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Michele Kerr: The Miracle and the Moment

Michele Kerr is a second-career teacher with a master’s in education from Stanford University, with credentials in math, history, and English. She will start her fourth year of teaching in the fall.

My best moment as a teacher–so far–came right after a miracle.

It was the end of the school year. I was teaching a unit on Elizabethan theater in my freshman humanities class, and on this day the students delved briefly into the sonnet. With reading abilities ranging from fifth grade to college-level, they wouldn’t all be capable of close analysis, but that was beyond the scope of my lesson anyway. I just wanted to give the students an hour of listening to and thinking about sonnets, with the hope that they would later be able to tell me later that sonnets had 14 lines.

I’d chosen five poems; three because they are high on the list of Sonnets: All-Time Greatest Hits, making them useful content knowledge (and they are, still, beautiful). The other two are personal favorites that never fail to astound me with their power (and they are, still, well-known).

I played the poems in chronological order. First up were Shakepeare’s “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” and Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud.” The students listened politely and, when the reading finished, wrote their initial response. Most of the kids wrote for five minutes as required; some of them scribbled a few desultory thoughts and then waited out the clock. The kids then shared their responses in a class discussion. I threw in some literary terms as needed. Things were going well.

Third in line was the Milton sonnet, “Methought I saw my late espoused saint,” a poem drenched in grief, loss, and longing, a poem I’ve loved since adolescence, a poem that I thought, perhaps, they wouldn’t entirely understand.

And so the miracle.

Ian Richardson recited the poem. I had no projector that day; they only heard his voice. You should click the Youtube link above, to hear it.

When his voice faded away, I opened my mouth to instruct them to write their response….and then closed it again. The kids were just sitting there, stunned.

A good twenty seconds passed before Luke spoke. “Holy crap. That was…..”

“Sad,” Sadie finished.

“Devastating,” Melissa added.

“Tragic,” said Kylie.

“Beautiful,” from Narciso.

“I’m depressed,” said Frank, in astonishment. And….

“Play it again,” said Daniel. The class murmured assent.

I played it again. When it was over, twenty-three heads bent down to write. Many students struggled to tell me that yes, the poem was sad, but that wasn’t the point. What mattered, to each of them, was they got it. They understood suddenly how loss can be so crippling that the dream of its return, the mere memory of happiness, can “bring back the ‘night’ of grief during ‘day’,” as one of my strongest students wrote, when the respite of the dream ends. I still remember another student’s sentence: “Being happy in your dream only makes pain worse.”

And then I told them that Milton was blind.

“Auggghh,” said Annie , holding her head. “So he was dreaming of two losses that came back to him.”

“…and then left. Again,” Armando finished.

The comments came fairly quickly; I jumped in a few times to define “paradox” and point out that the “day” brought back at least two “nights”–that of grief, and that of sightlessness, but for the most part the kids carried the conversational load on that poem for 10 minutes.

I always think of those minutes as the miracle. Was it their response to the poem? My recognition of their response, my decision to keep my mouth mercifully shut (a rare event of itself)? I honestly don’t know. But no sensible teacher would ever plan such perfection as twenty-some-odd adolescents with no particular interest in literature being touched to the core by a Milton sonnet.

Of course, nothing about that miracle improved my students’ academic skills. Some of them spelled “feel” with an a, “wife” with no e’s, and “grief” with two. Had I wanted to push on and ask them to analyze Milton’s use of metaphor in an organized essay, no more than five of the students would have even known where to start, even though they’d written several analytical essays that year.

Moreover, had I been observed by an administrator that day, I would have been dinged in several important areas. I wasn’t helping the students make progress on ELA standards. The students had no vocabulary list to define by reading the words in context. They had no pre-reading guide explaining key concepts. They hadn’t been given specific learning objectives, and had no clear writing template to follow for their responses. The literature was focused entirely on Western lit (four dead white guys, one dead white chick).

I knew that at the time, and know it even better now. I didn’t care.

Don’t get me wrong; I support standards. I believe that state tests measure important information. I want my students to demonstrate improvement, and find it entirely reasonable that schools should be held accountable for student academic progress.

But I’d spent the ELA portion of that year focused on standards-approved objectives. I’d pushed through Twelfth Night, an obscure Indian novel, and Filipino magical realism literature, texts that a number of my students couldn’t understand even if they’d wanted to—and many of them didn’t. I’d assigned them essays that they wrote by rote by design, using the irritating Shaffer chunk method, a routine that the strongest writers found limiting and dull (the rest listlessly followed the rules to write sentences they didn’t mean and hadn’t thought about). Meanwhile, I couldn’t spend too much time helping students remember the importance of spelling “wife” and “grief” properly, or of constructing a simple sentence that expressed thoughts that they did care about, although I did create my own customized SSR/SSW program that gave them time to gain content knowledge and informal writing skills.

All I wanted was a day dedicated to listening to, and thinking about, sonnets that connected the poetry to the history of Elizabethan theater, the larger unit.

