Teachers are humans that grapple with life before, during and after school hours despite having to impart curriculum Monday to Friday. That, I think, makes teaching unique. Part entertainers, part “messiahs”, part parents mixed with a few parts “rulers” are all things educators must juggle on a weekly basis. How the good ones do it is truly remarkable. And when we strip the essence of teaching down to its bare bones, we are left with how effective one can deliver a lesson. To me, it seems like lessons ultimately rest on one thing: the impact they make on students. Through this, they mushroom out to two things: how engaging a lesson is and how memorable a lesson can be. Being engaging versus being memorable are the two things that we all, as teachers, ultimately grapple with.
Engaging lessons are like watching Bill Nye the Science Guy videos back in the day. Quick two to three minute tirades about a specific topic or concept, a short commercial break that isn’t even an actual a commercial – but no one is paying attention because it seems like one, and then another short spurt of information through a rapid and enthralling spectacle of words, sounds, and images. Memorable lessons, if I can recall, and right now I am thinking solely through the psyche of my 15-year-old self, tend to be longer, but can also be short, and come in the vein of an unanticipated vent by a teacher. Memorable lessons aren’t really lessons – they are more like life tales, told by the space and energy of the classroom in context with how the curriculum did or did not align with what was currently going on in that exact time. Engaging lessons are devoid of this real-life implication. In a good way, they tend to be engaging regardless of circumstance. They are fun and exciting and everyone, teacher included, leaves the classroom feeling good about themselves. Memorable lessons come out of thought, regardless of depth, and often miss the intended “objective” of the subject. At least it feels like that in my experience.
My teacher friend, like me, has a brother that didn’t graduate from high school but also, fortunately, didn’t die from the other decisions he chose to make after forgoing his last years in a collegiate institute. His brother is now an adult, and after realizing that quick cash as a teenager doesn’t amount to shit when you have kids and bills and zero credit towards renting a place, is now embarking on a career in the trades. And now, because he has realized this, he has to pass a math test to get his certification. So, he asked his brother, the teacher, for help. His brother teaches eighth grade. And this is nowhere near a knock to the trades, but the test he has to pass revolves around the stuff my friend teaches his eighth graders. Long story short: my friend decided to bring in the test booklet to teach his students. He wanted to impact some “real-world” applications to the math they were currently learning.
He tied their daily lesson on area and perimeter to a story about his brother’s life and plight to make a decent earning and establish a career. While teaching the math lesson, he gave a little information on the decisions his brother made as well as his brother’s life as it currently stands. He talked about his brother not graduating without specifying what level of schooling the system failed to provide him with. His students asked simple questions, not necessarily pertaining to the actual lesson, but to his and his brother’s story. “How old is your brother?” “Do you still talk to him?” “Are we doing this so that you can make fun of your brother?” He answered their questions as candidly as he could and proceeded to direct his students to do the actual math assigned via this adult carpenter pre-assessment task. Some were successful, some weren’t.
And there I was, two days later, doing my supervision duty at the back of the school, telling kids to have a good evening. A few kids came up to me to chat before they walked home. As these kids went on, class and school and the “lessons” they had learned or remembered naturally came up. And for twenty minutes a few of them, students who were in my friend’s class, talked about the math lesson from a couple of days ago. What they did not talk about was how exciting it was or how much fun they had doing it. In fact, they didn’t even talk about the lesson. What they did talk about was the learning.
They talked about the lessons (my words, not theirs) that they learned that day –about life and circumstance and opportunity and their goals once they became an adult. They relayed facts that my friend had already told me that he was going to try and talk about when we talked in the morning before the lesson. They talked to me and recalled, in verbatim, the same things.
I don’t know how engaging his lesson actually was or if the mathematical concepts he was trying to aim at hit that day. But I do know that his lesson was memorable. I don’t know how much of an entertainer he was or even how much he embodied a “traditional teacher” during those two periods of math. But what I have come to realize is that to engage is to entertain, which is cool. You know what’s better than that? To make something memorable. That is because to make something memorable is to inspire. If we really want to create social change, we should be aiming for the memorable, not the engaging. And in truth, memorable teaching actually accomplishes both.
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