Stuck in a teaching rut? Make things uncomfortable.

What have you done to “shake things up” from your typical class structure?  If this post jogs any memories, post them in the comments.

The classroom buzzed with energy.  Students were on the floor, in re-arranged desks, or outside in the hallway.  Many were laughing.  Most talked quickly to each other.

It was Friday, last period, and the students were discussing poetry.

No…this is not the beginning of an elaborate joke.

The 25 students read, re-read, clarified, corrected and debated, all over the specifics of three poems. And these weren’t even especially engaging poems for a young adult audience. I had intentionally chosen some classics, hoping to present a challenge. Robert Frost, Lewis Carroll and Anne Bronte. Not typically selected for maximum engagement of high school sophomores.

To what can I attribute the energy in the room on a Friday, when minds wander and attention spans dwindle?

Everyone was uncomfortable.

Now, this is not my MO–making students feel uncomfortable–and it conflicts with many of my beliefs as a teacher.  Students should feel welcome, comfortable and safe in the classroom. They need these minimum conditions before learning begins. No one succeeds if they are put on the spot, uncomfortable, or made to feel less than capable.

However, it’s here that I refer to my student teaching supervisor and a mentor, Mr S.,  who asked me to consider the questions: “When does a structure become a crutch? When does a routine become  a rut?”

In simple terms, he meant: sometimes you need to shake things up a bit.

For this activity, all it took was telling a room full of 16-year-olds that they’d all have to record themselves speaking.  Just like that, they were filled with nervous energy, and ready to focus, even on a Friday.

Asking the students to record themselves was not a gimmick. It was a fair, authentic way for me to assess their understanding of the skills we’d practiced over the past few classes.  They began by reading a poem aloud to each other. They performed close readings, making literal, inferential and finally a critical response to the poem. Then, the curve ball, each group recorded themselves explaining their annotations and thoughts about the poem, using a cell phone or computer and USB mic. Each student in the group had to speak.

Had I asked the students to write an essay, they might groan, but they’d do the assignment, with varying levels of success and effort .  Writing a literary analysis essay, while an arguably important skill, does not invigorate a sixteen-year-old.  The voice recording had nearly the opposite effect as would handing out lined paper and prompts.  The task of recording an audio close reading of the poem meant that each student’s thoughts would be made manifest for themselves to listen to. When writing an essay, it’s easy to write stream of consciousness, hand in the paper and never look back. With this task, students were required to listen to themselves, both checking for the clarity of the audio and the clarity of their thoughts.

They had to be sure of themselves. It’s easy to pick a few quotes, throw in the phrases “this represents” and “this is a symbol of…” and be on your way to the weekend. But when speaking out loud, with other group members listening and depending on each others’ performances, the students prepared deliberately to be sure about the thoughts they were speaking.

[As an aside, no one likes the sound of their own recorded voice, including me. However, in today’s technological word, audio tools are so readily available, and it’s a situation that students should get comfortable with.]

This activity spanned two class periods, and I noticed that I felt the same excitement that I observed from the students.  This may be because I felt uncertainty about asking students to do something that I knew would be challenging, and even unpleasant for some.  Every student who attended class that day completed the activity.  For most, it was a challenge when they had the recording device ready and prepared to press the red circle.  Also for most, once they got started, it wasn’t nearly as bad as they’d expected it to be.

As a teacher, I think it’s important for me to go to the places of discomfort, too.  I should sit there, acknowledging the discomfort, and recognizing that if it makes me uncomfortable, I’m probably no good at it.  And if it’s something I’m not good at, it’s probably important for me to work at it.

A few recent moments where I’ve embraced discomfort:

On the first day of school this year, I memorized and recited the poem “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins to four of my classes. I displayed the poem behind me and asked students to follow along and check my performance.

I taught students how to use a new online tool, Scrible, which I’m only moderately comfortable with using.  I knew students would gain value from it and would probably end up teaching me about it.

I’ve shared my students’ work with administrators (Just waiting for a response can be nerve-racking sometimes.)

In daily life, I’m approached with choices about exercise, meditation, healthy eating, having difficult conversations.  All of these are times where the best action is to go to a place of discomfort.

Go there, sit, and embrace it.  It won’t be as bad as you think.

Below, post an idea or memory about when being uncomfortable was a good thing.