Revisiting the Student Experience

It’s been quite some time since someone has marked up my writing with red pen or given me a homework assignment with a deadline that I was genuinely worried about meeting. I had almost forgotten that unpleasant feeling that settles in my stomach as an instructor starts writing rapidly and prolifically concerning something I have only a very vague understanding of.

But one of my goals for this summer is to dive headlong back into Arabic classes. Back when I was visiting my family in Syria each summer, I could read, write, and speak much more capably than I do now; however, as my knowledge falls into disuse, I feel my hard-earned conversational skills eroding. So, for the last 3 weeks, I’ve been driving into Boston to meet with a tutor 2 days a week for 2-hour Arabic classes.

I told her I wanted to move quickly. I told her not to go easy on me and to expect me to use my time in between classes ambitiously and effectively. And she really took that to heart. So, as I hurtle through the dusty archives of my Arabic language skills, I find myself once again seated in the place of one of my students, sitting in observant silence and wondering what in the world I have gotten myself into.

While I am excited about and grateful for the opportunity to brush up on my Arabic language skills, I am also finding an unexpected and deeply valuable treasure in revisiting the student experience. During the school year, I spend my days asking students to push themselves, develop trust in their own intellectual capacities, take risks, embrace failure, and ask questions fearlessly. With what is really only a little distance between myself and my time as a student, I am finding that I have already begun to forget the challenges and emotions surrounding these undertakings. Being a student is really really hard. And scary and overwhelming. When it goes well, it is also exhilarating and empowering. But there is no way around the need to operate outside our own comfort zones when sitting in the role of a student exploring some new skill, field, or idea. And if I’m going to ask my students to do this boldly, it is important that I be willing and able to do the same in my own life.

I can already feel the ways in which this experience will strengthen my ability to empathize and connect with my students as they grapple with some of the very challenges I am facing as a student this summer. My hope is that, as I intentionally observe my own responses and struggles in my own learning experience, I am able to more gently, insightfully, and effectively encourage my own students in their extremely complex and important roles.

I Believe 3 Things About Reading for Fun

Summer is here. My manic school year days are slowly decelerating into a warm, easy rhythm. Although my time still feels full with a myriad of small tasks required to get our somewhat derailed lives back on track, I am finally able to set aside the time to reach into my pile of “for fun” reading books. The stack has been accumulating since the end of last summer, which was the last time I could plausibly read for pleasure. But summer is back again in all its humid goodness, and I couldn’t be more ready to sink into the pages of a book that I chose simply because I thought it sounded good.

Over the years, I’ve gotten fairly good at reading for a variety of purposes OTHER than for fun. I am pretty good at reading to understand, to memorize, to meet a time crunch, to search for specific information, to check facts etc. I mean, I’m an English teacher now, so these tasks are kind of inherent in my daily life. I have even learned to enjoy reading for some of these end goals. But returning to my pleasure reading pile this summer has reminded me of 3 very important personal beliefs.

  1. There is no kind of reading like pleasure reading. I can sometimes forget the immersive sensation of losing touch with the world around me as my mind and emotions detach from reality and latch organically and enthusiastically to some novel or short story or poem that has captured my attention. It is a welcome and familiar thrill to find myself elaborately constructing my own, unique visions and interpretations of places, people, and situations in my mind, creating my own reading experience and building something that draws in both my own life story, imagination, and personality as well as the author’s carefully crafted composition. There is simply nothing quite like it.
  2. Teachers of reading and writing need to make time to read for pleasure. So does everyone, but especially teachers of reading and writing. If we want our students to be fascinated, intrigued, or consumed by the compositions they interact with, we need to model that. We need to have an intimate familiarity with the feeling of that magnetic connection to and investment in a story, idea, or image so we can explain it, recognize it, and work towards creating it in our students. I see in myself how easy it is to forget the joy and simple sense of play in reading just for the fun of it; as an educator, it is essential that I not forget.
  3. Teachers of reading and writing need to create time and opportunities to allow their students to read for pleasure. This is difficult; as with most things in life, you have to give something up to achieve this. In my classes last year, I sacrificed a few assignments I had planned in order to keep the pace at a place where students could enjoy what we were reading. I also did the extra leg work required to give students some choices in their reading, allowing them time and opportunity to recognize and choose what they gravitated towards. Student life hurtles by at a breakneck pace; even students who love to read won’t have time to read for fun unless their teachers give it to them. And if we don’t give it to them, how many kids will forget entirely what it feels like? Or never even get a chance to feel it? It’s our job to make the time for them.

I won’t make the claim that these are particularly complex or scholarly beliefs. Nevertheless, I find myself consistently forgetting them, sliding them into the back of my mind and letting them gather dust while I crash through my days in a frenzy of productivity.

Thankfully, there is quiet, warm summer to remind me of my dusty beliefs. Thankfully there are porch swings and glasses of lemonade and happy dogs all just waiting for me to pull up a good book and dive in. Thank goodness.