The difference between a shovel and a rake

by Mr. Sheehy

I am amazingly immune to distractions this time of year. I hesitate to tell my ridiculous stories, to show some random funny picture or video, to share a joke, or to insert a spur of the moment writing assignment. The change occurs somewhere around May 1, when I realize my planning has ended – that my long range planning is actually my medium range planning and that pretty soon the two will merge with my short term planning and I will be left with only the material I might have covered. And I am always left with great material – often my favorite. When I worked at the radio station as an announcer I would map out the day as it progressed, and I’d hide some great little bits to the side, waiting for my chance to use them – a kind of save the best for last method. The problem was that the last often became after-the-show and I sometimes left my funniest material unsaid. Eventually I learned that if I thought of it, I should say it – no saving things for later, because I wouldn’t need it later.

So next year in English 11 I may reverse my curriculum to ensure that I present those things that I hope for my students to encounter. I won’t list them here for embarrassment’s sake. I don’t want someone to say to herself, “You’re teaching American literature and you didn’t cover THAT?!” Let’s just say, no, I didn’t cover that, and leave it at that. But I will say I tried. And by focusing on students and where they were instead of material and how much of it there was, I didn’t cover as much. I’ll make that decision every time.

In fact, while talking with some colleagues recently about our AP classes, I mentioned that when opportunities arise for different teachers in our building to teach the AP 11 courses (a couple years away from now), I likely wouldn’t inquire about them. I cited as my reason that I don’t like competing with colleagues for things (if they want it, they can have it) and that I was happy with my current classes. But then as we talked and I realized how fast they have to go in AP lit., the thought occurred to me: am I even willing to teach AP? Or am I philosophically opposed to the idea of a class that focuses its energy on a test and not the joy of reading and writing? I think I am.

That’s not to say I couldn’t be convinced otherwise, but in a department this big, there will always be plenty of people willing to teach the students enrolled in AP. I will stick with my ‘regular’ English classes and see if I can teach teens something about what learning is and how it works. I continually return to the research published by Bransford about expertise and what it entails, and I think in showing kids how deep books are and how much work it takes to get to that depth, they might understand something about reading and books (and their own ability to dig) instead of being mislead into thinking that literature is about knowing about books and what they “mean.” I’m going to take the Billy Collins approach and ask them to “walk inside the poem’s room /and feel the walls for a light switch.”

John Piper has said (and I paraphrase roughly) that if you rake the ground, you get leaves, but if you dig, you may find gold. I’m digging, and I hope my students dig with me. If nothing else, I can teach them the difference between a rake and a shovel.