6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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All I Wanted To Do After I Got Out Of High School Was Drive A Truck

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school,
It’s a wonder I can think at all.
Paul Simon, The Paul Simon Collection: On My Way, Don't Know Where I'm Goin'

Teaching as a possible career was something I never considered until my senior year at Cal-State Long Beach. I had been recommended by my faculty adviser to teach a course in Comparative Literature. Long story as to how that came about. Anyway, never having taught anything before, I was a little nervous to say the least. It was one thing to be a student sitting in someone else’s class, but to be a teacher standing up in front of a class of unfamiliar faces was an entirely different thing. The fact is I didn’t have a clue as to how to conduct a class. And having a course syllabus that my faculty advisor had helped me develop certainly didn’t instill me with a sense of confidence that I was actually going to be able to pull this off.

The focus of this course was on the quest and fulfillment of a journey by reading and discussing works from Homer’s The Odyssey to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. After introducing myself to the class and explaining procedures, requirements and evaluation, I wrote the following question on the board and asked my students to write a brief response:

Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?

After my students finished their initial writing, I read the opening paragraph to Homer’s, The Odyssey. Just as I was to start an initial discussion, a student raised her hand and told me that class had ended 5 minutes ago. I apologized and thanked them for a great beginning, and gave them their assignment for their next class.

Thus began my journey as a teacher. And until that first day, the idea of teaching as a profession was something I never considered as a career. I was a writer, specifically a poet. And as a poet, I wanted to master my craft. I wanted to be with others who shared my interest not just with writing, but with reading as well. My passion for writing and reading has been and still is a life long ambition. But as any young idealist soon discovers, you can’t pay the bills on ambition alone.

Thus during the teaching of that course, I came to realize teaching would be a terrific way to make a living. As Robert Frost put it, the true marriage between “avocation and vocation,” (1936). It was then that I decided teaching for me would become the means to share with others my passion, joy, as a writer and reader, and by doing so, help them understand the process involved with writing and reading, and as a result, become more comfortable and confident with their own writing and reading.

Because I didn’t go into teaching through the front door by majoring in education, and taking the prescribed teacher-training courses, I encountered quite a few interesting problems and conflicts when I began teaching high school. After graduating Cal-State Long Beach in 1980, I moved to a small town in Maine and tried out a high school teaching position in remedial English. The department head wanted me to use the textbook, workbooks and activity sheets that the curriculum committee had approved for the courses I was hired to teach. In reviewing the materials, however, I knew that I would not be able to provide the students with a viable learning experience, and as such, would not be effective in improving their English skills if I were to use them.

At first I didn’t really understand why I considered the use of the recommended (mandated) materials so objectionable. It wasn’t until I reflected upon my own experiences when I was a public school student that I began to realize why I had such a strong objection to what I was being directed to do. I hated school. And in particular, I hated English. And the reason I hated English—with the exception of one particularly good English teacher I had in eighth grade—was because of the half-witted, unenthusiastic tyrants who bored me to death with textbooks, activity sheets, quizzes, book reports, five paragraph essays, and mind-numbing workbooks on grammar, vocabulary and spelling. My frustration was especially acute, if not ironic, considering that the two things I liked doing the most on my own—reading and writing—somehow never seemed related to what I did in English. By the time I had finished 10th grade, I decided school was not for me. I discovered I could actually learn much more effectively and efficiently at home and at the library then I could at school. Yet, here I was ten years later, teaching English to a group of totally apathetic, if not disaffected students.

It was then that I decided I was not going to be the kind of teacher to them that my teachers had been to me. I helped my students develop reading lists based on their interest and needs for books and magazines available at the school and town library. I required them to keep journals for their individual writing and responses to the books and magazines they read. They were also required to keep a portfolio of all their written work that they did throughout the year. Instead of workbooks and activity sheets, I taught writing and reading skills in context with the books the students actually read.

The amazing thing was how interested and productive these students became with their studies. Class discussion, especially group discussions, became both purposeful and enjoyable. Students started to take an active interest in their reading and writing, and started to read and write more significant content as the year progressed. For their final project, students had to put together a chapbook comprised of their best work for the year, prefaced with an introduction on what they learned about themselves in relation to the reading and writing that they did during the course of the year. During the last week of school, they displayed their work in the library, and made themselves available to talk about their chapbooks, and what they had learned.

In spite of the significant improvement and achievement these students had accomplished, especially in terms of their writing and reading development, none of that mattered. Because I had refused to use the required texts and materials, I was told I would not be recommended for a continuing contract unless I showed deference to their prescribed curriculum. I decided to part company, and headed off to graduate school to pursue an MFA in English.

After I completed my first year of graduate work at Wichita State, I began to teach courses in freshman composition and classical rhetoric under the direction of Professors Anthony Gythiel and Peter Zoeller. It was from them that I learned that the teaching of composition and literature as an object of study should be taught as a process of asking questions, of understanding the relationship between thought and word. To read or to write is to initiate discourse, either with the text or ourselves, and that when we teach literature and composition to our students we do so as a collaborative effort by which teacher and students join together in exploring the means by which we make discoveries. Because of them, I began to reflect on what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and to develop ideas in regard to a teaching philosophy that would not necessarily be student-centered or teacher-directed, but instead a dialectical approach which would allow me to develop ideas that would help me transcend the teaching of composition and literature.

After graduating Wichita State in 1984 with an MFA in English/Creative Writing, I moved back to Maine, and secured a teaching position at George Stevens Academy, a private high school. My four years there were fortuitous in that I was able to experience incredible growth and insight as a teacher. Unlike my first high school teaching experience, I was not monopolized by a prescriptive curriculum. I was given complete autonomy in selecting the books and materials for all courses I was assigned to teach. I discovered that given the actual book written by the author, students would read it so long as the subject was made relevant to them. I discovered that when given choices, students would write about themselves, their homes, and their community. I realized that courses could be content rich, without being content driven, and that you could involve students to read mythology, classical literature, etc., and write about what they read with purpose and direction. I discovered that if you showed a student how to read a book, they would read; that if you showed a student how to write, they would write. I discovered learning involves active participation; but for that to happen the teacher must understand that the students are not merely passive recipients, and that learning becomes meaningful only when it is authentic and retained. Show a student how to think, and they will think. Involve them in the work as active participants, and they will understand. As Ann E. Berthoff says in The Sense of Learning, “…if we make interpretation central in our teaching, than anything we do will have heuristic value, (1990, p. 10).

The secret in motivating students to do well, then, is quite simple: see the class not just as a group, but as a whole comprised of individual learners, accept them at the level you find them, and guide them in the direction you would like them to go. I believe it is also because of this approach that I had very few problems with classroom discipline. Teaching for me is largely a collaborative effort by which the teacher and students join together in exploring a subject or line of inquiry to see what discoveries can be made about a work, or the ideas that a work expresses. In essence it is the willingness on my part as their mentor to initiate and establish a continual dialogue with the students for the expressed purpose of learning together. So long as learning is not perceived as an act of coercive obligation, do students rarely become “a problem” within the class. Instead, they become self-directed and begin to assume responsibility for their reading, writing, and discussion by being engaged with their learning, not by being tortured with irrelevancy and disconnectedness.

copyright © 2005 by S. L. Cunningham
All rights reserved.