Teaching is Improvisation.

Last week, I spent the day in the middle school language arts classroom of one of my favorite childhood teachers. His philosophy and pedagogy are so incredibly well-designed and adapted to this challenging and fascinating (and so often misunderstood) adolescent age group. I was eager to return to his classroom and learn from his practice.

During the last class period of the day, I witnessed an incredible act of improvisation, of a teacher acting quickly on his feet. As an entry point to reading the poem Guilt by Jed Chambers, he asked the students to remember a time when they felt pressured to do something that didn’t “jibe” with their moral code, and respond in their journal (which he does not read) to prompts regarding how they felt, what they did, and what they wish they had done. He then asked students, who were willing, to share their story and self-analysis. Students brought up a wide range of experiences, from drug/alcohol related situations with friends to coaches directing them to hurt players on another team. It became obvious to me how safe these students feel within this learning space and community.
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Then one of the students in the front row told a story about an experience he had with racism. He was a White boy, and he spoke about a basketball game, when a boy on the other team was making negative derogatory racist statements about a Black boy on his team. A few of the kids in the back of the class started to laugh. Their teacher immediately stopped the conversation, interrupted the story. “I’m sorry, did I miss something funny?” The whole class was silent, those that laughed looked terrified as they had been called out by a man they respected and admired. He immediately said, “I am not angry, I’m not saying this from a position of anger. I’m just wondering if I missed something funny. Our friend here is telling his story very articulately and elegantly, and he has not used any inappropriate words. So I’m just wondering if I am missing something?” The students all shook their heads, “No.” His tone immediately shifted to a calm and assuring stance. “Ahh, okay. So we are laughing because we are uncomfortable. And that is okay! That is a normal reaction. We as humans often laugh when we feel uncomfortable, and racism can sometimes be an uncomfortable topic for us to talk about. Alright, let’s get back to the story.” Every student was now serious and engaged as they listened to the boy in the front row tell the rest of his story, and they could all participate in a respectful, critical, academic, analytic approach to this incident of racism.
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What an incredible act of improvisation! I have no idea how I would have responded in this situation, yet seeing this veteran teacher respond immediately with such grace gave me a valuable story to add to my toolbox. He was able to address discomfort, validate everyone’s feelings/reactions, and re-direct every student back to a serious conversation. No one was punished, everyone was enabled/empowered to participate. All in less than a minute! I am terrified and thrilled for teaching and management moments like this to come up in my own eventual classroom. Witnessing these fleeting moments has provided some of the most valuable lessons to me as a teacher in training.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching is Improvisation.

  1. professorjvg says:

    Wow. So much happened in that 60 seconds. Brilliant!

  2. […] quite regularly) towards a methodology of storytelling. Through stories of directly witnessing teachers’ immediate responses in the face of controversy and discomfort to stories of specific students’ struggles and […]

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