09 June 2008

Reflections on the Year: Relevance

This school year, I heard the term “relevant” quite a bit. As a teacher, I was supposed to teach things that were relevant to the students, things that they would find interesting, important, and immediately applicable. The curriculum backed this up. There were “all about me” projects for the students throughout the year. One would think that the students were being studied, not literature or writing. The first person singular seemed all-important for some reason.

These projects seemed silly to me for one important reason: what is relevant should not be given over to students to choose. As a teacher, it is my job to use meaningful exercises which instruct students how to read, write, and think. While some might think that students can (and should) be able to choose how they learn, I would submit that what students generally want is excitement. All things being equal, a student will tend to choose the most entertaining, least academically demanding route through the day. That is what is “relevant” to the student – unless he has been taught otherwise.

As a teacher, it is my job to teach them otherwise. Most students – over 90% I would guess – would never choose to read and discuss Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, it is far from my favorite Shakespeare. But it is meaningful; it has relevance. The characters, conflicts, and themes are all timeless. And when students realize this, when they crack open the questions within the play, then their lives are enriched.

Some students probably think I’m a stick in the mud. I do not have assignments where they analyze the lyrics of pop songs; we read and discuss Dickenson and Frost instead. However, I hope that through being exposed to writing and thoughts deeper than the shallow pool of the everyday world they choose to take a closer look at their everyday world. In doing so, I hope that in some small way, one or two may recognize the shallow messages around them (in television, pop music, etc.) for what they are. I also hope that they choose to seek relevance in their own lives, with the examples of timeless pieces of literature as their base. Without these, I fear they may be rudderless on rough seas.

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