The summer before my first teaching job, I eagerly ordered all the novels on the book list so I could read them before the year started. It was a smart move—first-year teaching is hard enough without the added nightmare of navigating unknown texts, even at the eighth-grade level. Most teachers would agree that reading ahead of time is wise and virtually non-negotiable.
It was by mistake, then, that I recently discovered the benefits of teaching an unfamiliar work. The class—an online English class for two high school seniors—started out without surprises. I had a lot of freedom with the curriculum, and I at first gravitated toward familiar pieces. My first choice was Hamlet, an old favorite, which I have read easily five times. It was a success, and they surprised me with their ability to navigate Shakespeare.
Later in the year, however, I was inspired to include Beowulf, since I thought it would fit well with the students’ interests. The catch was, though I had read it before, I remembered virtually none of it. I knew Beowulf faced Grendel, and his mother, and maybe a dragon?
I intended to do at least a bit of studying—maybe read the first few sections ahead of time, maybe look some things up before we started. Due to a hectic schedule of tutoring and curriculum development, I did not get to that studying. Instead, I jumped in on day one of the unit with a humble mindset built of last-minute necessity. Students, I’m here to learn Beowulf with you.
Eight years of teaching English, often with multiple daily preps, teaches one the art of improvising gracefully. It is still hard to improvise on what is not known. To my surprise, the unit was one of our best.
We developed an attitude of teamwork toward learning that would not have been possible if I had been more authoritative on the text. It was precisely because I was discovering alongside my students that they felt freer to take the initiative to guide their own learning. They made stunning observations and contributed fascinating ideas to our conversation. Their confidence was bolstered by my lack of confidence. This sort of role reversal is not always appropriate: It worked particularly well in this circumstance because the students were dedicated seniors, and it was fitting that they learned to lead their own education.
Because I felt less pressure to fit in any pre-planned material, our lessons could delve into close reading and analysis of the text, wherever that might take us. Sometimes hitting certain points is absolutely key in teaching; I would never teach To Kill a Mockingbird without discussing integrity, for example. Yet, I have ended many class periods thinking that my pre-planned conversation was just a little too stilted. There is nothing stilted about an unplanned discussion of an unfamiliar work. This led to fruitful discussions that I never could have planned, even at my best.
Flying to the Moon
There are some works that never get old, and I could effuse about no matter how many times I have read them (the tension between home and courage in The Hobbit, for instance). Sometimes human works do dry up a bit after the fourth, fifth, or sixth read, though. I remember dragging myself through chapters of Robin Hood and having artificially to ramp up my energy for the text before class discussion. This was doable, but it was nothing like sitting with my students and wondering together about the meaning of sky-candle, or unwinding together the complex histories of feuding families, or debating whether Beowulf ought to have sought out the dragon. Professors in college used to say they envied us the chance to read a text for the first time. My experience with Beowulf helped me understand what they meant.
Though the text itself was perhaps not my area of expertise, English is, and I could still guide discussion effectively. I could challenge my students if they made faulty assumptions and press them to draw their information from the text. I could draw out for them why it matters that we were discussing Beowulf’s courage, and I could help them wonder what Beowulf’s honor might look like today. I could teach them to look for the good and true things in the story, to love those things, and to admire the beautiful craft of the ancient poet. While preparation is part of a teacher’s job, it is more important to love the right things and to think clearly, than to know all the right data.
I do not recommend putting in less preparation time than is needed. Flying by the seat of one’s pants only gets one to the moon occasionally and by accident. Nonetheless, there is something to be learned from remembering to learn alongside our students. No matter our level of preparation, approaching discussions with an attitude of mutual discovery will help our students teach themselves to learn.