The Power of Passion

During my first year at GHS, I wore many hats. As an intern, I was asked to be a substitute teacher for social studies classes, a warm body for the occasional science and math lesson, and, every so often, the king of in–school suspension. Forced to become a nomad, I probably saw more of the school that year than some teachers see in their entire career.

Working in so many different parts of the building forces you to learn the rules of each domain pretty quickly. For instance, no coffee is allowed in the Science Wing classrooms–an important piece of knowledge for any serious coffee drinker. Then there was the gradual realization that allowing pancakes in class is never a good idea. Another tip: When an entire class insists that they need to be dismissed early for a top secret school assembly, they’re probably not telling the truth.

But most importantly, the constant shifting of subject and program helped me understand what inspires students and gets them excited about learning. During that first year, in the miles walked from Cooking to Chemistry, I saw how passion could spark curiosity and excitement in even the most reluctant students.

I’m thinking of one student in particular. This student wasn’t in any honors classes. He didn’t care whether Andrew Carnegie was a philanthropist or a robber baron. For him, writing was a chore, a race to be the first one to drop the pencil. Throughout my internship, I would often work with his American History class. I’d sit with students in small groups and help them complete worksheets, analyze sources, and revise their writing. Later, I got to try my hand at actually teaching the full class. In one wobbly fifteen minute lesson, I recall my hand shaking as I held up notes with information about William Tyler or Millard Fillmore or one of those other forgotten US presidents whose names always show up in trivia. Clearly, the lesson didn’t make much of an impact on me.

What I do remember, though, is the change I saw in this student when he told me about his passion for drums.

Although he had never taken formal lessons, he insisted his dream was to become a drummer. As someone who’s been playing drums ever since first hearing “Enter Sandman,” I offered to teach him to read music in the hope that he’d join the school band, a prospect he didn’t seem too excited about. We’d meet every couple of weeks after school to go over a few pages of music and talk about our favorite drummers. As his drumming improved, so did his behavior in class. When I’d work with him and his peers, there was a subtle shift in our interactions. He’d raise his hand and ask questions about the topic we were studying. His pencil began to move steadily across his paper during writing assignments. If I was talking, he’d nod his head intently, all the while chiding his classmates if they weren’t paying attention.  

The following year, I began student teaching. Now with a desk and a set schedule, I no longer had the time to work with my drum student in his history class. We’d occasionally catch up in the hallway or Student Center, but the lessons stopped. When my student teaching ended, I went back to school to study American History while I waited for a teaching position to open up. After that, we lost touch.

There’s no big ending–no concert at Carnegie Hall or acceptance speech at the Grammys where he thanks me–but that’s not really the point. My experiences that year taught me that a student’s interests are an important part of the student-teacher relationship–something to tap into, encourage, and discuss, even if that includes the occasional drum lesson.

I’m not saying that just because a student is interested in botany or nineteenth century shipwrecks everything they do in school should relate to those topics. They’ll run out of new ideas pretty quickly and they’d probably have a hard time relating the sinking of the U.S.S. Monitor to quadratics–although I’m sure Brian has a few ideas. But knowing about a student’s passions can radically transform their engagement in the classroom, whether their interests lie in sailing, art, writing, golf, volleyball, or even jigsaw puzzles (check out our students’ blogs to see them discuss these passions and more). And if there’s a way to incorporate those interests into a project, even better.

With this in mind, our Humanities students are beginning the final stage of their unit on Modernism. In preparation, students have created a lesson for the class about an important conflict of the 1920s and read primary sources from the era. They’re also finishing The Great Gatsby, a book I’ve read twice before but now see in an entirely new way thanks to hearing the class discuss the characters, symbols, and, my personal favorite, pathetic fallacy–which sounds sad, but actually relates to nature and inanimate objects. As a culminating activity, students are being asked to design their own project that encompasses our unit goals. We can’t wait to see how they incorporate their passions and interests into their projects.

Last week, to get students thinking about what they might want to pursue in their projects, they were asked to write a blog post about one of their passions or hobbies. As I was scrolling through their blogs, I came across Jari’s post about rediscovering his passion for drums thanks to the movie Whiplash and a subsequent conversation we had about the film. I was happy to see that even though my dreams of being Neil Peart have faded, my passion for drums is still part of my classroom. In between discussions about Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age, the music that inspired me all those years ago can still be heard.

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