What You Accept, You Teach: Keeping Students Engaged to the Last Day

I listened to the forecast this morning with disbelief and more than a touch of joy: May in Chicago does not always translate to sunny, warm temperatures of 84 degrees. Having spent most of the winter bundled in multiple layers of down-filled clothing fighting the snow- and ice-covered roads, the long-awaited arrival of spring brought a strong measure of happiness to the morning.  I’m sure I entered the school building today with the extra spring in my step that communicated loudly, “Winter is finally (well, probably—after all, this is Chicago) over.”

Counting Down

Typically, at this point in the school year, the building is flooded with thoughts of summer: talk of vacations and plans for guiltless indolence fill the air.  All different manner of countdowns are kept in various forms: graduation by happy seniors embarking on a new adventure, retirement by veteran teachers preparing to enter a different sort of life, and last day by eager underclassmen ready to give up the cares of the academic world.

I must admit to keeping watch over my own countdown, the subject of which can be summed up in a few short questions: How few days do I have left with this group of students?  How will they understand the magnitude of the work we have done this year?  How will each one of us be able to sustain the progress made this year until the very last moment of class when we say goodbye and carry those understandings forth?

Modeling Engagement

It is, ultimately, the final question which resonates with me. It is also the question which focuses my thinking all summer and my preparation for the next year’s refinement of curriculum and coursework.  My grounding in this query forms the bedrock of my approach to both the start and finish of the academic year.  I know that ending the year with the same level of high expectations with which it began is one of the most important aspects of keeping everyone, students and teachers, fully engaged with the classroom, no matter how tempting the outdoors or summerlike the weather.

Modeling this expectation level is vital: students need to see and believe that we are just as passionate about learning on the last day as we were on the first or they will never accept that fact as even a remote possibility for themselves.  I truly am equally enthusiastic about helping my students understand the use of the apostrophe or the variations of tone in the first semester as I am to facilitate their demonstration of a refined understanding of the relationship between the poet and his/her world during the last days of school.  Both moments in time are integral snapshots of the learning process we have built painstakingly and collaboratively: I am loathe to abandon that nourishing process just because the calendar says I should.

Owning Learning

One of the most important lessons I have learned as a teacher was the result of one of my most formative experiences as a student: creating a literary movement.  The assignment, begun in late May and culminating in a presentation/proposal in June, called for students working collaboratively to design an entirely original literary movement, complete with a distinctive name, historical context, societal underpinnings, and technological revolutions; further, we selected existing texts for inclusion in the movement, drawing upon literature, the fine arts, and our own fiction to build a representative body of work.  The assignment, carried out under the tutelage of teacher Denise Trethaway, called for students to reflect upon their understandings not only of the literature and related movements studied in the classroom, but also to draw upon our analysis of every piece of literature we had ever encountered in any course, to differentiate our own products of that learning, and to fully engage in a critical inquiry process that, to be clear, continues to this day in my own life and in my own classroom.

I have a clear picture of the early days of my work in the class: building an understanding of the genesis and effect of Penn and Rowlandson’s narratives and crafting highly-individualized responses to Emerson’s aphorisms.  More importantly, however, my memories of the final days spent in that classroom are equally vivid.  Fitzgerald’s Gatsby became as personal a friend as any classmate and Miller’s work proved its tragic worth in that classroom, day after day in the lives of each student.  Not surprisingly, student engagement was never a struggle or reduced to mere drudgery.  In terms of the final assignment, each individual brought a very different perspective to the process and worked hard to build that interpretation into the work of the entire group.  Every contribution was honored, valued, and honed by each participant.  And while the date of the final presentation of the project has faded a bit into the depths of my memory, the learning engendered by that assignment has kept me fully engaged for… well, far longer than the end of a single school year.  The practice of engagement in Mrs. Trethaway’s classroom helped me understand a basic truth: when you own your learning, you will never relinquish it, and any opportunity to further that learning becomes a personal challenge and a gift.

Engaging in Life

When I first began teaching, I received some very good advice from a colleague: “What you accept, you teach.”  Each day, I reflect upon the wisdom of that statement as I work with students longing to abandon themselves to the lure of balmy weather or a forthcoming vacation.  Each day, I resist their efforts because I know that accepting the mentality of the countdown and all that it entails devalues the work the students have done this year. I further remind myself that allowing students to give themselves over to those longings teaches only one thing: the work of their lives is no more important than the next vacation or afternoon at the beach.

Life requires full engagement.  After all, as Robert Herrick warned, “Old Time is still a-flying” and gathering rosebuds, or any other type of flower you might imagine, requires both hands.

Elaine Simos
Literacy Coach and English Teacher
Downers Grove North High School, IL

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