Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Best Students are Teachers

I am extraordinarily lucky to have had the opportunity to pursue two careers--writing and teaching. Although I'm no longer a teacher (I used to teach English to high school students), there's a part of me that still sees the world through an educator's eyes. I'll visit a museum and think of my former students who would like to see the exhibit, or I'll read something and think to myself, "that would make a great lesson!" I've harassed Laura, my fellow teacher and dear friend, more than a few times with ideas for her to turn something into a lesson because I'm no longer in the classroom.

This is probably why I'm an active mod over at the YA Writers group on Reddit, why I make blog posts about books that are sometimes in an academic or instructional variety, and why my favorite style of presentation to give is a Q&A. It's also probably why I identified so strongly with Hermione Granger.

I'm always afraid of pushing the Hermione-ness of myself too much, and I try not to be a know-it-all, but if you're my friend, there's a 99% chance I've tried to one-up you in a conversation, or slip in a random historical fact, or inserted a weird bit of trivia. It should be noted that the husband won't play Trivial Pursuit with me, and that's probably why we've got such a happy marriage.

But seeing the world with an eye for education has definitely helped me to understand the world better, and to seek out the why of things.

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Teaching something forces you to know more about the subject than a student does. This was the first thing I learned as a teacher, the most important lesson, and the one that has stayed with me. I thought I was so smart as a college student. I had a decent GPA, I was young, I was brilliant, I was going to change the world! But knowing the answers to the test don't always mean you understand why an answer exists.

My first few weeks of teaching taught me more about education than five years of college and two degrees and three certificates did. I did far more homework as a teacher than as a student. I prepared a million times more. For every page my students read, I read ten. When I taught a novel, I read not only the novel, but all the criticism, all the analyses, all the background.

In order to condense my lesson into a short, 90 minute lecture, I compiled enough information to fill a book.

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Every year, at least one kid would ask: "Why do we have to learn English anyway? How is that going to help us in the real world?" And every year, I struggled to find an answer. Math and science are easy to see the relevance of. Vocational studies had real-world implications. Even PE could have a lasting effect on the body, if not the mind. But English...it was all just stories and grammar, right? And while lessons on the parts of speech and how to compose a resume are helpful, the literature--the core of every English class--has no real world implications, do they? Your ability to read Shakespeare will likely no effect your chances of securing a job; your understanding of symbolism in modern literature won't get you a pay raise.

Except English classes and literature aren't about what you learn. I don't really care if you know that Moby Dick is a whale or not. English classes and literature are about how you learn, and what matters is that you understand the futility of Captain Ahab's quest.

I never really had a good answer for "why do we have to learn English" when I was a teacher. I tried--the quickest way to distract me from a lesson and invoke a thirty-minute rant from me was to ask that question during class. But it's only now, as a writer, as someone who's making literature, that I realize the importance of it. Just as, as a teacher, I had to truly understand a subject before I could teach it, as a writer, I have to understand the importance of literature before I can write it. And just as my point as a teacher was always to help guide my students into understanding rather than rote memorization, my goal as a writer is to show the world and the character and the story and leave the meaning to grow in the reader's mind.

Writing books isn't just about telling a story. It's about creating a story not of ink and paper, but of thoughts and ideas. If I've done my job--and I try very hard to do this with everything I write--then the story exists beyond the book. It changes the way you see not just the characters, but yourself.

That's why we learn English lit.
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