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THE SWINGING PENDULUM OF TEACHING

By: Kelly Jemal Massry

“The class was called ‘Creative Writing,’ but it wasn’t…creative enough,” said one student when I asked her to reflect upon the course I’d taught that semester.

Far from being offended, I nodded in recognition – because I realized she was right. My students had wanted to be thinking, doing, scheming and plotting all at the same time. They’d wanted to be taken by surprise, keenly challenged and utterly excited by the material in front of them. In my class, they hoped to be plunged into imaginary worlds, far-fetched schemes and ingenious storylines. Of course they would write, but as for the creativity - they’d expectedthat to come from me.

            As a first-year high school Creative Writing teacher during the 2014-2015 academic year, I was out of my element, having never before taught in a classroom or been a mentor to high school students. The experience was entirely new, and, because it was an elective, I had complete freedom with the curriculum. There was an implicit trust I was shown at the outset, doubtless because of my Master’s Degree in Creative Writing and the reputation I’d built as a writer through the years.

Sadly, though, I’d never been taught how to teach creative writing. I was never even given a thorough examination of my genre of study, creative nonfiction. As a writer, I just drew from my fountain of life experience. My stories poured onto the page as vivid and well-scripted as if I’d undergone them yesterday. I remembered dialogues verbatim, scenes unfolded before me fresh and uninterrupted, and I interspersed just the right amount of introspection into my narratives. Then, I handed out my pieces to be workshopped in undergraduate and graduate classes. I incorporated what I agreed with, disregarded what I didn’t, and became a critic – of my own work and that of my fellow students. More than how to police my own writing, I learned how to take in the stories of others with a compassionate editorial eye. Soon, I began to write like a reader, feeling as if my audience was always peeking over my shoulder. I had to remember that I was writing for others – that my readers would be the ones to take my words out with them into the world. What questions would they ask? What would their expectations be? How could I meet them unequivocally?

            As teachers, we ask ourselves similar questions. Presented with a crop of fresh-faced students each year, students who are eager to please but hesitant to perform, we have to ascertain what we expect from ourselves and what they expect from us. We have to address those needs on a dual front – staying true to what we envision, but ready to adapt when things don’t go as planned. And perhaps that was the flaw in my first year of teaching. I was so focused on staying true to the fundamentals of creative writing – write, workshop, critique, revise – that I couldn’t conform to the more progressive model the students anticipated. They enjoyed the writing – so many of them were natural talents and were just grateful to be given an outlet – but there was an element of adventure and delight that was lacking in what they submitted.

            Now approaching my second year of teaching, a little more experienced but still relentlessly seeking improvement, I ponder how I can strike just the right balance between seriousness and spontaneity, between duty and detour. As teachers, how adaptable do we really have to be? How much should we allow the students to dictate how material is taught? How much room ought we make for their passion, for their voice, and for their preferences? Most importantly, how do we charge into the academic year eager and excited for what is in store? How do we spruce up lesson plans so that they’re new again, lending a hint of the unknown to the day’s activities? How do we roll with the way they unfold, appearing malleable and professional all at once? How do we remain masters of course content, while still being attuned to the students? How do we ping-pong within this pendulum, while still exhibiting a cool and collected persona in the front of the classroom? How – seriously, how? – is it to be done?

            These are the questions I contemplate as I write this article over the summer. These are the questions I will bring to bear as I meet my new students in September. These are the questions I will challenge myself with throughout the year. These are the questions that will, ultimately, make me a better teacher.