Hands shot into the air.
“Look it up on your phone,” one girl answered.
“Figure out context clues,” offered a well read young scholar. Wow.
“Look it up in a dictionary,” a student suggested bashfully.
“Good,” I praised her old school response. Then, looking around the room, I called on the boy in the back, the last hand in the air. “And…” I prompted.
“Ask your mom?” He said.
It’s why I love teaching. The unexpected nature of the flow of a classroom discussion. The exquisite goofiness of students. “Yes!” I said. “That could work too.
I was about a third of the way through a lesson on poetry, a celebration of Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë and their poems about “Hope.” Both poems are old, and some of the language that shows up isn’t familiar to the kids, so before I asked them to dive in and discover meaning, I knew I wanted them to be sure they knew what the words meant that make up the verse.
And so we read through the poems, and students underlined the words they didn’t know.
Gale. Abash. Strife.
They’d have time to collaborate with each other once we got to the heart of the lesson, but I wanted them to wrestle with the words first on their own.
“Okay,” I said after a couple of minutes. “Use one of those ways of getting the definition you need to find out what the words you underlined mean.”
Phones emerged from backpacks and purses like gophers after a rainstorm. Three students strided to the bookshelf on one side of the room and pulled down dictionaries. A couple of kids sat, puzzled, before grabbing thesaruses from a counter. And they all got to work.
As I walked around the room I heard quiet conversations. “I don’t get this definition,” one girl whispered, looking down at what Wikipedia had to say about grated. “I think a silverfish just crawled out of this thesaurus!” said a boy. “My eyes are spinning,” said a girl with a thick red dictionary open in front of her. “I don’t think I’ve used one of these since like second grade.”
And then I heard it. Quiet. Hardly loud enough to disturb even the kids around him. It was the boy from the back row, his phone held to his ear… “Mom. Hi. The principal is teaching us about poetry right now, and I wondered if you know what the word abash means.”
I may have a message on my phone when I get back to my office. Or maybe I just made the conversation around one dinner table a little more interesting tonight.
Either way, I know that the real reason teaching is the grandest profession is the kids. Their earnestness, curiosity, and insight; their ability to engage with the world, be it poetry, pottery, phenomes, or pi; their open eyes and open hearts, and their willingness to pick up the phone and call their moms, all give me hope.
As Emily Dickinson said more than a hundred years ago:
Hope is the thing with feathers-
That perches in the soul-
And sings the tune without the words-
And never stops- at all-
After teaching a lesson about poetry to some of the best seventh graders I know, I’ve got hope in my soul right now. And if I listen, I can hear it singing.
Or maybe calling mom.