The daily musings of a substitute teacher in East Central Illinois.

Oh. Em. Gee.

Today I was an English teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. That’s right, folks. High school. Land of the crazed teenagers. Land of young men and women who are bigger than me and who frighten me. Land that I swore two and a half years ago that I would never visit again. I decided that the Mahomet-Seymour schools are probably different enough from the Champaign schools that I would take the risk of feeling utterly helpless and accept an assignment as a high school English teacher again.

I am not kidding when I say that today was quite possibly one of the best days I have ever had as a substitute teacher. The students were intelligent, clever, witty, respectful, and earnest in all things. Even the sophomores who were in my room playing chess today were fun. I have had many positive experiences as a teacher, and I continue to love teaching the students in the upper primary grades, but today was a new adventure for me, and one that I hope to repeat many times again.

The students in my classes were mostly juniors, which places them in the 16-17-year-old category. Many of them were also in the honors program, which means that they are (supposedly) in more advanced classes. However, I also had a regular-track English class and they were just as much of a joy to teach as the others. The topic for the day was Edgar Alan Poe’s classic poem, “The Raven”. After the students took a brief quiz, they had a classroom discussion, moderated by three of their classmates, seemingly picked at random by their teacher.

It was amazing to listen to their discussions and debates. Even though many of the students did not have a strong grasp on the symbolism and hidden references found in the poem, they were able to find their own interpretation of the poem and discuss it in an intelligent, well-thought out manner. They also joked with me just as much as I joked with them. I loved being able to point out some of the cultural references in the poem and relate them to experiences they have today, but I loved even more hearing them draw their own conclusions.

The last class of the day had a very spirited debate about the general interpretation of the poem, as well as Poe’s motivation for writing it. It was awesome hearing their varying viewpoints and then to listen to them debate among each other, take sides, change sides, and really try to understand how the poem could be relevant to them. At one point, someone pointed out that they would need to figure out what the “right” interpretation was, because their teacher often asks a question about it on the test, and the only way to get it right is to describe what he considers to be the “right” interpretation. I hope I haven’t set in motion a large-scale rebellion in his classroom, but I told them about Louise Rosenblatt’s Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (which I often mistakenly refer to as the Transactional Theory of Literary Criticism, but the meaning is the same). This education theory states that the reader puts his or her own experiences into a story or poem and uses that as the foundation for the interpretation. This in turn means that every single individual will, because of his or her own unique experiences, have a unique interpretation of the work. The high school students were ecstatic to learn of something they could use to refute what they considered to be an unfair process in grading by their teacher. I was sure to let him know the context of why I shared this with them (mainly that they were heatedly arguing about different interpretations of the poem) so that he wouldn’t be completely blindsided when they ambush him with their new knowledge.  Some of them even wrote it down so they could learn more.

As I finished my day and got into my car, I had only one thought: “Oh. My. Goodness. Today. Was. Awesome!” (And yes, I really thought each word as its own sentence.) I am actually looking forward to teaching at Mahomet-Seymour High School again. I’d love to work with the students of the other grade levels, particularly since I know so may of them through my church anyway (I had three in my classes today). So, while I will continue to stay as far away from the high schools in Champaign and Urbana as possible, I can finally cheerfully look forward to teaching high schoolers.

4 responses

  1. When my English class first learned about Reader-Response criticism, it was OVER.

    I imagine the same thing will occur for the students you taught. 😉

    November 1, 2010 at 6:33 pm

  2. Well, I am hoping that it will lead to more robust conversations in the class, where students express their opinions, rather than try to fish for their teacher’s opinion. I always tell my students that when I ask them a question, I want to know what they think, not what I think. (If I wanted to know what I think, I would simply look off into space the way JD does in Scrubs!)

    November 1, 2010 at 6:56 pm

  3. Ginny Harris

    I’m so glad you loved it! And, even as somebody that doesn’t really know you, I’m proud of the way you tackle your fears in the class room rather than letting them rule you. And, as a past honors English student, thanks for helping open these kids eyes. When I was in AP Lit, we were often told our interpretations of different things were wrong. But, when it came time to take the exam, it was those that were more rebellious against that idea were the ones that did the best. (I wasn’t one of them, despite how much I read, I prefer interpreting scientific papers over literature)

    November 1, 2010 at 11:14 pm

  4. Interesting update: I was at the high school again today (also going back tomorrow – Wednesday), and I spoke with the English teacher I was subbing for. He said I did a great job covering his class, his students really enjoyed what I taught and how I taught, and he was glad that I taught them that they should all have their own unique interpretations! Go me!

    November 2, 2010 at 11:36 pm

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