I finished out the final three weeks with my senior contemporary literature class reading Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. While Albom’s work is not generally my literary cup of tea, my students were crying for something that didn’t require intensive interpretation and decoding to understand, particularly at the tail end of their senior year. So, I thought something a little “lighter” might be fitting.
To counterbalance the easier reading, I decided to ramp up my in-class expectations and designed a complex unit that included student-led thematic discussions each day, student-created activities to explore the ideas presented in the text, and nightly journaling [this expectation had a plethora of options, including graphic novel style, collage, poetry, and interviews alongside traditional reader response writing]. For the final three weeks, my students essentially ran the class. And I must say, they did a mighty fine job of it.
Turning over the power and control in one’s classroom is a scary thing, but I thought it was fitting for seniors–they are soon to be considered adults in their society, and should be able to act as such. As one of my own mentors is fond of saying, “It should be every teacher’s goal to become obsolete.” By the time they graduate, my students should no longer need me. They should be able to do everything that I’ve taught them all by themselves. And, for me, they truly did.
The most incredible thing about this unit was the response that my students had to the text itself. If you haven’t read it, Tuesdays with Morrie is the true story of a man and his relationship with his dying former professor, Morrie. Morrie also happens to be a truly remarkable soul who chooses to turn his slow death from ALS into his final thesis–lessons on living. The book chronicles Morrie’s discussions with Mitch, touching on topics from marriage to money. Morrie’s overall message is very simple and pure: Love never fails. Be who you are. Give of yourself to others. Create your own culture. To me, these are messages with great value, but I was worried that my class might reject them as “too sappy” or even unrealistic. In fact, they acted quite the opposite.
My kids took to Morrie like a prophet. Every day there were new reactions to the musings of this old man, declarations of “I never even thought of that before” and “this book is changing the way I look at my life.” There were tears, there were public apologies and vows, there were major life choices being turned around. As the reading progressed, our class, too, became centered around discussions on How to Live. I got inspired and required the students to commit a random act of kindness, leave behind a Pay it Forward card and journal about it. The unit was a huge success and produced some of the best writing, thinking, and discussion I saw all year long. Many students even thanked me for including the book in my curriculum–even those who fought me on every single other text.
What this leaves me thinking about is the thin line that we walk as educators between academic directors and life coaches. In our Morrie unit, my students started engaging me personally on discussion topics like “What is real love?” or “How do you have a fulfilling life” or “Why do we need to forgive others?” While I am a public school teacher and neccesarily skirted any religious-based theories, I did give them my ideas. They seemed fascinated and thirsty for someone to tell them about what is truly important, and how to live life the “right” way. As I always do, I stayed very open in my own contributions–there’s no ONE right way to live, but I was intrigued at how closely they listened to the story of how I chose my career in comparison to my lectures on how to avoid a comma splice.
I am the first one to demand that quality teaching be based off of rigorous, objectives-based academics. Still, when you really talk about what it means to be a teacher, things are a little more complex. A big part of this job is letting students know that you also support them as people, that you’re there to cheer them on, guide them, and support them.
As I congratulated my students on graduation night, I knew that the hugs were not for the semicolons. They were for giving knowledge as well as wisdom. How blessed am I to be in a career where I can share so much of myself with others? Very.
I agree with Morrie: “The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning” (43). I consider it my privilege to have guided this first group of 12th graders through a full school year.
Congratulations, Class of 2010!