Dear students

This week I'll begin teaching the persuasive writing unit for my 11th grade English course. The unit culminates with the ever-anticipated state writing test (insert long, somewhat political, and incredibly passionate rant about said test here). One of our lessons in the unit is: Pretend it (the writing test) matters. Before students can pretend and write like they care about a topic they actually don't care about, they must have chances to write about topics that really do interest them. I've never taught this before, but I'm going to try it and see how it works. Essentially, students will pick a topic they care about and write a letter to an identifiable audience persuading them to act or think a certain way about whatever topic they choose. Pretty open, right? To give them a framework, I decided to write my own persuasive letter...to them. Here it is (in draft form):

Dear Students,

As your English teacher, I think I’m supposed to want for you to write sentences that don’t end in dangling modifiers, identify motivations in protagonists of classic works of literature, recognize the all-star writers of 19th century American literature, diagram sentences, know when to use who and whom correctly, and score high on your state exams. As a lover of reading and writing, I do want some of these things for you. I’d also like for you to fall in love with classic literature. I’d like you to realize the beauty of a well-turned phrase. But when I really think about what I want most for you, my students, here’s what I want: I want you to be able to think deeply, to move beyond apathy, to question and engage with the larger world around you, and I want you to see value in compassion.

I know it’s sometimes a hassle to be a high school student; I was there once. I know we ask you to do seemingly pointless assignments, bogging you down with piles of worksheets, quizzes, essays, and readings. Enduring seven courses five days a week can be tedious. In my short time of teaching, I’ve noticed that many students want simply to be fed work they can absorb with little effort. And to be honest, this would be easier for me. It would probably mean less student grumbling. It would mean less time-consuming grading, less time-consuming planning. It would mean more time to spend with my family.  As your teacher, I have a great and awesome responsibility to teach you. And this means that I must give you chances to expand your thinking beyond what is comfortable. Growth happens when we step outside the familiar. It might feel uncomfortable and a little like failing in the moment, but those moments eventually lead to growth. Growth is necessary for us to reach our full potential as humans. When people reach moments where they value growth, they can begin to recognize the disease of apathy.

Apathy allows us to turn our eyes away from suffering; it quiets our questions and hardens compassion. If left unchecked, it will spread rapidly paralyzing people, stunting growth. Apathy can destroy relationships, families, and communities. Engagement is the antidote for apathy. So students, I ask you to think deeply so that you may question because to question is to engage.

Finally, I want you learn compassion, concern for your fellow humans. We get busy with our own pursuits, and sometimes it’s difficult to look beyond ourselves and recognize the needs of others. This world is often cold and dark. As cliché as it may sound, one person’s compassion towards another can make a lasting impact more than, dare I say it, knowing the subjunctive moods of verbs.

Don’t mistake me and think that I’m regarding school as unimportant. Your classes will all teach you valuable lessons. You might learn new content, or you might learn how to tolerate people who seem positively unbearable. You might learn how to manage your time more effectively. Sometimes the relevancy of school might not become apparent until much later in your life. I’m asking you to bear with us. Most of us became teachers because we find joy in seeing you learn and grow.

Other teachers, parents, administrators, and policy-makers keep telling me that I should focus more on state tests. This “stuff” is important and necessary. I’d love for you all to walk out of English passing your state tests, proclaiming your love for composition and literature. However, I think I’d find more satisfaction in seeing you think deeply, boldly questioning and engaging in the world around you, and treating others with compassion and grace.

Mrs. Helzer


Silly said...

This is what teaching should be. This is what teaching is for you... You taught us our value as individuals. You gave us our voice. And that is something we will always carry with us, beyond state tests. The fact that you recognize the importance of engagement over the text given in a book, changes everything. I remember stopping in class one day after a journal prompt and having a class discussion the whole class. Purely because everyone was engaged, using their brains, forming opinions. And that happened to be more important than the grammar lesson you had planned. And while that often goes against the mainstream, test based education they push onto us, I think that a number cannot determine our future. A test score will never mean more than our growth as people. No matter how hard they try to convince me that's education is all in a textbook, I refuse to believe it. Thank you for being the passionate teacher that let me realize the value beyond the worksheet.

Heart's Cry said...

ENGAGING students! I agree with what the previous commenter said. Thank you for being the passionate teacher!