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The Teacher Who Listens: On Best Laid Plans

Beowulf is challenged by a Danish coast guard,...

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I was reminded yesterday that the best days as a teacher are the days when nothing goes according to plan.

That is not to say that every day that fails to go according to plan is a good day, just that the best days are days when the best laid plans of mice and men…. Well, let me explain.

Here’s the setting: Tuesday morning, 9:45 am, Covenant Classical School in Concord, NC, 10th grade English. The topic of the day: Introducing Beowulf.

Beowulf being an epic poem created within the oral tradition I figured it would be a good idea to provide my students with overview definitions of epic poetry and the oral tradition. So I gave them a basic definition of each and we set to discussing them. First we did some organized brainstorming (for those of you who are Lost Tools users, we did the “A” and “N” parts of the ANI chart). I asked them what the positives and negatives of the oral tradition might be and received answers like the following…

In the positive, or affirmative, column:

– Even people who were illiterate could know the stories
– Stories passed down this way would help build community because people would gather to hear them told
– Cheaper than books with paper, binding, and ink
– and much more

For the negative column, my students said that:

– The stories could be twisted
– The stories could be forgotten
– The stories could be lost if the story-teller died
– New story-tellers could add and remove characters and events
– and much more

Each of these answers, and the many others my students provided, are true and are fantastic answers for this exercise. They seemed to be getting it, they were close to understanding what oral tradition is. But boy were they bored out of their ever-living collective mind; the only thing worse would have been a lecture about oral tradition (just wait until college, kids). They were slumped back in their chairs, their eyes practically rolled back into their foreheads, resisting with all their might – and with very little success I might add – the temptation to talk to their neighbors, doodle on their notes, or pretend their bladders were on the verge of titanic eruption because the freedom to walk the halls for just two miserable, measly minutes would have been like a drop of water to a parched desert wanderer. These are the kinds of moments that make teaching hard, moments when the content you wish to teach is clearly set before your students, when they seem to understand it, and yet, nonetheless, they appear one breath away from expiration. My initial, split-second response was chalk it up to immaturity, to power through the material and force them to “deal with it”. But then one of the girls in the class spoke up and saved me from the error of treating them like machines.

She said, “we should make up our own story in the oral tradition” (or something along those lines).

What!? What a fantastic, stupendous, superbly brilliant idea! Why in heaven’s name didn’t I think of that? Oh well, and besides I have material planned. Things to get through. Material to cover, material to cover, material to cover.

But what a great idea. I considered my options for a moment: At best the kids would get a slightly deeper understanding of how oral tradition works, at worst they would wake up a bit and I would have wasted only a few minutes of class time. Let’s do it!

Now a bit of background might be useful here. When I was a kid my dad came up with an idea for a game called “The Canterbury Club” in which a group of people would tell a story together by adding the various elements that make up a story one-at-a-time. The first person, for example, would come up with a character. The second person would come up with another character, the same for the third and the fourth people. Then the next few people would decide on elements of setting (locations and time). Then the next person (and by now you might be back to the beginning) would decide which character is the protagonist while the next person assigned a character to be the antagonist and the person after that chose a character to be the sidekick. Then, finally, someone would choose what problem the protagonist had to overcome. Then once each of the elements have been created and assigned the story-telling begins. Each person gets one minute to tell a portion of the story. So the first person (or the next person) might introduce the protagonist and the problem. Then the next person in the group gets a minute to add to the first person’s start and so on until the story has been told with a climax and resolution (it’s usually a good idea to have a moderator who keeps things going in an orderly fashion).

It’s a great idea but as kids we usually resisted when dad would attempt to rope us into taking part. Something about it being his idea I’m sure. But yesterday, in this 10th grade English class at Covenant Classical School in Concord, NC, The Canterbury Club sure came in handy.

So I said, “alright, that’s a great idea, let’s do it”, and explained the rules.

The first character was someone named Tina. Then Quincy. Then Mickey Mouse. Then Harry Potter (who almost always shows up in this game). The settings were a watermelon patch, an Armenian castle, and “un-enterable” alternate universe. The year was 5723 AD. Mickey was the protagonist, Harry Potter the antagonist, and the Qunicy was the side-kick. The problem that Mickey had to overcome was that Harry Potter was abusing him. Troubling, I know.

With that we went around the room twice and came up with a twisting, rollicking tale of macaroni and cheese and evil mother-in-laws; of betrayal and ressurection; of flying pods and zorgs (or zergs or something). There was a cheesy lava pit (or was it a lava-y cheese pit?) with a bird cage prison hanging over it, an alien battle on a watermelon infested hillside, the sudden, shocking appearance of Lord Voldemort/He Who Must Not Be Named, an unexpected appearance at the White House, and one minute of a student excitedly telling his portion of the story so quickly that no one else in the room had, or has, a clue what he was saying.

In the end everyone was arrested. It was rousing stuff.

Normally this would be the end of the game but, sensing a chance to thread the game more tightly into the day’s content (and no longer caring about the clock) I added a twist. I chose three of the kids to retell the whole story, beginning to end, in front of the class and, considering the wandering nature of the class’s tale, they did fairly well in recounting what happened. That said, the story did begin to change. The Zurgs (or Zergs or whatever) began to fade from the story, as did the White House visit, the watermelon patch, and even Quincy, the apparently not-so-loyal sidekick.

Now as the students had been telling their story, each in their own way and with their own unique emphases, I tracked the elements of the narrative on the board. I didn’t write every plot detail but I did note when characters were added and when they were eliminated and when certain locations fell by the wayside and when new ones popped up. If a character, such as Quincy, hadn’t been mentioned in a while I erased a few letters of his name and if someone brought him up again I re-wrote those letters (although eventually he was erased completely from the story and therefore from the board as well).

Soon a lightbulb came on. One of the kids grinned and sat up and said, “hey, I see what we’re doing!” And I said, “wait, what are we doing?”. And he said “we’re changing our story as it get’s told over and over again just like stories in the oral tradition changed.” And I said, “Imagine what Beowulf might have been like at it’s beginning.”

The class erupted in a volcanic explosion of acknowledgement. They got it, they saw it, they felt it. But, best of all, they cared. And all I had to do was let them tell their own story. Brilliant, can’t believe I didn’t think of it in the first place!

Had I trusted my origianl lesson plans above all else my students may have known the definition of oral tradition but they certainly wouldn’t have understood the nature of oral tradition. Sometimes the best laid plans are the ones The Creator places before you in the form of a spur-of-the-moment suggestion by a desperately bored student.

Perhaps, as teachers, it’s best to think of ourselves as bards whose job is to be willing to adjust the story we are telling. We must be willing to listen to the whisper of Truth, from wherever it blows. Like the poet, we must listen to the Muse.

We are, each of us, involved in a larger story, as poet and character alike, and if that story is to be True, if it is to accurately represent Truth – and the Nature Of Things – for our students then we must be malleable. We must listen. May the Spirit lead where He sees fit. And when he does, and when we follow, our teaching will be better for it and, hopefully, therefore, our students will truly see, truly care, and truly understand.

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