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Tools of the Trade: Word Up!

By Bob Zakrzewski

Quick quiz: What unites and excludes, is personal and public, judges and is judged, and constantly changes into something new despite relentless efforts to keep it the same?

Answer: Language.

A love of literature led me into the high school English classroom, but, as is usually true with any long-term relationship, I’ve uncovered many layers to my feelings for my profession since walking into my first class, frightened but optimistic, in August 1999.

My teaching career had a bumpy start. I quickly found the writers I loved would not be embraced by my students simply because I loved them. Among everything those early years taught me, the biggest lesson may have been that I wasn’t teaching younger versions of myself.

As I honed my craft under the gaze of No Child Left Behind, incorporating adaptations and accommodations and catering to Individualized Educational Plans, I couldn’t ignore how most of my lessons left more than a few students on the outside looking in, wondering what the big deal was. My classes’ mixed enthusiasm and varied engagement kept me unsure of my ability and unable to feel satisfied with my work. To many of my students, Holden Caulfield was a whiny and entitled rich kid, Jay Gatsby a gullible and obsessive fool, and Romeo and Juliet naïve and impulsive children. Dismissal of characters nurtured disinterested reading, leading to disinterested writing (creating a stack of disinterested grading). Even when things went pretty well, something always wasn’t quite right. Read more