(Mine)Crafting an Engaging Lesson

After a lengthy year and a half of working at Mugar Memorial Library, opportunity surprised me by offering me a job with the Intergenerational Literacy Program. I decided to take a turn away from comfort and take the new job. ILP is centered in Chelsea, an area outside of Boston predominantly populated by Hispanic immigrants. Many residents of Chelsea speak very little to no English. ILP is a federally funded program which strives to help adults learn English and provide extra support for their children to succeed in school.

Ten minutes after walking into the classroom on my first day, I was presented with a challenge that would result in an incredibly rewarding experience. This challenge took the form of eight inner city boys from ages nine to thirteen. During the first weeks, they tested me with practical jokes like I was a substitute teacher in a ridiculous movie. They constantly whispered secrets to each other in sketchy tones that I could not hear, and they constantly swapped inside jokes that I never understood. Quickly enough, I caught on to their ways. I realized that I would never reach them if I did not adhere to their interests and ways of communication. Instead of being paranoid, wondering what they whispered about me, repeatedly begging them to stop their inappropriate behavior, or reminding them that they needed to stay focused on their work, I took a step back and realized – HOLD UP, THIS IS NOT WORKING.

My next thought – UGH, WHAT NOW? I needed to change my approach and I wasn’t quite sure how. In a similar fashion that I struggled to manage these wild adolescent boys, a boy at my table struggled to achieve academic success. He was eleven years old, yet he was in third grade – for the third time. He hated to read and he could barely write a page of text. He did not like to play with the other boys because they called him stupid for going to school with their little siblings. What he needed most was individualized attention and instruction. When instructed to work on compositions, he would stare at a blank paper with fuming frustration apparent on his face.

During one day’s composition period, I took him to an empty table in the hallway to practice his writing skills. I worked with him once a week away from distractions and judging eyes. I discovered that he knew more about Mine Craft than any video-game-crazed child alive. When he revealed his genius, I immediately used it to his advantage. I prompted him to describe the game in a coherent manner and it became the topic of his next months’ writing. As weeks progressed, he began to look forward to writing. He radiated confidence when he realized he was the one teaching me. The process was a challenge for both of us, but while he learned to write, I realized the value of knowing my students.

Artwork by Andrew J. Barlow

Artwork by Andrew J. Barlow

This boy was angry because nobody cared about what he did know. I cared about something as simple as Mine Craft because it was important to him. When he taught me his area of expertise, he felt important. He respected me for valuing his genius and therefore, he was motivated to show me his progress in writing. I don’t understand why any child can be so far behind that s/he repeats any grade for a third time. Why had none of his teachers gotten to know his genius?

Kids deserve teachers who care about EVERY student, so teachers, please, know your students and discover untapped genius. When I took the time to care about my student’s genius, I realized that valuing his genius not only answered his dilemma, but it also answered mine. This personal story resonates with me in the field of education, but I know it can transfer to daily walks of life as well. When you find yourself having to work with other people or having to tackle a seemingly impossible obstacle, you might want to consider taking the dreaded step back in order to realize – IT’S NOT WORKING OUT —> WHAT NOW?

Try to see what you were missing before. Get to know the ins and outs of the people you work with. Get to know the details of your obstacle. What makes it tick? What sparks interest? How can you rearrange or reword a question or challenge to engage more people? How can you open your mind to value other people’s opinions? How can you do your best to discover the world’s untapped genius?

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