sins and hypocrisy had on Hestor Prynne and Dimmesdale. They weren't willing to wade through Southern dialect to get to the beautiful prose that flowed from Zora Neale Hurston's pen. What they needed and what they demanded were personal connection and applicability.


That meant I had to plan my lessons with both in mind. I had to show them how they were connected to Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson in the novel To Kill A Mockingbird or a 10-year black girl who strayed to far from home in "The Flowers" or to a Latino girl who survives poverty and defies societal norms in The House on Mango Street. I also had to show them how the information in what we were reading would help them in their future endeavors.


I found success with that approach. Yes, I had to have summative reading checks to get them to read what was assigned, but the reflections that they wrote and the insightful conversations that we had demonstrated that they understood the works and could make connections that would expand their world view, which in turn would be useful as they became global change makers.


Then I decided to let the kids have a go. I told them: Tell me a story. There were only three rules: 1. Well developed characters. You have to be able to describe your characters like you'd describe the people in this room. 2. You must have conflict. There must be someone who wants something and someone or something keeping them from getting what they want. 3. You must have a beginning, middle and end.


My ninth grade students blew my mind. Without using AI, they wrote compelling stories on everything from split personalities to mystic healers to philosophical discussions on the necessity of religion. My favorite was a teen's ride on a fast train turned out to be a ride to the place after life ends. The characters were whimsical and the story unfolded in a measured and intriguing way. My second favorite was the entitled teen who woke up on a desert island, his only companion a survivalist who have survived the plane crash with him. It was Beavis meets Rambo.


So yeah, I've had to change how I teach. I can't be all starry eyed about wordplay and how authors portray the human condition. But I got something even better than discourse. I got a glimpse of the creativity and insight and compassion and ambition that students today have to offer. So pivoting was good.

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