Friday, 14 August 2015

Sharing our Passions with students - Engaging or Indulgent?

The problem with Ben and Jerry

Some time ago, a fellow educator, let’s call him Ben, was discussing another colleague, Jerry. Now, Jerry is an excellent teacher on all fronts. He does his job effectively while regularly volunteering to coach several teams & coordinate multiple events at the school. He is, in all ways, a committed and involved member of the school community. He also has a preoccupation with the Montreal Canadiens.  

I would like to suggest that it is an unhealthy preoccupation, but I suspect that would be a product of my forty-plus year allegiance to the Buffalo Sabres. This is a passion for him and he regularly incorporates it into his lessons. 

This does not apply to the reading or viewing of the Roch Carrier short story "The Sweater". I affect my best Quebecois accent every year to share that engaging and chat-worthy piece of Canadiana.

Jerry goes a little further - (or a lot further, according to Ben). He will incorporate the Montreal squad into math problems or as examples of statistical analysis daily. He will use stories from the current team or team history as his teaching or writing prompts. Canadian history in his social studies lessons are inexorably tied to Les Habitants and his walls are covered with logos, team pictures and other assorted paraphernalia. Some would even argue that his mood is dictated by the team’s success.  

Over lunch, Ben lamented to me,  “I really feel for those kids. That wouldn’t have interested me in the slightest. I would have been bored and miserable being bombarded by that everyday.  It would make me detest the sport of hockey, not love it.  I’ve certainly developed a knee-jerk repulsion to that logo.”

Granted, Ben is not a sports guy. He is, however, also an excellent, giving educator who helps kids succeed in other areas - particularly in, music, art and literature. He has his own passions and, on occasion, shares them with students. However, he is far more reserved and only introduces them when they fit specifically with an area of curriculum he and his young charges are exploring. Consequently, there is no evidence of his appreciation of Van Gogh or Brahms in his classroom and the student have never been asked to write an essay on Miles Davis or Monet.

But, there’s something to be said about a teacher that brings his own life experiences and interests into the classroom.  It makes the teacher real and genuine. I loved my Grade 6 teacher, Mr. MacDonald, when he would tell us about hiking the Bruce Trail or camping in Algonquin Park. My Grade 9 math teacher, Mr. Lee, was also a martial arts instructor and practitioner who would tell us about his tournaments - the wins and the losses. We are supposed to be passionate and sharing our lives and interests is essential - correct?

When is it enough and when is it too much?

Ben’s criticism immediately made me look inward and consider my own practice. Do I incorporate too many of my passions into my curriculum? Have I been alienating former students? Were those expansive cross-curricular units hinged by a television series too much? Did they really connect to the curriculum? Were they really worth the time?  

I took the time to consider this and thought I needed a list. These precepts have always guided me - I’ve just never organized them formally. I guess this will become my litmus test for incorporating passions.

1./ Is there a clear curriculum connection or are you forcing it?

I’ve found that it is better to look at the curriculum and then consider what it connects to it rather than the other way around. Granted, many educators know their curriculum well and are immediately enthused when they see something that fits. In 2013, a colleague who teaches grade 6 saw the film “Gravity” and quickly made field trip plans for his class before it left the theaters.

2./ Is it self-indulgent or lazy?

Are you doing the unit because it pleases you or because you think the students will truly benefit from it?  Worse still, are you “treading trodden trails” because it’s easy and you’ve always done that unit. Clearly, Jerry is being self-indulgent. Also, despite great enthusiasm, there are units that simply go stale. I've there always more passion in the fresh and new - I know it, and my kids can certainly feel it.

3./ Does it, in any way, alienate a group of students (seen or unseen) in your classroom?

Is a sports-themed unit unsettling for the student who has no interest in sports? Does a scene from a lavish musical-theatre production make a student from a machismo home feel uncomfortable. I think it is imperative that students should get exposure to a wide range of experiences - so focus on that. Make the experiences broad and avoid dwelling in one area for too long.  

4./ Is it appropriate to share?

Your own sensibilities have to be put aside and you need to think about it against the backdrop of your school community. Sometimes, you can push the limits. Sometimes, you need to accept that the sensitivities of your community do not match your own and you have to let it go. This is a tough one. I still struggle with this when I feel that something of extraordinary value is being silenced by unnecessary or misguided conservatism.

5./ Are your mis-remembering it and applying your own experience to it?

Sometimes, great movies or television series from our past carry with them stereotypes and sensibilities that would make us cringe today. I grew up loving the Tintin graphic novels. However, the original releases are alarmingly racist - despite the fact that the protagonist is noble, kind and honourable.  Sometimes, they are just tired and worn out. Be sure you revisit before you share.

6. Is this often harmless fun (and am I overthinking this a bit)?

I have a Sabres logo and a few small bits of sports paraphernalia (all given to me by students) placed near my desk. I I often use stories from the world of sports to highlight aspects of perseverance, commitment, teamwork and sportsmanship. That’s harmless stuff. Relax.

Next time, on the 50/20 blog 

I will apply these rules to the lessons I am planning for the upcoming year.  Will they pass the litmus test I have set out for myself?


Ben and Jerry are fictional amalgams of several colleagues and many conversations. If you've worked with me - and are a Montreal Canadiens fan - it isn't you.

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