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Just Getting StARTed

Having moved several times in my early adulthood, I felt like I was starting my career as an educator over and over and over. Each time I had to learn the community, the school, the subject, and the grade level. When I landed my first teaching job in Connecticut (not my first teaching job ever, just my first one in Connecticut), I taught 8th Grade 20th Century American History. This was back in the 1990s.

Now you may remember 8th grade, or chose to forget it, or know some 8th graders who may or may not be related to you. Whether or not they are talented or prodigious, or academically curious and engaged, in 8th grade something happens. It’s comical when you are not engaged directly in that 8th grade thing, or when watching a cartoon or movie about that most awkward of awkward years.

Often, teaching adolescents (grades 6-12) is like herding cats. And teaching History, especially to 8th graders, is seemingly thankless. I was so passionate about them getting something—anything—from our history, that I spent inordinate amounts of time trying to be entertaining. Meanwhile, among the normal characters that seem to be in every teen class, there’s always THE DISRUPTOR. Well, 8th graders are notoriously chatty and disruptive, but this guy was the one that everyone was sick of disrupting. He was diagnosed with ADHD and Tourette’s Syndrome, two afflictions that were only then becoming familiar names and newly accommodated.

It was challenging to manage this boy, and he certainly had trouble managing himself. To add insult to injury, he was maturing physically earlier than the others. He was always late (and disruptive upon entering the room), never had his homework, and was quite vocal in ways that made other kids wince and roll their eyes. I quickly learned that he was often late and incomplete with work due (in part) to swim metes. As frustrating as it was for me, I secretly applauded his mom for enrolling him in swimming (and let her know, so actually it wasn’t a secret). He needed that release.

Toward the end of the term, when term papers were due, this boy had nothing for me. But I wouldn’t let him fail. In fact, I wanted him to be in the Honors History class in high school, because he was among the smartest in the class, and was the most curious. It would be a waste to have him unengaged. But he had to do the work.

Now, I was still a newbie at this school, so I had no clout and was rather disempowered as a teacher. Everything was supposed to be by the book. I talked with this boy a lot, and told him that he had to produce something equivalent to a term paper. He had to do a research project and include a written piece and document his information. He agreed, and was inspired, and I worked with him to break down the project into smaller parts that he could complete.

Then one day he brought in a diorama of the D-Day Normandy Invasion. It took up a quarter of the classroom. It was phenomenal. He had researched every detail—not only of the history, but of Omaha Beach to get the colors right and how to show the troops in formation (and exploding). It was incredible. His artistic gifts had not been challenged until then. He was completely immersed in the history and the artistic rendering of the history. This was my favorite moment as a teacher. He needed the opportunity to explore, and then he was brilliant.

I hope he continued to use those gifts and talents throughout his education, and if he does something else now professionally, that he can continue to engage in his art and learning.

The power of integrating the arts in education can be more than just interesting. It can transform teaching and learning.

Louise Potash

7 March, 2019

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