I agree with the University of New Hampshire’s Tom Newkirk when he says, “I feel most alive as a teacher when I improvise, when I risk something.”
I learned that the same applies for one of my students as well.
For the first few days of school this year, Matt appeared to be the most serious of students. He sat quietly at his table and dutifully completed all the tasks I asked of him. He only spoke when spoken to, always polite and respectful. Then one morning he surprised me with a loud belly laugh, his response to one of my self-deprecating asides in class. Would there be more surprises to come?
My sixth-grade social studies students begin the year studying the Vikings. Working in cooperative groups of four, they choose one aspect of Viking culture, and after some in-depth research, teach what they’ve learned to the rest of the class.
We discuss how best to present their newfound knowledge, and I always find that, when given the opportunity, 11-year-olds prove to be highly creative.
Matt’s group studied Viking family life, and I wondered right away how this typically reserved young man would function in the company of three typically bubbly sixth-grade girls. Not to worry. As I observed their project from the opposite side of my classroom, it was as if I’d wandered into a rehearsal for a bit on “Saturday Night Live.”
With six groups preparing six different presentations at the same time, it was difficult to get a handle on any one of them. There was a puppet show in development depicting Viking religion in one corner of the room. There was a “Jeopardy” game in production in another. I spotted what looked like a hybrid Disney movie starring Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. I assumed the disparate parts would become whole in the end.
But my attention kept going back to Matt’s group, and Matt in particular. This once stoic kid was suddenly a performer, a transformation as stunning as Robin Williams into Mrs. Doubtfire. Apparently, Matt would play several roles in his group’s skit. I knew this only because of several costume changes consisting of oversized bath towels and Burger King cardboard crowns.
At one point, I caught a glimpse of Matt wielding a plastic sword and wearing a helmet that was more “Gladiator” than “Thor,” but that didn’t diminish his performance. Matt can thrust and parry almost as well as Errol Flynn.
Finally, it was show time. At various points, Matt played a Viking father, raider, and even a god. He did so with passion and purpose, and with a grin as wide as the bow of a longship.
I feel most alive as a teacher when I watch a student take a risk, and become all the better for it.
John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.