Friday, November 11, 2016

Practicing Life

I am listening to my AP (advanced placement) Literature Composition class, work through a multiple choice exercise. A passage they are in pursuit of analyzing-- isn't easy; it is a conversation between Volpone and Mosca from Ben Johnson's play Volpone written in the 1600s. It's no simple task to sniff out its meaning, the paradoxical hyperbole, the puzzle of whether or not it uses the language of religion or finance, or whether the imagery is pastoral or chaotic.

I hear them reason, present logic, even guess. Two students ponder over the phrase to boot.

"Is it in addition to?" One student asks the other. I lean forward wanting to transfer what I know to them, and sometimes that would be okay, but for the most part, the majority of real learning comes from the struggle of ideas, knowledge, and exploration.

The class next door is chamber choir and they are preparing for the Christmas concert. The maestro has chosen one of the pieces from Handel's Messiah--an intricate and beautiful piece for a group of high schoolers. I listen as they plunk out each part in the piano room. The pianist repeats each line several times...and the government sha-all be... and his name shall be called...wonderful....counselor...the mighty God, the everylasting...the prince of peace!

We tend to see life as a one time run through when really, should it not depend on taking each line and breaking it down, over and over again?

Doesn't it take time and labor and get it just right?

I think of how the founders of the constitution labored, argued, even fought.

I think of how Lincoln and his Team of Rivals created a plan that brought  peace and equity only after difficult conversations and sleepless nights.

I think of my own mothering and the times I yelled too loud, restricted a child on Halloween, or gave the answers too quickly.

I wince.

I think of the way I taught the Cold War last year--a hurried disperse-ment of facts and my final was even worse.

I wince.

But I think of how much better it was this year!

And how it will be even better next year!

In the past, I've always accepted late work. Points were docked, but in reality I was training my poor students how to adapt negatively. Teaching is so much more than grammar and history; it must all point to becoming more human, more kind, more responsible.

The last essay I assigned was on the day before fall break. My intention was that students finish it in class, but when it didn't go as planned, they knew they had homework.

Monday morning was painful when half the class hadn't finished. I executed a hard deadline with a promise not to accept any essays after Wednesday. Did everyone make the deadline? Remember we're practicing.

A week later, I got my first email from a student apologizing for its lateness, and then a parent email.  In both cases, I held my ground, my promise. I really believed this time it was in students' best interests not to accept the late essays.

I replied to the parent how difficult it was as a teacher not to accept late work. I expressed how much I enjoyed her son--what a great student he is. I also let her know there would be plenty of assignments to make up the zero.

Because we are practicing responsibility and practicing at life--to become better..

In an immediately treasured email, the mother responded. Thank-you. She wanted her son to practice too, but practice with consequences--oft times, the best teachers of all..