If you had asked me on a chilly, overcast Friday morning how I would have liked to spend the day, you would not have heard, Oh, I can’t wait to scrub down pumpkins with vinegar with 20 15-year-olds.
But that’s exactly how I spent one Friday last fall — and it was the best thing to happen to my relationship with my toughest students.
I had handpicked those students to be in a class I’d designed. I chose them because I knew they needed something that school wouldn’t or couldn’t offer otherwise them. I called the course Connect because my sole goal was to reconnect these kids with learning.
Designing and teaching this class was an interesting experiment. Small moments would made me glad to be a teacher — a perfectly worded sentence, or 100 percent engagement, even if it was only for 10 minutes. I also hit wall after wall, thinking that a lesson or a project would be just the ticket, only to see it fail miserably. These kids were tough nuts to crack.
But I was the one who cracked on that Friday.
We had not had a good week together. I was frustrated with them, and they were probably more frustrated with me. I didn’t think their work was living up to their potential. I didn’t think they were really trying. And I took it personally, so much so that on the morning of the field trip, I told my husband, “I don’t even want to go on this field trip because I don’t think they deserve it. They’re being so lazy right now.”
I felt like hovering by the space heater by my desk and tossing them a few worksheets to make a point. But I dragged myself to school, bad attitude and all, and hopped on a bus headed to the farm.
When we got off the bus, a couple of the farm workers asked the kids to scrub mold off of huge pumpkins piled in giant boxes around a field, using vinegar, water, and old towels. I was praying for a storm to come so we’d have an excuse to haul out of there. Meanwhile, the kids hopped off the bus like they were penny-pinchers on “The Price Is Right.”
They got right to work like old pros. And watching them, I couldn’t help but crawl out of my funk. I walked around asking them if they’d rather be warm inside writing an essay or out there scrubbing pumpkin mold, and they all laughed at the stupidity of my question.
It hit me then: These kids are not lazy.
They are a lot of things — unmotivated, frustrated, bored — at school, but they were anything but lazy. I was reminded of why I chose them to be in the class in the first place. I had promised them a new experience, but I had thrown that promise out the window the second they didn’t perform the way I thought they should. But why would they? I knew who they were from the very beginning; I was the one pretending.
As Americans, and as teachers, we are trained to think about education in a certain way. If we are honest with ourselves, we can all admit that sometimes the way we learn in school and the way we choose to learn outside of school are not only different, but polar opposites.
That means I have to ask myself some hard questions sometimes about why I do what I do in the classroom, and why I expect certain things from my kids.
The bottom line is that I want success, and a lifelong passion for learning, for every kid who walks into my classroom. Of the 20 kids in my Connect class, I want the kid who wants to be a veterinarian to write an unbelievable essay to get into vet school. I want the kid who wants to be a hair stylist to be the most requested stylist in the salon because she knows how to tell good stories and persuade clients to try styles she knows will make them look their best. I want the kid who wants to be an entrepreneur to refuse to sign a shoddy contract because he knows to what words really mean for him and his business.
The key, for me, is finding the best ways to translate the motivation those students showed for scrubbing and hauling pumpkins to the skills that will help them live the best life they can. That’s the grand experiment.
We ended that day on the farm with a nature walk on a path around a pond. The boys bounced around like Tigger, breaking sticks, hopping on logs, jumping through puddles. The girls led the tribe from the front, their laughter trickling back through the humid air to me as I followed from behind. The rain finally came while we walked, but the tree canopy above shielded us, so we felt only a mist as we paced through the woods together.
I told one of the kids ahead of me that it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes: “Some people feel the rain, and others just get wet.” She didn’t really listen because she is 15, and I’m just the old teacher saying words to the sky, but I needed to say it then.
I needed to remind myself that learning is a beautiful mess. I made a promise to myself as we ended our lap around the pond and stepped out into the open air, that I will do my very best to feel the rain whenever I can. And I will spend my days letting them teach me how to do it.
This piece first appeared on Literacy & NCTE, the blog of the National Council of Teachers of English.