A few years ago, on the very last day of school, my students had finished their final exam and were preparing to walk out of the doors and into the glory of summer. One student hung back for a bit to say goodbye and thank me for the year. He said some really nice things, but one thing...this one thing I will carry with me for the rest of my life. He said, "you know...we read some pretty good stuff in here and we had some fun conversations, but I don't really know what I learned."
I don't really know what I learned?! What?! The nerve of this kid! How in the Hades can this kid tell me that he didn't learn anything? We read The Scarlet Letter, and I even made sure not to skip parts! We immersed ourselves in discussion of themes about isolation, deceit, and forgiveness. We read The Great Gatsby, the greatest of American novels. We talked about themes of greed, longing and desire, wealth and power. We read The Crucible, a canonized American drama favorite. We talked about McCarthyism and how the 1950s red scare served as a context for Arthur's Miller's work. We acted out scenes with a readers' theatre skit. We spent three weeks on it and ended with an exam that would have made my high school English teachers proud. What do you mean, you don't really know what you learned?!
And then later, I stopped and thought. In all of those things that we talked about, how many kids in my classroom were actually doing the talking? (Oh no.) In all of those themes that we talked about, how did I help grow my kids into stronger readers? (Oh no!) Of all of those books that we talked about, how many of my LEP students or my SPED students or my students who don't like to read felt included? Felt understood? Felt successful? Felt smart? (Oh. no.)
Instant shame. Like I-can't-even-believe-I-just-told-you-that-shame.
That conversation with that kid years ago changed the course of my teaching philosophy. I don't ever want a kid to leave my classroom scratching his head and thinking what was the point of that? In order to change, I started small. I made a promise to myself that following year--years ago--that I would not make an assignment or activity that did not have a clear correlation to the TEKS. It sounds obvious and simple, but you my friend, as a teacher in the multi-layered world of ELA know what a challenge that can be. It's so easy to get caught up in plot. It's so easy to get caught up in the literature that we love. It's so easy to forget that the kids who are sitting before us don't think the same way we do. They don't love it the way that we do. And that's ok. It's so easy to just teach literature. To just talk about it. But it's so hard to teach the skill; to break it apart; to pull the small piece that you need so that your kids can walk out just a little bit smarter.
But if you do, maybe...just maybe...at the end of the year they'll tell you what they learned.