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In which I talk way too much about teaching English

Photo restored and uploaded by Patrick Q

This is something that came to me out of force (it’s a required text for a syllabus I taught for several years) and yet it will probably always stay with me. As a student, I couldn’t stand set texts. I hated them on principle. As a result, I ruined several books for myself when I didn’t need to. Some of them I rediscovered later on my own terms; some burned me out so much I refused to teach them in my own classroom. And when I started having to teach things on a set list, I was convinced I would grow to hate all of them too, so things like Before you were mine were a sign that clearly I had matured in some way or another. {Of course, some of my students would tell you I had just become more boring, but I am settling with mature. If cataclysmic is my favourite word in the English language, boring is certainly my least favourite.}

With teenagers, there’s this tricky few weeks where you have to get it into their heads that poetry is not all Dr Seuss. (Don’t get me wrong, Dr Seuss is lovely. Really lovely. But there is also more.) They start being convinced that poetry must rhyme. That rhyme is more important than meaning. So much so that it’s almost like they are on one side of the classroom with picket posters that shout ‘RHYME!’ while the teachers are in the corner with smaller signs that ask politely ‘But what about meaning?’ and eventually it all gets ironed out. We hope. (Then of course we go and confuse things with poets who can do both rhyme and meaning and well, they are just too good.) So in nearly every lesson I have observed of teachers fighting this little battle, the teacher uses a quotation from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that poetry is “the best words in the best order”. (Please, my former students who are sitting your exams this year: know who said that if you are going to quote it. He is pretty important and his life is pretty interesting anyway, so just read about him here and never, ever say ‘A famous man once said…’ on an exam paper. Thanks.)

(Can I say much more in brackets today? Sheesh.)

Anyway, the best words thing sometimes makes me cringe, but in the case of this poem I quite like it. I am not very good at drawing on the white board but it never stopped me, so I would doodle some lady in a skirt with a big smile and curly blonde hair and ask students for words to describe her personality, so that inevitably someone would contribute ‘bubbly’. So let’s take bubbly. What can bubbly mean? And after we get through the description of personality, we would get to bubbles and champagne and all those other things until we got to soda. How would you describe soda? Here, we call it a fizzy drink. So then we would stop right there and read the poem for the first time. And question number one would be ‘Why call her fizzy and not bubbly?’

Moments like that are why I love teaching English.

And off we would go from there.

free write it down online journalling prompt
Click for print-sized card.

If you want to add a Valentine’s theme to this, you could always write about a couple rather than a person. Your choice.

(More in brackets: a lot of people keep asking me why I am still into teaching English if I’m not doing it right now. If you haven’t figured it out, teaching English isn’t something I have left forever. I don’t think I ever could. I needed to change gears before I burned out the engine, and once that car has had some fine-tuning, this will all be relevant once again. She’s just in the garage for a nice break. Ha! Metaphor!)

(Sadly, English teacher humour doesn’t get much better than that.)


13 February 2008

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9 Comments for In which I talk way too much about teaching English

  1. chiswickmum Says:

    Agree absolutely with the teaching english – just because I’m planning to stop teaching geography, doesn’t mean I’ll be stopping teaching geography. I’ll be ‘reading the landscape’ to anyone who’s listening for ever.I’ll be reading it even if no-one’s listening. I’m a geographer! Glad you are sharing your english with us – almost wish I was back in primary and could use some of your wonderful ideas. Thanks for all your efforts.

  2. Kary in Colorado Says:

    I love this Shimelle! You are a funny person and I’m sure your students are missing you—but I’m glad you are here!

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  5. Bobby Says:

    Great story. Kinda reminds me my own. Back in the school I wasn’t able to do writing works. Remember, I even use’d something like this just to pass the exams. But everything changed at the colleges, because of my literature professor. That man completely changed my perception of writing and I’m forever grateful him for that.

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