NCTE: Allowing for the Difficult Teaching Moments

By Elizabeth Rich — November 19, 2010 3 min read
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Live from the National Council of Teachers of English’s annual convention, Orlando.

I had hoped to hear the discussion “Schooling Native Americans,” but alas the presenter was a no-show, so I wandered over to “Teacher Talk About Conflict at a Multicultural High School: The Pinnacle Classroom Discourse Study Group.”

The presenters, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas from Wayne State University in Detroit and Ameer Daniel from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., discussed the importance of having a shared language among teachers and students and within each of these groups. The importance, they explained, really comes down to navigating uncomfortable moments in the classroom whether they be over the charged language in Of Mice and Men or to Kill a Mockingbird or your efforts to engage your students in reading, especially when you’re working with kids who’d really rather not pick up a book. (An example of this might be when there’s a lot of loud cross talk—do you choose to: Ignore it? Shut it down? Incorporate it into your discussion? If you chose the last one, you’re on the right track.)

Thomas, who observed Daniel’s class extensively for her language and discourse research, suggested—and this won’t be a surprise—that the learning for teachers and students is found in those difficult moments, “those fault lines.” In other words, those moments that you dread or wish would pass quickly are the very ones where you and your students can benefit, if you allow them to happen. She praised Daniel for his ability to “dance along those fault lines.”

Daniel has taught English for 12 years in urban and suburban high schools. He says by empowering his students and not shutting them down, they have become more engaged. One way he does this is by giving them the opportunity to “co-construct curriculum.” He will hand them a reading list of maybe 15 books and together they decide what they will read as a class. It isn’t total freedom—there is that list and he acknowledged that giving every student free reign over their reading was just too chaotic for him.

He gives one student a laptop and book by book, they go on the Web and read what each story is about. In one recent class, they chose Farewell to Arms. I don’t know what the other choices were, but that’s a surprising selection for high school students who aren’t big readers. (Although it’s got elements of romance and war, so there you have it.)

In terms of dealing with issues like tough language (for example, words we just don’t use anymore that surface in books), the presenters, along with a number of teachers in the audience, encouraged educators to share why those words are painful. One African-American teacher specifically raised the issue of the “n” word coming up in Of Mice and Men. She shared this personal pain with her class, rather than just blowing past it.

Right now, Daniel is reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X with his students. He said he’s made a point to ask one of his Muslim students to talk about how his observance of his religion compares to how it’s discussed in the book.

If this kind of thing makes you cringe, you’re encouraged to bring your inner strength to the table, as it were. Face your class and ask them for help. One suggestion Daniel had is to ask your students straight up, “What do you have to teach me?” In other words, try to embrace your discomfort and ask your kids to increase your understanding.

On the other hand, one African-American administrator who’s worked in several turnaround schools cautioned against cultural trespassing. In other words, don’t get so comfortable or try to fit in with your students so much that after a night of “American Idol”, you pull a Randy Jackson and start shouting out to your students, “Yo, dog!” Just a hint: It won’t get you very far.

If you’d like to reach out to the presenters, here are their email addresses:

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

Ameer Daniel

Had some technical issues this morning, but expecting to hit some 21st-century learning discussions this afternoon.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.