Teaching with gratitude – or – Stabbing negativity with Romeo’s sword

by Mr. Sheehy

It takes five positive experiences to override one negative experience of equal stature. I don’t know if I have that right at all, but I think that’s how the saying goes, and I do not plan on evaluating the accuracy of it any more than I plan on researching whether the guy who said, “85% of statistics are made up on the spot” was telling the truth. What I do plan on doing is to share the needlessly negative exchange I had this morning and then to drive it into oblivion by sharing five positive experiences of more notable importance.It began this morning as I was discussing a little poetry project I have my 9th graders doing before we move to the next unit – its non-educational purpose is to buy me time to grade their essays, a feat I like to accomplish with something more productive than showing movies. I mentioned something about their essays that they were supposed to have handed in Friday, and one young man interrupted to ask the classically ridiculous question, “Have you graded those yet?”

This being Monday, I responded possibly too sincerely: “No, I don’t grade papers on the weekends.”

His response: “That’s duly noted.”

I don’t need to write here any of the responses that came to mind that moment or in the moments to follow. I’m perfectly capable of coming up with one worth not saying, and I’ll resist here as I did there. But I will admit that the comment bothered me in its total lack of graciousness.

That’s the negative. Now let’s get rid of it.

I’ll begin by stabbing it with Romeo’s sword, the one used in the ballet I watched three times last week. We had to return The Nutcracker to the library because someone else had put a hold on it. Such an event may seem trivial, but I was unsure how Ellen would react, considering that the heroes of the Nutcracker – Clara and the Nutrcracker Prince – had become established characters in the play of life Ellen writes everyday. They alternately come over for a ball (Ellen kindly opens the door for them), come to church with us (sitting in the middle), and live at our house (for one stretch their parents were dead and thus they had moved in). She lets us know when they are doing the same moves as her while she dances on the stage (a.k.a. living room rug), or if they’re off stage waiting for a turn. She has the entire ballet memorized to a frightening degree: within three bars of track 4 (I forget the title), she and Annie throw themselves to the floor, mourning the apparent death of the Nutcracker Prince, who has just been slain by the Mouse King and his army.

A switch to a new ballet seemed potentially rough, but my trepidation did not credit Ellen and her story-telling nearly enough. After one viewing of Romeo and Juliet she had altered the sad Nutcracker mourning scene to account for Juliet’s potion, which meant she and Annie were downing gallons of potion and passing out on the floor in tragic despair. On the ballet end of things, she has begun to imitate the new “moves” in ways that periodically stun me with their beauty. Once again, my daughter proves I too easily underestimate her.

My second positive weapon is the set of four braids Ellen wore one day last week. She wasn’t imitating Manny Ramirez but had followed a simple and amusing line of reasoning: if Mommy can put in two braids, why not three? And if she can do three, why not four? That’s right, my dear, why not wear four?

Annie wields weapon three: a limited and irresistible vocabulary. She knows plenty of words for a 21 month old child and puts together a number of useful sentences (“Hat back on!” was my favorite until last night, when she said after I got her a glass of water, “Thank you, Daddy.”), but the bit of vocabulary that pleases me most must be “crazy” and “goofy.” She knows crazy and goofy when she sees them and calls things such. Ellen jumps on the bed or almost falls off her chair, Annie declares it “Goofy” with a wide grin. But then, she’ll also call almost anything else crazy and goofy as well. I was still in bed sleeping, so she responded to the news, “Daddy sleeping. Goofy.” Other favorite words that always make me smile: her yell of “Cream!” for ice cream and “Moomie!” for any video or movie. The words are great, but the urgency with which she uses them make them memories.

Fourth positive weapon: computer tools – specifically, tags. Why not throw this one in there? I was telling a colleague today about Zotero and he was wowing it right away. I had to hamper his excitement so he could be properly impressed by the climax of my introduction: “Hold on there. I haven’t shown you the good part yet.” Then, after showing him the notes, I showed him the tags for each note. He then reeeeealy liked it – and wished he’d had it when he was in grad school. Consider this official recommendation from me: if you are in grad school and need to do research, try Zotero. If you know someone who is in grad school, introduce him or her to Zotero. People don’t have to love it, but they should at least know about it.

I am also more than pleased about the newly harnessed power of tags on Wikispaces, which enables me to organize with relevant ease the content of the department wiki / knowledge management repository I’m creating. To make the site make sense to folks, I have built a familiar hierarchy into the wiki (Grade level, classes, units), but the tags and their tag cloud that I’ve put on the front page will allow penetration into the site in a much more exciting manner. It increases the likelihood a person could find a piece of “hidden” knowledge.

That then leaves me in need of a fifth positive weapon to drive out my one negative experience. I’m not sure it’s needed, because by now I’m feeling pretty good about everything and have to remind myself that this article begins by talking about something negative, but I suppose the fifth incident is the one that sends you completely into the territory of the positive.

This weapon is the best one to wield against the negative incident that began my outburst, because it directly corresponds to the first – it’s a student-situation, and its positivity is too good not to squash negativity. My sophomores are reading A Separate Peace, and by using the Read/Write web I have been able to drive my unit almost entirely on the power of their own observations and insights into the novel. At chapter eight, we assembled character wheels for the six main characters, and I gave them a quiz on the material they’d developed. After chapter nine, they listed their pressing questions. The following assignment was to answer them in their blogs. After chapter 10, they listed and explained potential symbols, and I assembled them on the wiki/study guide we’ve created. Here’s the beautiful result: I gave a lecture today, and it consisted almost entirely of reading their lists of symbols and their answers to their questions about the book. Somewhere in here I’ll steal a moment to deliver my own thoughts on the book, but the beauty is that I will have to steal that moment – the time will already be filled with sharing of their own learning.

Of course, it’s not like I’m sitting in the corner writing on my blog while they read and decipher a novel. I am quite active in the arrangement. I’m the one assembling things neatly on the wiki so others can read it, and usually I end up writing things on the interactive white board when no one wants to stand up and draw on it while others might be looking. It’s not glorious work, and I rarely get to wow students with my knowledge, but that’s fine with me, because I got into this business to be a teacher, not a public speaker or profound lecturer; if this is what teaching is, so be it.

That said, may I remember this aspect of my calling vividly, and may I overflow with gratitude for the opportunity to engage life as a father and teacher, so that each time I encounter something negative, I respond with graciousness and love.

Thanks for reading.

Grace & peace to you today,