Disrupting April

These long, cold, slow April’s in schools can kind of drag on like a bad Nicolas Cage movie. It’s a bit like I’m watching some strange fantasy fiction where John Travolta and my guy Nicky C are surgically swapping faces. It’s just kind of a grind and even hurts a little.

I’m probably over-dramatizing the grind of April because nothing is quite as bad as one of those mid-90s Nicolas Cage films. For some reason I keep watching Con-Air, The Rock, and Faceoff, without stopping to question why I am watching a movie about some plane full of hardened criminals that is about the crash land in the Vegas stripIt’s just that the month of April is the kind of thing that slowly lulls you into the day in, day out nature of adulthood. And as teachers, if we’re not careful, we start to subject kids to that humdrum of monotony that they weren’t supposed to notice until they were in their mid-20s. It’s this time of year that I start to realize that all of my activities and strategies sort of look the same, and all of that creativity that flowed at the beginning of the year has somehow been distilled to some form of essay or discussion. Don’t get me wrong, I love those things. But even my favorite classroom activities turn in to a mutated version of an advanced worksheet when I do them too much. Somehow I’ve managed to get lost in grey of April, and I forget about the art of disruption.

My co-blogger Adam always says that great teachers are really just about making moments. Those kind of moments form memories by disrupting the normal blur of the school day, and those memories connect to some kind of learning for the students in our classrooms. Unfortunately, we often forget the great gift of memorable moments. We tend to let each day pass without noticing, and we fall victims to the seduction of forgetting. It seems kind of nice not to think, but before we have taken notice we are bored and miserable.

I thought about disruption and “making moments” a couple times this week. The first time came when I was listening to a podcast and two guys were talking about how adults change and grow. They said that as we become adults, we look for institutions and predictability. That’s why we cling to security in our jobs and our religions. It’s why teachers cling to the kahoots and the graphic organizers that feel like they always work to at least keep kids in their seats for 42 minutes. We love things that feel manageable and give us an illusion of control. We look for friendships that affirm what we already think about the world just so we don’t have to be jolted awake from our sleep. The two guys on the podcast said that was counterintuitive because the growth that actually makes us better people only comes through disruption and change. The word “growth” pulls at the heart and intellect of any good educator. It motivates what we do each day. It got me thinking about my classroom and how often I miss the chance to throw small disruptions, and maybe even large ones, into our routine.

Then, I taught this classic graduation speech by David Foster Wallace in one of my 11th grade English classes. The speech covers a lot, but talks mainly about the importance of overcoming our natural urge to think the world is mostly about us. In it he says,”If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.” You should probably stop what you are doing right now and listen to DFW’s speech. It’s the kind of thing that I have learned to lean on like water, which is kind of ironic because the speech is titled “This is Water.” It always reminds me of my tendency to fall into a “default setting,” which inevitably leads me to a misery that believes that everyone else is just kind of annoying and in my way. I might be a terrible person, but I’m sure that other people are tempted to think this way as well. My students tell me all the time that class, or school, or work, or people, or whatever are just “in the way.” I tell them adults feel this way too. The only difference is that somewhere along the way we learned that it doesn’t help us to tell people they are “in the way,” because that only makes them more in the way.

So we fake it. We like the comfort of being robots, sleepwalking through life using little more than our muscle memory.

The best teachers and educators recognize this tendency that we all have to slide through our days without any meta-cognition, and they become masters of disruption. They have the ability to build fences, around huge spaces where kids can feel secure and creative, and then within that space, they disrupt, ignite and engage. If you have ever watched someone disrupt the norm or the “default setting,” or if you have ever been able to do that yourself, you will likely never forget it. As Donovan Livingston said in the viral Harvard commencement poem, “a crater is a reminder that something amazing happened here.” One of the most important roles of a teacher is to learn how to allow for craters in our classrooms. We have to plan for them and facilitate surprises that leave our students with a memory of something amazing that happened there. Meteors or explosions can be scary, so we have to help our student process these experiences. We want people to remember our classes and the experiences that shaped them in that 180 day span. The only way to do that is to push back on that “default setting” and challenge what people come to expect.

Creating those moments isn’t easy, especially when the slow grind of April starts to pull at our motivation and energy. However, craters aren’t always made in the way that we might think. We don’t always need to make some kind of explosion or drop a meteorite in our rooms. Instead, the best kind of disruption often comes in our relational experiences. It’s when we challenge students to think differently about something that they hold tightly, it’s when we facilitate new experiences that push us past our comfort zones, and it most often happens in the long conversation after class or during lunch. It happens when we show our excitement for what we are teaching and what our students are thinking.

There is that pesky “default setting” that begs us to think that this whole world is just in our way. When we get stuck in that for too long, misery and annoyance become our common reactions. We start to live a life that we will forget the next week or the next day because we are barely thinking. One of the big problems in the world is that so many of us our thinking that way. We are doing our students a huge disservice when we start to be "sure" that we know what "reality is." It keeps them from disruption and surprise, and limits our own experiences as well. 

So my goal is to fight against the hum of April. I don’t want my students to feel like they are watching Nicolas Cage and John Travolta surgically trading their faces. Instead, I want them to experience the magic of these moments that make up our days. I want them to remember some classes and some days because they are pushed forward, and not lose these these days that can easily pass without noticing them.