This post was written by NCTE member Oona Marie Abrams.
Even as a mercurial adolescent, it was hard for me to disguise my effusion for Mr. Metzger’s sophomore English class at New Trier High School. He responded to our writing with rhapsodic missives—typed, printed, and stapled to each assignment. One day in the late winter of 1990, suspecting my fondness for English class, my mother clipped out a writing contest ad from our local paper and asked me to share it with Mr. Metzger. Because I was 15 and didn’t want to appear ingratiating, I did this on the down-low, exiting his classroom and passing the clipping and attached post-it from my mom with a quick smile. I didn’t think much would come of it, but I was mistaken. By the time I arrived in class the following day, Mr. Metzger had copied the contest information and assigned us all to write our own stories, on which we worked industriously for the next week.
To be frank, the writing contest didn’t align with our class curriculum at all. We were reading A Tale of Two Cities. (Well, I was suffering through it, and it seemed to me that Mr. Metzger was showing a lot of the movie.) Flash fiction based on classified ads was not something Charles Dickens would condone. But Mr. Metzger was happy to table his unit plan. Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette be damned!
This is pure conjecture, I admit, but maybe after years of teaching the required curriculum, Mr. Metzger got the itch to to enliven a dull chapter of his teaching life (and a really dull chapter of my reading life). I don’t think it matters that I won a hometown newspaper’s writing contest in 1990, but it does matter that I wrote and revised something I was proud of at the time, with the help of both my peers and my teacher.
Though Mr. Metzger passed away six years ago, I think of him as my first mentor. Whenever I bristle a bit at having to table a lesson plan or abandon a favorite (aka: recycled) unit, I consider how he pivoted for the sake of his students.
Pivoting, it seems, is what is being asked of every teacher in America right now, as we head back to school in whatever form that may look like. Last spring, I should have been handing out brand new historical fiction book club texts to my jaded second semester seniors. I should have been teaching Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to my juniors. But all of those books were locked in a closet. I cou;dn’t teleport copies of novels into my students’ homes, and I wouldn’t mandate that they read novels on devices when their school days were spent exclusively on screens.
In his recent blog post for NCTE entitled “Mourning the Loss of Face to Face Teaching,” Jeremy Hyler captures the quandaries faced by literacy educators during crisis schooling. Under quarantine, educators are “mourning the loss of teaching their students, having a normal routine, and being able to have impactful relationships.” Most days in school, I adjust instruction by watching my students: the furrowed brows, the rolled eyes, the hair flips, the sighs, the exasperated pecking of chromebook keys, the fatigued stares at the same page of a book. These problems can’t be addressed in a timely fashion in remote school. “For most teachers, the way we deliver instruction and how we think about delivering instruction has been changed in a whirlwind,” Hyler observes.
In the whirlwind of crisis schooling last spring, I collaborated with my department to teach writing units from The New York Times Learning Network. Even though it came at the cost of tabling what I should have been teaching, it wasn’t the first time something more current and less practiced has come along to replace the existing curriculum. Since I am a word nerd, I looked up both “current” and “curriculum,” and as it turns out, both originate from the same Latin verb, currere: “to run or flow.” At heart, curriculum is about being current. It’s about going with the flow, which is what Mr. Metzger unknowingly taught me to value most three decades ago.
Oona Marie Abrams (@oonziela) lives in northern New Jersey, where she is currently staying home with her family, responsibly socially distancing, and teaching high school remotely. She looks forward to returning back to school as soon as it is safe to do so.
Read her Nerdy Book Club post, “Picture Books in Grief and Crisis: A COVID-19 Reflection.”
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