The Best Lesson I've Ever Taught

There are ten parts left in this series on education, and the first of these ten is going to mark a bit of a stylistic difference.  Rather than giving overviews of School in general, I'm going to give examples and then tie them in to larger things, or allow the reader to tie them into larger things.  You'll notice that I'm not giving advice on elementary or middle school, because I do not know much about them.  But I do get high school, and will be focusing on high school, and my experience therein, for the next few posts.  

The best lesson that I've ever taught happened in evening school.  This was a 2.5 hour a day, 4-day a week, 8-week class where students could make up credit.  Being there meant that they'd failed during the day, which meant that typical school wasn't always reaching these kids.  To me, this meant you had to approach them in a different way.  A lot of times, the situation that caused a kid to fail was something personal, a battle they were facing, a point they were trying to make, or something along those lines.  It wasn't uncommon to ask a kid, "Why did you fail the first time?" and be told, "Fuck that teacher.  She didn't like me, so I wasn't going to pass her class."

This logic may not hold up to rule followers, but it did to an entire group that was also failing.  They saw it like this: that teacher doesn't like me, believe in me, or care about me, so I'm not going to care about what they're doing.  Think of it more like a boycott.  

So, after hearing a bunch of things like this, an idea came to me.  I shut the door, pretended to lock it, and made a real dramatic show that the lesson I was about to give could get me in trouble.  Then I gave this assignment (keep in mind this was an English class, and many of the students never wrote): write about the worst teacher you've ever had.  Tell me - in detail - why you don't like them, and I'm not going to censor for content of language.  This is you, writing to us, giving your opinion.  If you share this opinion, you'll get full credit, but you have to be honest.  And, you have to be silent and write the entire time, (which I think was 25 minutes).  If you do that, I told them, you'll get an A.  

As soon as I set the timer, the kids began writing furiously.  Almost all of the wrote the entire time.  When the timer went off, one kid - a kid that almost never asked questions - said, "Is it okay if I finish, or do I have to stop now?"

That was a win.

This was a kid that had failed a writing class, yet I was able to get him to not only finish an assignment, but to want to do more than was asked.  

Then we shared.  

I did put the parameters that they couldn't say the teacher's name.  They also couldn't swear in a way that was demeaning.  So, they could say "I was so fucking mad" but they couldn't say, "That teacher's a fucking bitch".  This is a pretty big distinction.

They shared their work for about 45-minutes.  Class ended not too long after the sharing, and kids said goodbye as they filed out the door, and went home in a pretty good mood.

People will have different reactions to that story.  Some people will hear it and say that I'm a bad teacher.  (They'll probably say: no wonder you were fired).  They'll say there was no objective, no 'lesson', no standards, no rubric, and no discipline.  They'd look at this as an assignment from a teacher that they're better than.  

If that is YOU: please quit the profession.  Or at least, get to know your students better.  They were writing about people like you.

Another type of person will hear that lesson and at least be intrigued.  But here's what happened after.  For the next 6 weeks, those kids came to class every day and were engaged.  They felt listened to and respected, and they read a lot, wrote a lot, and learned a lot.  They were a community of learners for (maybe) the first time.  

During the activity, when they shared about the bad teacher, no one interrupted one another.  They asked questions, gave feedback, and laughed and responded.  OR, they did what all good readers and writers do, by putting themselves inside the story and learned from a character and experience.  

When these kids had a topic they cared about, and a teacher that would listen, they did great.  They liked class.  On one occasion, I even heard one 'day' student brag about how good the class was.

What's my point?

I'm not suggesting that the way I went about it was the best, or suggesting that all students write about their least favorite teacher.  The point is to be creative, get to know your students, and then do things in a way that reaches them.  I had a class of 'tough' students.  Because I was able to reach them, pique their interest, and then craft their responses toward academics, we had a beautifully productive evening school session.  Kids trusted me as an expert.  I was safe and different.  They were intrigued.  They listened to me more, cared about what I had to say, and went back to being successful during the day.  

Isn't this the point?  

Creativity in teaching is all but disallowed these days.  Teachers that are creative are marked down.  They are being replaced by semi-competent people that semi-competently teach a subject.  But semi-competence doesn't inspire passion, encourage curiousity, or do much for anyone.  


In a summer school class, again for students that failed, I had about an hour a day of silent reading.  The merits of silent reading are a debated issue, but I am a huge fan.  (People against it should also quit, and are wrong).  In silent reading, students choose their own material and then have time to simply read in a quite setting.  

At the end of one of the days, this girl approached me.  She was very quiet, and had failed American Literature.  "Can I borrow this book?" she asked.

It was Twilight.  The next day, she'd finished it.  That weekend, she read the other three books in the series. 

Before this point, the girl had never read a book.  In her entire life, she'd never read one book, but when she was given options and a place to read, she read 1,500 pages in a weekend.  

This potential is in our students.  We must be willing, creative, and caring enough to pull it out of them.