Making My Students’ Heads Explode!

Ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you that one of the best feelings you can have as an instructor is the moment when a student doesn’t just think of you as the person who is holding them back from going to lunch, but as the person who can actually impart some useful knowledge or change their worldview.  And you know that for the rest of that student’s life, that kid is going to remember you as the person who created that moment.

As I get ready to start my eighth year in the classroom as an English teacher, I thought I’d share my top five favorite “Oh, wow!” student moments.

What the word loiter means

You would think I am kidding, but every single year that the word `loiter’ has been on my teaching vocabulary list, the result has been total amazement from my students.  They see the word on every gas n’ sip door in town but never know what it means, so this is knowledge they can actually use.  I remember one girl telling me she thought the NO LOITERING sign was “just a weird way to spell no littering.”  I’m sure she wasn’t the only one who thought that.

Dally dies

Okay, so if you haven’t read The Outsiders I’ve totally gone and ruined it for you, but this has to go on my list.  When I teach The Outsiders (also known as The Best Book Ever), my students are never surprised when they get to the part where Johnny dies.  It gets foreshadowed quite a bit plus his injuries from that church fire were pretty serious.  But the part they’re never prepared for comes a scant few pages later, when Dallas “Dally” Winston pulls a suicide by cop and goes down in a blaze of glory because he misses his best buddy Johnny so damn much.  They never, ever see it coming.

“He was dead before he hit the ground. But I knew that was what he wanted, even as the lot echoed with the cracks of the shots, even as I begged silently – Please not him, not him and Johnny both… I knew he would be dead because Dallas Winston wanted to be dead and he always got what he wanted.”

Every year when I read that part out loud, you see their little mouths fall open in surprised “Os!” and a few girls always cry.  This year, I had a kid throw the book down on the ground and yell, “I hate this book!  I hate it!”  I tried to get him to understand that he actually loved it, or he wouldn’t have cared so much that Dallas was dead.

Some words can be nouns and verbs…or an adjective and an adverb and a noun…or sometimes they can only be nouns, etc.

Remember as a kid when you had to learn, “A noun is a person, place, or thing,” and then when you got a bit more mature you were let in on the fact that a noun can also be “an idea or quality”?  And you also learned that a verb is an action and an adjective is a describing word like red, fat, or crunchy or whatever?  (You also learned what an adverb is, and a preposition, too, but I bet you twenty bucks you don’t remember those.)

Anyway, the problem with learning parts of speech that way is that kids don’t get the idea that a word can change from one form to another depending on how it’s used.  Quickness is a quality noun, but you could turn it into an adjective by taking away the “ness.”  Or turn it into an adverb by adding “ly.”

You would not believe how this just blows kids’ minds.

“Is kick a noun or a verb?” somebody will ask.

“Well, it depends on how you use it,” I say.  “In `I kick you,’ kick is a verb, but, in `He gave me a sharp kick,’ kick is a noun.”

WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?

Tom Robinson is convicted

Perhaps it’s a sign of how far we have come that my students all believe Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird will be found innocent of those trumped up rape charges brought upon him by Miss Mayella Ewell.  And of course he’s found guilty.

It doesn’t matter that he has Atticus Finch representing him and all the physical evidence points to Tom’s innocence.  All that matters is it’s the 1930s in the American South, and Tom Robinson is staring down the worst possible charge a black man of the time can face – sexually assaulting a white woman.  He was guilty in the minds of the jurors before Atticus even opened his mouth.  And the kids are shocked every time.

(On a much, much lighter note, teaching TKAM does give me the opportunity to say the word “chiffarobe” out loud several times.  That’s a fun word to say if you’ve never tried it – FYI.)

The end of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the end of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” go read it now!

Done?  Good.  Then you know why each time I study this story with my students, they grow more and more uncomfortable with each paragraph, but they don’t know exactly why they’re squirming in their seats.

But when ol’ Tessie Hutchinson gets the crap kicked out of her with those rocks, they look at me like I must be a true sicko for even introducing this story to them.

“Why would they do that?” somebody will ask, horrified.

“Because,” I tell them, “this story is a metaphor for life and how cruel and unthinking humans can be and how they often follow traditions blindly.”  Then I laugh in this evil way and they’re all truly terrified of me.

(P.S. Okay, I don’t actually say that, and I don’t do an evil laugh.  But I do try to guide them to that conclusion.)

Happy 2012-2013 school year, everyone!

7 thoughts on “Making My Students’ Heads Explode!

  1. Wow – you just walked me back through junior high and freshman year of highschool – and for that, I am incredibly grateful. I had flashbacks of my reactions to The Outsiders, Catcher in the Rye, “The Lottery” (which remains one of my favorite short stories ever), To Kill a Mockingbird as well as an assortment of School House Rock videos. Conjunction junction..what’s your function?
    Great post!

  2. I really enjoyed your post – I love how you describe these “Aha” moments. I vividly remember one such moment in jr high when a teacher introduced a unit on poetry with Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” and then played us the recording. “You mean it can be a song AND a poem?!!!” You’ve got your work cut out for you teaching English in the electronic age – sounds like you’re doing a great job!

  3. I loved this post! I remember experiencing moments like this with teachers. One of them was definitely The Lottery. I was absolutely horrified when I read it. I also remember being shocked by Killing Mr. Griffin. Gosh, i need to reread some of these classics!
    Another big moment was in 7th grade when we did a unit on the Holocaust. I’d heard of it and vaguely knew what it was…but my teacher Mrs. Humphrey made sure we knew every aspect of it, and I was devastated. I think I spent the 2nd quarter of that year contemplating life and looking at the world in a whole new way. Gosh I love teachers! :)

  4. Bustin up the chiffarobe, yikes. To Kill A Mocking Bird, favorite book ever. Two more, The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell. Kindred, Octavia Butler. Cool thing, my 28 year old son and I share this favorite book list. Glad to stumble upon your blog.

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