Saturday, April 26, 2014

Carrots, Sticks, or Purpose?

A horrible, rhythmic screetch-thump, screeth-thump errupted behind me. Whirling from the blackboard where I was writing, I saw two boys in the front row, legs twined around their chair legs, hands gripping their desk edges, hitching the whole shebang inch by inch toward the chalkboard. My mind flailed wildly for a response, but all I could blurt out, like Calvin’s mom in the comic below, was, “What are you doing?”

You never said we couldn’t,” was their reply. 

Even as a rookie teacher, I knew that making an exhaustive list of all the things they couldn’t do would be a losing proposition. Partly because human ingenuity is so much bigger than lists, and partly because prohibitions have never ensured anything positive would happen. (We all know how well that worked out for the Pharisees.) 

The queen of class management tools is giving the students purpose. If they truly feel there is something important happening that they need to be a part of, they will be less likely to create their own purpose--like entertaining classmates or irritating the teacher or avoiding as much work as possible. 

Naming units by theme rather than literary topic is a simple check I’ve found for whether I’m providing this meaning, as well as a method of making it clear and keeping it always before myself and my students. So, for instance, while we are currently reading Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the unit title is “Finding Love.” (With flowers springing and weather warming, students’ minds tend to wander from the text, so the text might as well start in the place to which their minds are wandering!)

We rewind from the sad conclusion of the previous unit’s central text, where none of us want to end up (the modern drama A Doll’s House which finishes with Nora realizing that her husband Torvald has never really loved her, just enjoyed being in love) to the beginning of relationships in Shakespeare’s comedy, to explore the meaning of “being in love,” and to consider whether there are any ways to decrease the likelihood of ending up like Nora and Torvald, never having moved beyond it. 

For, in spite all of the wild craziness and looming tragic possibilities, the fairies’ blessing at the end shows that a stable social institution is the intended goal. The students’ final response will be a letter to one’s future irrational, in-love self from one’s current rational self about the differences and connections between “falling in love” and truly loving a person. 

In addition to Shakespeare, we read a little science about the brain chemistry of falling in love (“the most irrational brain state”--suddenly the antics in the forest seem a lot less fantastical). We read a little Bible--from the raptures of Song of Solomon to tragically wrong-footed relationships of the Old Testament to New Testament example of, power for, and charges to radical, committed, self-sacrificing love.

While thinking about these weighty and relevant questions, we have a lot of fun with various acting exercises while we rise to the challenge of interpreting difficult text. Every year I begin this unit (every unit, actually) with a bit of trepidation--will this group of students really get into this text, this question? Somehow, this year again, the miracle of attention, of engagement, of learning, happened. And I believe partly it happens because students know a significant purpose for their reading.

I’ve worked on this simple exercise of giving meaning titles to my units over the last several years. Here’s what I currently have:
  • Meeting Image Bearers: Introduction
  • Restoring Shalom: Cry, the Beloved Country
  • Regarding Human Dignity: Night
  • Being Image Bearers 1: End-of-Semester Project/Presentation
  • Weightlifting with Language: Grammar
  • Dancing with Language: Poetry
  • Finding Truth: Short Stories
  • Finding Myself: A Doll’s House
  • Finding Love: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Being Image Bearers 1: End-of-Semester Project/Presentation

I still have first-day-of-school nightmares occasionally. (I think Ive known two teachers whove never had them--those classroom management worries never really go away--they just go subconscious.) Usually I’m standing in front of a room of students with no idea of what the class is, flipping through the textbook desperately searching for something familiar to start with, and as I fumble about, the classroom spirals out of control. In my worst ever dream, the classroom expanded, trees grew, students began tearing around on quads, and I was left pounding on the lectern and screaming, completely ignored. 

But those nightmares have become less frequent, and teaching more of a delight, and one factor is the larger meaning front-and-centered for all the classroom community simply by naming units with purpose. 


  1. Mrs. Essenburg, I came across your blog while searching for ideas for my 8th Grade English class. We are finishing A Midsummer Night's Dream right now. Since I'm new to teaching literature, I'm still concerned about building the curriculum, identifying essential questions, figuring out how to give meaningful names to my units, etc. However, the main reason I wanted to post a comment was because I saw your photo, and you looked vaguely familiar. As soon as I read your name, it hit me! I was a middle school student at your school in the late 80's and early 90's. Mr. Essenburg was my 8th Grade English teacher. It's amazing that I'm still inspired by my middle school teachers. --Sarah H.

  2. Sarah! Thanks for connecting! Teaching is one of the hardest, but also one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. Stick with it, love the kids, be the chief learner in the classroom, and let me know if there's ever anything I can do for you!