Thursday, October 6, 2016

A Hallelujah Moment in Teaching

I had an interesting Hallelujah moment in school today. It lasted 40 minutes... an entire class.
For those of you who don't know, in addition to writing novels like A Life of Death and The Priors, I'm a high school English teacher in Akron, Ohio at a hybrid online/traditional charter school called Akron Digital Academy. I've taught in a variety of public schools over the years--inner city, suburban, rural, etc.--but I currently teach in a school where the majority of students need far more guidance and help than just an education, as if that in and of itself is something small and inconsequential. My students are often from foster homes, broken families, families living from couch to couch and far worse, many who have children of their own and are struggling to get out of the rut they've found themselves in. The hurdles they have to overcome are tremendous.
My hat goes off to those who step into the classroom to be teacher/mentor/father/mother and so much more to our students. Teachers as a whole provide something noble and unforgettable, a successful future for our children, but sometimes our students need far more or will respond in ways even they can't predict... for better or worse. While teaching in schools where students have so many hurdles to overcome is often frustrating, there are also times a bright light will stream down from the heavens, engulfing one moment in the day that creates an unforgettable memory. Today, I had one of those moments.
There is a group of students in one class who are often loud, rude, and generally take half the period up just trying to get them back on task or attempting to get them to stop distracting other students. However, today one of the "leaders of the pack" jokingly started class by saying, "Why don't you let me teach today?" We'll call him Daquan for the purposes of this post.

With a wry grin, I told Daquan, "Take it away. You teach. The warm-up is already on the board." The warm-up question was "Why is it important to understand people's motives?" It was a lead-in to an activity about author's intent and motivation where students work in groups to create their own commercials and analyze motivation--to be linked to literary analysis in a follow-up class, a fundamental in-depth concept. I've used this ploy before, seeming to give in only for the student to find seconds later that they have no idea what to do.
Daquan sauntered up to the whiteboard with a grin, dreadlocks hanging around his face, a bag of fiery Cheetos in hand, while I stood to the side, ready to step in. However, instead of acting the comedian and just wasting time like others have done in past years, Daquan repeated the warm-up question and instructed the students that they had the normal two minutes to answer it. He then went around checking answers, even grinning up at me a few times and saying, "I really like this answer."
Daquan did such a good job that I couldn't stop him and chose to encourage him further. Of course, he didn't know where the lesson was leading, the proper questions to ask to guide the follow-up discussion, or what the next activity would be, so I guided him like I've done for actual student teachers in past years, feeding him recommendations and questions to ask, stepping in to teach and provide instructions, then challenging him to keep an eye on time while also managing the groups and making sure they stay on task. While this slowed the progress we could have made theoretically, the class actually progressed much faster than it would have knowing the antics Daquan's group would have put on, and Daquan wound up learning more at the same time. This went on for the entire class.
By the end of that period, Daquan came up and said, "Mr. K, this is gonna take Monday too, right?"
I nodded with a smile.
He tentatively asked, "Since it's gonna take Monday, can I student teach then, too?"
While I wanted him to participate in one of the groups, I knew Daquan would become even more familiar with the material having to teach it, and the additional assistance of a student leader the other students look up to--although not normally under these circumstances--was something that had benefited the entire class in multiple ways. Plus, he'd done a great job! (I'm reminded of the moment Emilio and his teacher, played by Michelle Pfeifer, finally see eye to eye in the classroom in Dangerous Minds). I couldn't help but tell Daquan how well he'd done and agreed that he needed to student teach Monday.
It isn't often that Hallelujah moments like this happen and some of your worst classes all of a sudden become a microcosm of learning and participation through the assistance of students who previously anchored it down. It's an incredible feeling and I am very proud of Daquan, a student who was floundering for what to do when he graduates. While this could turn out to be just one day filled with a solitary ray of blessed light that struck Daquan, it could also potentially lead to long-term goals and the discovery of his own motivation to reach them. Daquan mentioned that he really enjoyed teaching and is now considering it as a profession. The synchronicity of today's topic and the motivation Daquan may have found also strikes me as quite coincidental. My motives are always clear, but maybe Daquan has found some motivations of his own. If teaching is his calling, all the more power to him. If it leads him to something else where he can unlock his potential, even better. I just hope he finds success.
Only time will tell...

Weston Kincade ~ Author of the A Life of Death collection, The Priors, and Strange Circumstances