First days in my English classroom: student disorientation

In response to my last blog in which I described my first English lesson with a new group of Year 10 students, Jim Burke recalled that

the psalms charted a cycle in which we moved from Orientation to Disorientation (as a result of events, actions, or teachers like you jamming their switchboards as you did tonight) and New Orientation, which after awhile becomes their Orientation (the world as they know and expect it to be).

Jim’s response got me thinking about this stage of Disorientation, a dizzying which has continued beyond our first lesson.

There are many reasons why they’re feeling disoriented. New teacher, new year, new routines, as well as a topic (satire) which is proving elusive and more complex than they’d assumed.

But it’s not so much why they’re feeling disoriented that I wanted to think about in this post. It’s more how this disorientation has manifested itself over the last couple of days. What’s it been like in our classroom? How have the boys coped with feeling dizzied?

Some have reveled in it. They’ve posted cartoons and started discussions on our Ning. They’ve enjoyed wrestling the fact that a question tends to lead not to an answer but to other questions. Josh, who has won English prizes in the past and who, within minutes of it being raised, wanted to answer the question What is satire? with what he thought at the time was an adequate definition, subsequently wrote (with some relish): “My original idea about what satire is could be expanded!” Another wrote:

At first the idea of satire was really vague. After the first lesson of English I was in some ways more confused, [partly] by the topic [itself] but more because of its broadness. After yet another class the idea of satire is becoming more clear and the questions … known. So what I’ve gathered so far is that this is a really broad topic for what I thought early on was going to be fairly short and straightforward, just some laughs.

The confident boys are experiencing the disorientation as a pleasurable challenge.

But others are making some tentative complaints. Some have asked why I have produced a wiki which gives details about texts, questions, assessments, resources and dates, but nowhere explains what satire actually is. Others sit in their groups looking glum and waiting for someone to give the right answer. One boy tried to extract ‘the correct answer’ from me as follows:

“Dr Shann, is this satire?” he asked, showing me a cartoon. “What do you think?”

His body language was saying ‘I know there’s a correct answer, and I know that you know it, and I really want it, I’m a keen student and I want to do well in English, and I’m trying hard but it’s very frustrating that you won’t just tell me”.

“Well, what do you think?” I said.

“I don’t know. I’m not sure what satire is. I need your help.”

“But you think this might be satire? I wonder what it is about this cartoon that made you think that maybe this is an example of satire?”

“I don’t know. I just thought it might be. But what do you think? Do you think it’s satire?”

Others have rushed to the dictionary where half-understood terms like ‘irony’ and ‘parody’ and ‘juxtaposition’ are carefully noted and neatly jotted down. But there are no lights in these eyes yet. For some, the definitions haven’t contributed to a deeper understanding of what we’re exploring.

And there are some students who shrug their shoulders and roll their eyes as if to say, “This new teacher is really weird.”

These are good kids, and the manifestations of disorientation are polite and suppressed. But I can sense their frustration, impatience and even some resentment.

As a young teacher these emotions used to bother me. They’re still uncomfortable, but now I welcome them. They suggests that something is happening. And, as Jim was suggesting, we can’t get to some new learning or deeper understanding without first feeling disoriented.

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One Response to First days in my English classroom: student disorientation

  1. Angela says:

    Your last paragraph is really resonating with me. As a young teacher, those emotions used to bother me quite a bit too. I used to wonder if I was doing something “wrong” when kids were a bit frustrated or uncomfortable. And until I gained more experience as a pd provider, I used to feel the same about my work with teachers. Such an interesting nugget to chew on, the whole notion of discomfort and how it isn’t something to be avoided or classified as bad…thanks for this.

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