We moved on. They found Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee” pretty shallow, after the intensities of the three previous poems. (“She loves him yeah, yeah, yeah” wrote one student, a la the Beatles tune.) But Robert Frost’s “Design” went over very well. Although they weren’t able to visualize the poem’s tableau the first time through, they wanted to know more because on that day, at least, they were beginning to realize that confusing poetry can make sense with more context and information. When they learned the “white heal-all” was usually blue, they asked to listen again.

After the second recitation, I told them to underline the last two lines: What but design of darkness to appall? If design govern in a thing so small. Then I reminded them of the Calvin and Hobbes raccoon story, and the panel that shows Calvin hiding under the bed: “It’s either mean or it’s arbitrary, and either way I’ve got the heebie-jeebies.” They got the connection immediately.

“So was Calvin and Hobbes copying Frost?” one student asked.

“No. They’re both illustrating the same theme. The world can be an unforgiving, cruel place. Is it part of some great plan? Do things happen for a reason–Design, as Frost says–or is it arbitrary and random, as Calvin worries? And which is scarier to contemplate?”

“Does that happen a lot?” asked Alexandra. “Do people write about the same thing in different ways?”

“Funny you should ask. Listen to this song and tell me what sonnet explores the same theme.”

The specific logistics of this lesson were fuzzy until 30 minutes before class, when I belatedly realized that professional recitations were obviously superior to my original vague thought of the students reading the poems to themselves. But the sonnet and this song had been in the lesson since I’d originally conceived of it, several weeks earlier. In fact, the song may have been the unconscious premise of the entire lesson. Still, I hadn’t really expected them all to be familiar with John Mayer, adult contemporary pop crooner.

I was therefore caught entirely off-guard when the opening strums of “Dreaming with a Broken Heart” came over the speakers and the class exploded with energy and excitement. Everyone in the room instantly knew the song and recognized the connection. Some students literally jumped up and down as they realized that over three hundred years earlier, poets had gotten there first, that all those years ago grief and sadness, loss and longing were still best told in verse, not prose, and they began feverishly writing, underlining and circling words to make it clear that John Mayer and John Milton were writing about the same thing.

Looking out over a class nearly incoherent with excitement at their new awareness and understanding, I bit my lip hard to stop from crying and told myself ferociously to just enjoy the gift of a perfect moment.

Like all teachers without tenure, I spend a lot of time job-hunting. Along with the obsessive, hopefully illogical, worry that I won’t find a new position comes a litany of memories, favorite moments I won’t find in any other life, moments when I know I made a difference, when I helped students feel more competent, have more confidence, feel a greater awareness of the world or how it works. And of those moments, this is the one I remember first.

Yet not a second of that moment had anything to do with test scores, with measurable academic outcomes, with improved reading ability, or the correct spelling of “wife” or “grief.”

Do truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks need to write compare and contrast essays on sonnets? Probably not. But surely, at some point in the past, our educational system gave truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks a sense of the beauty of the world, our heritage, the history of our country–and, ideally, the ability to spell “wife” and “grief.”

Today, our educational system has no interest in truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks. All students must perform as if they are college bound. Since most of them can’t perform at that level, regardless of their desires, teachers must spend all their time getting as many students as possible close enough to understanding to fake it on a multiple choice question, to get those test scores as high as possible, even knowing that many students will never gain a real understanding of the demanded material. We can’t teach them what they need to know, and we can’t spare any time to give them knowledge they might find actually interesting, or experiences they can enjoy without forcing them to process it into analysis.

Implicit in the expectations for all students is the belief that truck drivers, manicurists, retail clerks, fire fighters, and all other occupations that aren’t driven by intellect, simply aren’t good enough. They don’t matter. These aren’t lives that might benefit from beauty or poetry, an opinion about the Bill of Rights or, hell, even an understanding of why you should always switch if Monty Hallgives you the option.

Naturally, anyone on the “college for all” bandwagon, reformers and progressives both, would vehemently deny such beliefs. But the logic of their demands is inescapable. Students have no way to step off the college train. They can’t say “Hey, I don’t want to take trigonometry. I just want an interesting math class.” or “No more lab science; can I just take a writing class that focuses on modern ethical issues in medicine?” or “Can’t I just read and write without having to think like an English lit major?” Denying them that choice leaves failure as the only other option. That lack of options betrays the value system at the heart of those who deny education the right to sort by abilities and interest.

Obsessed with ending the achievement gap, our current educational policy pushes everyone down the same college path and then blames the teachers when they don’t get the desired results. Lost in these demands are the millions of students who are doomed to years of boredom and, worse, a sense of inadequacy-lost, that is, until the teachers are blamed, again, for failing to help them achieve more.

And so, many people will read of my miracle and that perfect moment and point out that my students hadn’t improved their skills. Yet I defy them to say I didn’t teach my kids something important that day.

I don’t know if my students even remember the day. I’m certain they never think of the lesson as an important moment, much less a miracle. But I am also certain that in that moment, all of them understood—some for the first time—that they could understand and empathize with great poetry. They realized intuitively that art could explore themes and ideas using metaphors so powerful that artists return to them time and again over centuries. They learned, too, that this knowledge had value and meaning to them—not because it made them better readers or writers, or got them better grades, but simply because that knowledge led them to a better understanding of beauty….and so, of life.

And it is of moments like this one that teachers think of when they say that education is more than a test score.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...