This powerful guest post by English teacher Brian Denesha challenges us to deepen our students’ experience of learning by infusing lessons with emotion and storytelling. In making this leap, we can take students’ experience of stories to the next level and create a more memorable and formative learning environment for them — something that will stay with them for years. Please read on to see how Brian incorporated this idea into his teaching!
Too often, I feel that we as teachers take for granted the opportunities that we are presented on a daily basis to truly affect the lives of our students. Just the other day, upon completing a text that is near and dear to my heart, I let my true emotions spill out in front of my class of seniors. While we have built a great relationship, and are unfortunately coming to the end of our one semester together, I don’t think I would have been able to say that I had impacted all of them in a way that could stick with them and make an indelible mark on their lives…that is until the moment I thought of my own father’s mortality.
The text, “Big Fish” by Daniel Wallace, ends with the main character dying and his son finally understanding that the stories and memories of those we love are the gifts that are left behind long after their physical presence has left us for the Elysian Fields that mythology promises for the truly great…our parents.
My own father is dealing with his fourth bout of cancer, the same evil that steals Edward Bloom’s life in “Big Fish”, and I took the opportunity to share what I have learned from reading the text multiple times over the past few years.
My own father is a storyteller, a jokester, and man of words and wisdom, so the connection to Edward Bloom is a beautiful and cruel one for me each time I read the book. As we finished the last chapter, when Edward’s son William finally realizes the “truth” that he has been wanting from his father for so many years has always been within his reach and memories, just as our truths are within our own stories; some that are still waiting to be told. The stories that we share, the jokes we tell, the moments we spend with those we love are the snapshots that will linger for years and years.
It was this realization, plus the realization that my own father is in truth mortal and will leave me someday, that brought out of me my true self.
How many times have we as teachers wondered what our students will remember from our lessons tomorrow, next week, next year, or even further down the road of their lives? Will they stop and think about the grammar rules we struggled through, or how we tried to find the writer’s voice that was hiding in them all this time? I know I do.
What I know now is that my seniors will remember the class period we shared; the class period where I cried for my own father, the still living Edward Bloom. Literature is emotion. It is the emotion that the author brings to the text as well as what we bring to the text as readers. We are the collection of stories we read, hear, and sometimes tell.
I heard my dad’s voice telling me the story of the two young Indian Warriors challenging the wisdom of the Medicine Man, just as William heard his father’s stories over and over throughout his life. I shared my emotions with my students. I let them see me cry. I let them feel what I was feeling. I helped them understand what Wallace was trying to teach us all: cherish every word, every story, every joke (even the bad ones) that our loved ones share with us throughout their lives. I encouraged them to listen to the stories of those they love, as those will be the memories that will live on long after the tellers are gone. I implored them to celebrate the lives of their friends and family everyday. I reminded them that the lives we lead and the stories we tell are what live on forever.
I can only hope that this one period in time affected them as much as it affected me. I truly felt that I TAUGHT them something that transcends the four walls of our classroom…a life lesson that I hope they remember and use for the rest of their lives. In this way, I hope to live on beyond this moment.
We are teachers. We are the ones that form the future. We are the storytellers and the main characters in the stories of our students. How humbling and beautiful to think that we will be the main characters in at least one chapter in the story of each one of our students. The question I have to ask is, “What kind of story am I writing each time I step in front of my class?”
No matter what the story is, I can only hope that it is a story that will be told over and over again; even many years after I join my father in the fields of paradise. In this way, I will live on just as all of us can. That is the power of story, the power of teaching, the power of loving what we do.
We are teachers…we are immortal!