High Standards Have Empowered My Students to Soar

Ryan Murphey

If there’s one simple truth I’ve observed about teens over the years, it’s that they want to learn. Or rather, I should say, their brains want to learn. The brain biologically hungers to be fed knowledge in the adolescent years, and in my classroom, I am often blown away by students who make quantum leaps of learning right before my eyes.

Unfortunately, teens’ minds are as governed by ego as they are by their desire to learn. Their relentless pursuit of cyber-attention makes it more difficult than ever for them to govern their narcissistic pleasures, which come in the form of “likes,” “friends,” and “follows.” Their conflicting desires have the power to throw the transcendent teen brain over the proverbial “crazy cliff” that J.D. Salinger so eloquently described in Catcher and the Rye, a timeless novel that, with its theme of teen angst, appropriately serves as a metaphor for the precarious position in which I find myself as a teacher.

In order to successfully navigate the “crazy cliff” with my students, I must become Holden Caulfield in the most usefully positive sense. In the novel, Holden wants to save children from losing their innocence, but that, as we all know, is an impossible dream.

Instead of trying to save them, I’ve realized that I must go with them. I’ve realized that all I can do is try to navigate my students over the “cliff” as they plunge towards the depths of adulthood.

At any point during a given day in the semester, you may walk into my room and not find me at the front of the class but in the middle, seated with my iPad or a clipboard. You will see an extremely young person nervously seated where I “should be,” leading a discussion or introducing complex materials. If you stay long enough, you will notice that I am present without being authoritative. I will often raise my hand to ask questions, make a supposition, or even gently make some type of purposeful digression that other students most often correct.

This practice is something I have carefully cultivated over months (and even years) by gradually releasing ownership of the class to my students. The point of this perceived madness is to provide a controlled chaos, similar to the imperfect world we, as adults, are forced to navigate each day.

Discreetly engaging students in the learning process can be tricky. One of the many strategies I use in my classroom is seeking to engage all students in leadership, particularly by developing their speaking and listening skills. In my classroom, students are asked to present a clear and distinct perspective that they’ve cultivated for an audience of their peers. After careful formative assessment of student learning through writing, reading, and thinking over the course of a unit, I meet with each of my students and discuss with them how they might lead a structured lesson that, in another class, the teacher would deliver. It’s important here that I don’t just engage those classic “A” personalities, but also the “B” personalities who may say very little, but who write profoundly or speak in sagacious aphorisms from time to time.

While students may be nervous at first, as the process unfolds, they become more excited, even beginning to throw in their own ideas about what would work in their lesson. This is when I know I have succeeded in truly engaging them. These are the times when I am often blown out of my chair by how amazing the adolescent brain can be in all its openness–so wonderfully unencumbered by practicality.

When a peer is teaching, students tend to listen more intently and ask questions that are less likely to throw the whole class off. It may be one of the only positive outcomes of peer pressure. As the lesson lurches on, students begin to feel the air under their fraying wings and they gradually absorb the fear in being suspended high above the ground below. I think they sense I am the net. By the end of the lesson, most of my students have tried one of these solo flights.

In these beautiful moments, I am Holden Caulfield again, but this time, I can stand back from the “crazy cliff.” Instead going over, my whole class flies above the treacherous waters of uncertainty and self-consciousness below, and I simply wave at them as they soar over the fields of rye, knowing they no longer need me to “catch” them.

Ryan O. Murphey, who teaches English and guitar at Nashville School of the Arts, has a background as a musician and songwriter. Ryan has participated as a Tennessee SCORE fellow and was a Grammy nomineee for producer of the year 2010.