Teaching Significance

Last year, I ate lunch at table No. 7 with a dozen seventh- and eighth-graders. My dining companions and the resultant conversational themes changed monthly, but one month, flanked by August and John and Ben and Adam, we talked mostly about sports. We talked about baseball, hockey, golf, and running; we touched on cycling and swimming and volleyball; we covered the peewee through the professional leagues, sharing stats and predictions and stories. I spent three somewhat taxing lunch periods making sure that the gentle prodding of Avery, who declared outright that she had “almost no interest in sports,” stayed friendly. So I was relieved one week when Adam, who had perhaps also begun to tire of this limited conversational thread, offered up a non sequitur math problem involving the diameter of the sun.

“What is the diameter of the sun?” Adam asked. Here was something new to ponder, something new to consider and discuss.

“Well,” reasoned August, “I know that a thousand Jupiters can fit into our sun.”

“Really?” I asked, truly stunned by this bit of information, as the guesses began to emerge.

By the next day, we knew. The sun’s diameter is 864,575 miles: an astonishing number, a number that, as John put it, “is tough to even get your head around.”

The natural world and the scientific and mathematical tools we use to explore, measure, and understand it should fill us with awe and wonder, should light all kinds of inspirational fires in us. And on a planet so desperately in need of scientific breakthroughs, engineering innovations, and newborn technologies, we should be thrilled by the excitement in and around the STEM disciplines. But if a bending toward STEM means a diminishment of, or (God forbid) an abandonment of the humanities — of philosophy, religion, literature, language, history, social studies, music, and the arts — then, I fear, we will have done the equivalent of exchanging the heat and warmth and deliriously life-giving power of our sun for a very static, and very precise, and ultimately profoundly meaningless measurement of a nearby dwarf star.

When my sons were tiny and grew impatient during diaper changes or long drives or unforeseen delays, my husband, Ric, and I almost instinctively distracted and entertained them by telling them stories. Ric’s stories, especially the ones involving the ongoing saga of two mischievous boys very similar in name and personality to our sons, stories that he invented and told during all of our marathon hikes — became nearly legendary in their creative reach. When I think now about the Tetons or the Badlands, or even the tiny asphalt loops inside our local Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center, I think of these stories, and the rapt attention and delight in the faces of our sons upon hearing them. I also remember the lessons Ric offered every time he told one of these stories; not just lessons about what it means to think and come up with cool ideas and weave those same ideas together into a narrative that means something, but lessons about creative collaboration (since all of us occasionally suggested plot twists) and — depending upon the adventures the stories involved — about things like pluck and perspective and risk-taking. “Music will be here when money is gone,” Duke Ellington said. Similarly, I believe, stories and storytelling — the fundamentally human act of one person offering a bit of truth, experience, or whimsy to another in speech or writing — will be here when data are gone.

My third year of teaching, before I knew enough to know what really mattered, I had a profound encounter with the father of one of my students. Griff’s dad came to see me because he was concerned about the low “C” Griff was earning in my class, 11th-grade American Literature. Nervous about meeting with this man, as soon as he sat down across from me in the little office I shared with a colleague, I pulled out my grade book in order to “prove” to him that Griff’s grade was fair, and that, by extension, my teaching was sound.

His chilly response: “I don’t care about your grade book, lady.”

While undiplomatic and certainly jarring, this father’s from-the-gut statement ended up being a kind of gift. He let me know in that moment that there are things far more important than metrics — more important than benchmarks, exit goals, best-fit lines, and test scores. That late afternoon, late fall encounter with Mr. Garth of South Miami, Florida, has been shaping my teaching, advising, grading, and conferencing for 25 years. We don’t have anything if we don’t have the stories.

I still feel fortunate every single day to spend my professional life working with kids and books. At the University of Michigan in the late 1980s, it was already becoming unpopular to major in the humanities. Business majors were king, as any fool could see after walking out of the dusty and dated interiors of Haven Hall (English) and into the brick and glass palace of the B School. Buckling under the weight of 18 credits during my sophomore year as I attempted to pursue a double major in English and Economics, my mother offered this wonderfully clarifying bit of advice in October of my sophomore year: “Why don’t you just major in English; don’t you love that?”

Indeed I loved that, and during my final two years at Michigan I took almost exclusively literature classes. The things I learned in my Great Books sequence, in Macklin Smith’s Introduction to Poetry, in Thomas Garbaty’s Medieval English Literature, in my crowded Shakespeare lectures alone, furnished me with everything I need to know in order to live well. I have weekly applied lessons learned while studying English and Irish writers “on location” in the British Isles — and not only because I make a living teaching English in independent schools.

Could I have discovered these things had I ended up pursuing a degree in economics or nursing or theoretical mathematics? Quite possibly. But when I read about universities dropping their distribution requirements or replacing their core curricula, I feel sad for my current students because even though they are brilliant and accomplished, even though they are heading to extremely fine colleges, and even though they will surely go on to live interesting lives, under my watch a sizable chunk of them are taking their last humanities class ever.

