Thursday, March 02, 2006

swing low

The best part of teaching--besides the whole inspiring young people thing--is coming to a new discovery about something familiar. Just as you see the world differently as a parent, you see concepts differently when you have to teach them.

For example, Allen Ginsberg's "America" is all well and good. As a teenager, I found it, I read it, I thought it was interesting, I moved on. As a teacher of American Literature, I loved that poem. I sought it out as a different perspective from our slightly stodgy textbook, and I debated briefly about whether or not I should say "go fuck yourself with your atom bomb" in front of a class before I was tenured.* But the true epiphany came with the discomforting irony of canonizing something that was so fundamentally anti-establishment. I mean, I might as well assign two chapters of "On the Road" and flunk a student for putting off the reading until the next day.

Or Newton's First Law of Motion. It's one thing to learn, memorize, spend a few moments studying it, and ace a quiz. As a first-time science teacher, I'm driving to school and looking at all the examples of inertia, wondering which ones will most resonate with my students. Whch ones can I turn into a hands-on activity? Which examples will they remember?

I'm kicking myself for not remembering the quote or the author, but I was hit profoundly by a statement I read in a metaethics class in college. It basically made the point that wisdom is not necessarily about discovering new information but it's about familiar information becoming more salient.

Today, a beautiful song became salient. We're doing the middle school glaze-over of slavery, and I spent a few days teaching about how much history is wrapped up in music and vice versa. "Swing low, sweet chariot" has always been one of those that hits me down deep, resonates with those low swinging notes. It's a pleasure to spend more time with it, to see it fresh through my student's eyes, to look out across the last hundred years of our past, guided by voices.

And now it's stuck in my head.

*I did say it, quickly.


Blogger Hamel said...

Great comments on teaching, and thinking, and living.

7:49 PM  
Blogger Stormmaster said...

Great post, Jessica.

It's great rediscovering what you already knew or applying knowledge that you aquired years ago without understanding the true implications.
Great to have a job where you have that opportunity almost every day.

1:47 AM  
Blogger James said...

I had a similar epiphany a few years back while sitting in a staff meeting in a science classroom. My mind began to wander and I drifted off jjust staring at the periodic table of the elements hanging on the wall and was just struck by the absolute poetic beauty of the thing. It was sublime and majestic and so perfect that I forgot everything else about that day.

When I was in high school I thought it was just another stupid chart. Somtimes I think education really is wasted on the young.

4:18 AM  
Blogger Balloon Pirate said...

Education is not wasted on the young. It's a seed that is planted. Sometimes it grows quickly and the effects are visible. Some seeds are cast in infertile ground and never grow at all, and some lay dormant for years, or hide among the weeds of thought, and show themselves late, fully blossomed, seemingly from nowhere.

But that seed was planted years ago by a teacher you may not even remember.

And by the way, we all know Newton's first, second and third laws of motion (inertia, momentum, and reciprocity), but few know about Newtons FOURTH law of motion, which is the most important one: Never run with scissors.


7:30 AM  
Blogger James said...

Well said, BP. I do agree with you (despite a brief bout of early morning cynicism) or I wouldn't be a teacher.

The troubling thing I see in our schools is a tendency to overteach content at the expense of instilling in kids a sense of ongoing wonder that makes them stop and ask questions and continue learning after their school days are finished.

Ideally education makes the soil fertile (to continue your analogy) so that kids learn to ask and then seek answers, which I think is what ultimately causes those moments of newfound awareness that Jessica so nicely describes.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Jessica said...

The pleasure in writing down my disconnected thoughts is surpassed by reading your (plural) comments and various takes on the same ideas. The compliments are pretty nice, too. Thanks.

8:41 PM  
Blogger Old Man Rich said...

Strangely, Swing Low is the song sung by the English at rugby internationals. I have no idea why.

11:27 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

That is an odd choice. I've never imagined it as a fight song, but why not?

11:00 AM  

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