Thursday, March 1, 2012

Letting Someone Watch

Two Days Until Observation:  The voices inside me have a shouting match: One tells me I’m wasting my time fretting over this thing, that I should just do what I’ve always done and I’ll be fine. It tells me this whole thing is just a runny nose, not life-threatening pneumonia.

The other voice warns me to prepare for that most humiliating moment, the one where you are forced to acknowledge what you’ve always feared: You are a fraud. You’ve been doing this wrong all these years. A young teacher, the voice says, has no cause to whine about this, but you do. The real game plan is only now about to be revealed to you when the final horn is only seconds away. The horror! To be corrected or chided or guided now, to have the tragic flaw just now exposed.

One Day Until Observation, 2012: The voice of reason asserts itself. In my classroom, I make sure the board looks right and my copies are made and that I’m prepared for another good class with the help of bright, cooperative students discussing a thought-provoking poem. I glance at my list of targeted Marznovian Indicators and accept that not all those things are going to occur tomorrow, and I refuse to rig some scenario in which they will. Everything is in place. I’m ready for someone else to witness what my students see often. I’m not nervous or anxious, and I wouldn’t really say I’m confident. I just am. Let’s do it.

Observation Day: Class begins before the observer shows up, so I go ahead and make my smooth transition from yesterday without her, telling my students to just relax if I repeat all this verbatim once she steps in the room. The students are in good spirits and, as always in these situations, on my side, but not too obviously so.

Meanwhile, I can see the whole class, from beginning to end, in my head. I know the punch line (or the knockout punch), that thing I have planned at the end which will cause hands to fly up all over the room. I don’t rush it. I know that the moments leading up to it will be good enough – well, actually better than good enough. I begin with group work, something I’m not crazy about, but which will work well with today’s activity. I give them clear instructions, a rationale (hey, it all comes back to the AP Lit exam) and a time limit.

While they work, I take attendance, then stroll around the room, not eavesdropping, but just being present. They don’t need me now; they just need me to trust them to do this right. They all stay on task – all of them – as I knew they would. I hear great comments and questions emanating from the groups, and so does my observer, and I’m gratified. My observer is drawn into one of the groups and I occasionally hear her laughing.

Once the volume of their respective discussions begins to diminish, I ask each group to give me its findings, inviting the rest of the class to jump in if they questions or comments of their own. My aging brain hones in on their insights and I restate them to be sure I’ve heard them right and to be sure the student has said what she intended. I ask follow-up questions when needed and, from time to time, note how this process mimics the early minutes of the poetry timed write on AP exam. We’re thinking it through, brainstorming, finding patterns that, while interesting in their own right, can also be the building blocks of a killer essay.

As the punch line approaches, I’m just a man enjoying his work. I’m doing what I’ve loved doing from the first time I did it. A CAT scan of my inner workings would not have revealed a sense of intrusion or contrivance or artificiality due to the presence of a stranger in the class. I was a man enjoying the sights and sensations as a briskly flowing river took him to a better place. If someone happened to be watching from the shore, why would I care?

With a little more than 10 minutes remaining, my little surprise is projected onto the screen, and the students respond with an appropriately visceral reaction. Just before this, the class had been holding separate parts of the poem in their hands, scrutinizing them, meditating on them, trying to find something on which to construct a theme, then a thesis. The surprise is a minor explosion that, instead of blowing things apart, brings them all together, and, just before the bell sounds, all that had been up in the air, settles into a complete whole back on solid ground.

I thank my beloved kids as they leave. My observer reassures me that things went well. And my next class begins to file through the door.

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