Over the past two months I had the unique experience of working on story writing and storytelling with two fourth grade classrooms and six ninth grade classrooms. Some weeks I’d be with the fourth graders one day and the ninth graders the very next day. To say that there was a huge difference in the groups would be putting it mildly.
When you walk into a fourth grade classroom as a teaching artist, you are made to feel like a rock star.
“Miss Lindsay is here!”
“Hello Miss Lindsay!!!!!!!!”
Children are running up to you with hugs, stories and even little gifts they’ve made for you. There is a sense of uncontainable excitement at your very presence — and you don’t have to work that hard to achieve it.
When you walk into a ninth grade classroom, the vibe is very different. You can almost hear the inner monologues in the students’ heads.
“Ugh! What is she going to make us do?”
“This is going to be stupid.”
“Why are we doing this?”
“What a waste of time!”
You are met with looks of skepticism, boredom, even dread. Add to that the fact that high school students these days have smartphones, earbuds, and laptops all at their disposal and you can see that it’s an uphill battle trying to get, let alone keep, their attention.
As a teaching artist, I give my all in both circumstances, yet in the fourth grade classroom it’s much easier to do because you’re getting so much back from your “audience.” Every hand is going up when you ask a question or request a volunteer. In the ninth grade classroom, it’s often the same few students responding to every question — and if it weren’t for them you might feel like you were talking to an empty room. When I leave the fourth grade classroom, I feel confident that the students were engaged and inspired. When I leave the ninth grade classroom, I wonder if anything I said stuck — and I feel the need to ask the teacher if there’s anything she’d like me to change for future visits to get more engagement. The usual answer is: “Nope. That was actually a high level of engagement for them.”
Yes, it’s amazing what 5 years can do. How it moves us from the mindset of everything being exciting to nothing being exciting — until proven otherwise.
That’s why when you get an email from the ninth grade teacher you were working with saying the following, it means a lot.
“I just wanted to thank you again for your help in teaching my students about storytelling…they really seemed to enjoy it once they actually did it
. . . they were SO nervous and felt like there was no way they could get up in front of the room and tell a story without any notes or help. And yet, every student was able to do it with no issues, and after they were done, I heard them all talking about how it ‘wasn’t bad at all’ and that ‘it actually was really fun and kinda easy!’
It was so fun to see them find such success and to enjoy it at the same time. There are so many moments of teaching that have been sucked dry of creativity because of all the testing, so I really appreciate you helping us to have some fun and to be creative again!
It would be easy to write-off the students who appear uninterested. It would be easy to “phone it in” as I work with a group that seems unmotivated. Instead, I will continue to pour as much of myself as I can into my work because appearances can be deceiving. Because when you’re fourteen instead of nine, you are often less likely to hand over your trust or your interest to just anyone. Sometimes you have to be won over slowly.
I’m not in the classroom every day, and yet I know what a challenge it is to keep pouring so much of yourself into your work and wondering if you’re going to get a response. That’s why I have such a great respect and admiration for the teachers who do this day in and day out. They are true heroes — and our world is a better place because of them!