Gifts, Poems, Accidents

Furthermore, as for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, He has also empowered him to eat from them and to receive his reward and rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God. For he will not often consider the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:19-20

I’ve never been the first to assign group work. I know it is important. I’ve taken enough education classes to know its worth from a developmental and interpersonal perspective. I’ve worked long enough to appreciate the necessity of teaching students teamwork that will doubtless prepare them for healthy, successful lives in the vocations they pursue. And I’ve been out of high school long enough now to have forgotten the hours I spent typing up “group” essays and gluing together “group” posters in resentful solitude. That’s all gone now; I’m quite convinced group work is great.

But the good that I want to do, I don’t do. How, I ask, can four students productively work on one assignment? Won’t one student inevitably be staring out the window, while two others direct a hardworking, left-handed girl with glasses?

Wednesday morning, I try group work again, retrieving it like a seldom-worn dress from the back of the closet. Maybe this time. I print off three pieces of literature that I’ll be giving to my students to analyze. Two of them are poems written by Puritan Anne Bradstreet, whose credentials I spent all of yesterday outlining as, “subversive, contradictory acts of worship, like Christian rap for Puritans.”

Stopping by the copier on the way to class, I decide to enlarge the poems slightly for ease of gathering around. To my mild amusement, giant blue A3 paper comes out of the machine. Fine, whatever. They’re blue and huge, these poems.

“We’re analyzing poetry today!” I declare as my Period 3 honors class files in.

“Yay,” they shrug. (Teaching teenagers is truly the best way to learn the difference between tone and meaning.)

“So… I have a vision. Push the desks together into tables, then gather around a big poem.”

More murmurs follow the introduction of the “big poems.” We don’t like them big, they sigh; poems should be small and clear, like raindrops or diamonds. They sit down with trepidation, then see the blue paper and laugh.

“Oh, they’re big!”

“Right. Not long, yes? Oh, and everyone needs markers. Lots of markers.”

“How many markers?” My precise students want to know.

“A handful. Each.”

Each?”

And with that, they sit down, huddled around “big poems” on blue paper, merrily marking metaphor, simile, and imagery with squiggly Crayola lines. They discuss the meanings of these pieces, and I pester them until they can tie those meanings back to the language that created them, back to the rainbow lines on their blue papers.

It’s true what they say. My students are learning far better in these groups, huddled around their shared poems, than they would have in solitary reflection. I’m equally convinced, however, that the accident of the giant blue paper and the whim of the markers “made” the lesson, that the same group project with a normal-sized white paper and pens would have fallen a bit flat. I used to wonder when the best moments in the classroom would stop happening by surprise; now I’m thankful that these happy accidents outnumber the derailed plans, content to be flexible.

After a few minutes, I hand out new poems and ask them to repeat the exercise without speaking. The room fills with giggles and gestures, as students try out nonverbal communication to divide the tasks of observation and analysis. Markers wave, notes fly onto paper, and students nearly burst with unsaid commentary, bouncing in their seats like balloons on strings.

And as I watch them I realize that I’m starting to love them, my new students. It doesn’t surprise me the way it used to, when the changing of classes left me forlorn and lonely, but I’m learning more and more that loving students can’t be forced or willed. It just comes, really a gift from God, inextricably linked to a passion for what I do. Someone asked me yesterday why I love teaching, and this is it: long hours spent investing in the same people, day after day, one group project and accidentally blue poem at a time.

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One thought on “Gifts, Poems, Accidents

  1. I wish that this lesson was familiar – that it came from the unfinished course guide binder I left behind. But it’s far too creative and far too beautifully complex (in a surpassingly simple way) for it to be mine. And I am excited that such an imaginative and dedicated teacher is teaching these kids. Thanks, Kristi. Peace to you.

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