My older son, a high school senior, loves biology, and like all good parents, we are encouraging him to follow his passions and his gifts. But when he is offering me an elaborate and impassioned précis of his Urban Studies course on our way home each afternoon, or when I hear the soulful guitar solos he plays each evening, or when I witness an act of kindness toward his friends or younger brother on the weekends, I feel the ongoing impact of the humanities on his mind and heart.

In the relatively few years I was in charge of the budget as English department chair, I was struck by how little equipment it actually takes to teach English. We need books, we need things to write with and on, and we need comfortable spaces to meet. That’s about it. Of course, English teachers find ways to spend money, if not on gadgetry and technology, then perhaps on field trips or excursions. But the real “stuff” of our discipline resides in every human head and heart. At the close of our seven-week poetry unit last year, I asked my seventh-grade students to reflect in writing on what the unit had taught them. This bit of wisdom came from Nina:

Everyday life can be a blur of gray. What did I have for breakfast today? I can’t remember. What was science class over today? Shoot, I don’t know. This is how I saw things. Remembering was hard. Until this unit in English … this poetry unit made me open my eyes. I had to look for things that aren’t even visual. Yes, I had to look for ideas, thoughts, and emotions in a gray painting. I noticed things I had never noticed before. I noticed the marble slate-colored trees, intertwining with one another. And how colors are not just colors. Blue is not just blue. There’s aquamarine, sapphire, sky, and ocean…. This poetry unit has done the most amazing thing for me, which is open my eyes.

And this from 12th-grader Wendy, a student in my Four Poets Senior Honors Seminar:

These poems made us think about the terrible moments of our history as humans, and the troubling moments of our daily lives…. Although these poems made us think about our own mortality and wrestle with how fleeting life truly is, they helped us explore the more beautiful sides of life as well.

And from Elizabeth, another 12th-grader:

Second semester senior year presents no shortage of unique challenges, disappointments, and small victories, and [poet Wislawa] Szymborska honestly helped me to take a step back and confront what’s happening in my life — to look for the simple, naked truths.

According to Kafka, “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” And books can and do function in exactly this way. Just as all of my English and history colleagues have, I’ve witnessed dozens of moments through the years when the material encountered in class has moved one or more of us to tears. And while I’m sure that my students also tear up across campus in biology and chemistry and physics classes, I suspect this has more to do with the formaldehyde or punishing test results than the vicissitudes of the human heart.

“If anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books,” says Hermann Hesse.

Another shaping moment from early in my career occurred in January 1991 when a river guide from Outward Bound visited our tiny campus to help orient those of us preparing to venture with him for a week into the Everglades. I walked this young outdoorsman all around campus, excited to show him what felt to me like such an exuberant and joy-filled learning space. His brutally honest takeaway at the end of our tour was this one: “I’m always discouraged when I spend time in a school by how dead everything feels.”

That’s another phrase I’ve been chewing on for several decades. Why did this tiny tropical campus feel dead to this bright adventurer? What was he sensing about our students and their learning that I was already numb to? Was this censure connected in any way to almost every school’s insistence on divvying up learning in the first place? To insisting that each discipline stay in its own three-ring binder? To making STEM versus the humanities, hard science versus soft science, happening truth versus story truth, even philosophy versus welding into another kind of athletic competition? Perhaps I would say to this young man if I could find him today, we mitigate the deadness when we remember that human beings and not machines are the ones doing the teaching and learning. That each day is not simply a spreadsheet to fill or a to-do list to accomplish or a Google calendar to obey, but a poem. I would invite this young man to four other campuses where I have been enriched by 25 years’ worth of theater performances and coffeehouse readings and poetry writing sessions at botanical gardens and urban-studies students partnering with inner-city students and teachers playing Frisbee with students and adorably friendly chemistry teachers greeting students at the science building door and English teachers teaming with math teachers to take students on community service trips and to all spaces (bleachers, dining halls, bonfire circles, international trains, etc.) where students and teachers and staff members and administrators forget temporarily that learning has to fall into disciplines, into rigid categories, into either/or dichotomies that ultimately limit and stultify.

When asked, What is art? Picasso replied, “What is not?”

A teacher of older students, I used to like to spend time in the kindergarten and first-grade classrooms at my former school, not just because I knew it was wonderfully life-giving for me and my upper school advisees to spend time reading with the little ones, but because teachers of four-, five-, and six-year-olds have not forgotten Picasso’s truth. When a small child becomes fascinated by the caterpillar that spins the cocoon that becomes the butterfly, by the seed that becomes the sprout that becomes the flower, that is not only a science lesson, it’s a life lesson — it’s art. If we work with human beings, with human minds and hearts, we are all science teachers, we are all math teachers, we are all engineering teachers, and we are all music teachers because, in the end, if we’re doing any of this right, we’re artists.

Jill Donovan

Jill Donovan teaches English at John Burroughs School (Missouri).