Today I was Brave

Returning to high school teaching after a season as a stay-home-dad, David Sretenovic bit the bullet and jumped in the deep end. Hear the account of his first day, where he spontaneously performed a poem, with heart-hitting effect on his teenage audience.

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Today, I was brave. For the twenty-five minute trip to work, where I was returning to high school teaching for the first time in over two years, my creative impulse was running amok. I found myself internally preparing a spoken-word poem (rap). As an English teacher, I have this nerve-inducing inertia to red-line and stretch myself: why just read a poem if you can perform it? Rather than simply defining the elements of effective communication, deliver a speech to model them (impromptu if necessary). Fear and adrenaline flood my veins every time I find myself thinking, “Just do it, Dave.” This occasion was no exception: I’d never composed a rap in my mind, on the go, and performed it immediately without putting it to paper or practicing it.

It was a day of relief teaching (an early morning “call-up” to cover for a sick teacher), so my students were bound to be strangers to me, neither did I have any idea which subjects I would be covering. But having a poem which reflected my own personality and modelled the kind of personal expression I see at the heart of education, I felt inspired and ready to be genuine, effective and creative in whatever classroom I landed. But God lined up my ducks today: six lessons of English plus a Drama lesson – very much in my element.

Logistically speaking, the day started poorly and proceeded downhill! I found myself struggling to find resources, and the technology clearly hadn’t had its coffee. With this drain on my conscious energies, every attempt to recall the poem drew blanks. In complete scorn of these obstacles, the kamikaze in me took over and before I knew it I had added to my opening remarks, “…so I prepared a poem on the way to school, which I’d like to share with you.” Man, in moments like those, the nerves kick in – but boy do you feel alive.

Sure, this whole idea was a little unorthodox, but I saw it as a fitting way to introduce myself and my philosophy of teaching (English in particular). For the probing pedagogues pondering this pitch, the pedagogical rationale behind it is to begin soaking the students into a transformational experience; I am priming them for nothing less as they approach their own composition. So, prefacing my performance, I gave a few thoughts: English is not so much about grammar and spelling, it’s about the most important thing in the world: YOU! You have an amazing, truly unique story and perspective on life, and it’s our privilege to hear it! English is about bringing out that story and your personality, as well as enabling you to be inspired by others as hearts and minds connect.

I shared the poem in an act of raw, lived-out modelling of what I see them doing in my lessons, that is, being honest, open-hearted, and ready to explore the world of ideas with the others in the room. That is my idea of an atomic classroom: hearts and creative personalities facing challenges with passion. In sharing the poem, I endeavoured to be the first in the room to step into the chasm of self-challenge. The students got it. And followed (at least this time they did!).

It was amazing to see what some what some students composed throughout the lesson. Some very unguarded, heartfelt narratives emerged. It was exactly the pleasure I have always aspired to in the classroom: helping students smile in a moment of communicative vulnerability, and nurturing a community of peers who recognise the bravery of expression and validate individuals regardless of standards of achievement.

It’s only a short poem, but I think it had enough kick to communicate something real to the students who heard it. Here’s a link to the poem, if you want to hear it :-).