I Remember When Teachers Were Allowed to Teach Their Passions

About Christina Gil

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poemis a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.

There are few things that I enjoy more than getting students to question, analyze, write about, discuss, and, ultimately, clarify their own views on complicated questions.  It reminds me of my own history teachers in high school and how they communicated their passions to us students.  In one class, we were supposed to study American history to the end of World War II, but we got caught up in the details and the stories and the discussion—and we never made it to the end of the Revolutionary war. My other favorite class was called European History, but it was actually a long, in-depth analysis of German culture including art, philosophy, and history, and the goal of the class was to examine what it was about Germany that allowed Hitler and the Holocaust to happen there.  We read loads of primary sources, we discussed complicated ideas every day, and we tried to answer questions that might be impossible to answer.

In another class, we skimmed through World War I and World War II in a week or so, got up to speed on the rest of the century, and then settled in to spend a few months listening to and discussing Vietnam protest music.  The teacher had been at some of those protests, and he wanted us to find that same spirit of purpose in our own lives. I liked that teacher’s view on the world so much that I later signed up for his semester-long class on Marxism.  Yes, this was a public high school (before the age of standardized testing or No Child Left Behind).  And again, we read primary sources, we discussed big ideas, and we came closer to figuring out our own ideas even if we didn’t quite find answers to some of the questions.

These classes were specific, they were deep, and they did not prepare us for any kind of all-inclusive exam.  But they did teach me to think, to discuss, to read complex texts, and to value the ideas that I developed through that process.  I took a few lessons from those classes that I always keep in mind as a teacher.

It’s important to read difficult texts on important ideas.  I was reading Marx and Nietzsche when I was sixteen, and I am sure that I understood about 10 percent of it, but I gave it a go.  I got comfortable reading things that I didn’t always understand.  I did my best to get what I could, and I asked questions in class for clarification and help.  I learned that a challenge doesn’t have to be scary, and that it’s okay to try something even if don’t always succeed.

It’s important to read difficult texts on important ideas. Click To Tweet

Discussion is a great way to work through new ideas.  When I really don’t know what to think about something, when I am having a hard time putting ideas into words or coming up with all of the possible answers to a question, I love to talk it out.  And that skill definitely developed in those high school history classes.  There is something about having someone else to bounce ideas off of or to help me put what I am trying to say into words that just can’t be replicated in writing.  And again, this is not a skill that is specifically measured on any standardized test, so I often worry that discussion will be seen as an extra, something to do if and when there is time for it.

Figuring out where you stand and why is one of the most important things you will do in school.  One of my absolute favorite reasons that I love to work with teenagers is that they are still trying to figure things out.  They might start out reciting their parents statements on politics, but with a little pushing, they will find their own opinions.  They are trying to find themselves in all areas of their lives, and clarifying their opinions on some of the big questions is a great way for them to do that.  I still hold many opinions that I first discovered in high school because I was given the gift of time to figure those opinions out.

If the teacher is interested in the topic, the kids will be too.  I personally don’t care very much about the Tzars of Russia, but when I took the history class where we spent months talking about them, I thought it was all fascinating.  As a teacher, I saw my school move towards an everyone-teaches-the-same-book idea.  The theory was that students should get the same education no matter what name it said on their schedule, and the easiest way to guarantee that was to get them all reading the same books. This meant that since all teachers had to compromise and agree on every book, we each had very few books about which we were passionate.  It did not mean that the classes were alike in any more than the most superficial way, and it denied teachers the opportunity to teach their passions.

Depth is always better than width.  I cringe every time I hear a teacher talking about “covering” a book.  “Assigned Jane Eyre for summer reading?  Check. Nineteenth century and female authors both covered in one fell swoop.”  I would always rather do less but do it better.  Spend two days talking about one eight-line poem?  Awesome.  Kids have plenty of time to scroll through information outside of school.  Giving them time to really dive in to one topic is  worth every minute.

If the teacher is interested in the topic, the kids will be too. Click To Tweet

I know that standardized tests are here to stay, but I can’t help but miss the old days.  I loved my teachers in high school because they did what they wanted.  They spent days looking at slides of protest posters or analyzing passages of Romantic theory, and we ate it up.  I teach the way I do today because of their influence.

Passions

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About the Author:

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poemis a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.

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