You ever notice that there are a lot of people who post “look at what our school does” photos to Twitter? You also notice that they lean very much toward something involving an apparatus or a structure?
It’s not by accident; I know this from experience. During my time as a yearbook adviser, my staff often went into classrooms on days when the class was “doing something cool” and took pictures for the book’s academics section. Many classes were easy to cover, but English class often wound up being tough to shoot because we usually wound up with four very generic-looking photos: someone at a desk writing, someone typing on a computer, someone in front of the class giving a presentation, or someone talking while sitting at a desk. I remember one year, in fact, where my editors and I vocally bemoaned the number of pictures in our network drive that featured students sitting at desks.
Why, you ask? Is it because those pictures would showcase how the school doesn’t allow for movement and is therefor part of an oppressive system? No, not really. We bemoaned the pictures because they were bland, ordinary pictures.
Structures are sexy. Action is sexy. Science can make things go boom; art is messy and has immediate visual results. English class? Yeah, sometimes there is a project of some sort that is incredibly visual, but so often a picture of an English class can appear boring, even if it’s quite the opposite.
Take last month, for instance. My class was discussing Amy Tan’s essay “Mother Tongue,” and because several students in the room had parents or grandparents who were not born in the United States, they had a great conversation about who in their family speaks what language and how they can relate to what Tan writes about–her mother’s “broken” English, and how her heavy accent makes people think she’s somehow stupid. It was such a lively conversation that we barely got to the second topic of the day, which was an excerpt from Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club.
If someone were to take a picture of that, however, it wouldn’t have seemed as lively as it was. Sure, the discussion was a seminar run by a group of students, so you wouldn’t see me in front of the room (I sit in the back, take notes, and don’t say much), but a photo student in front of the class speaking about her experience being Chinese and how that relates to this essay can’t be differentiated from a student giving a sloppily written oral report.
There is no apparatus involved when speaking one’s mind or sharing one’s experience. There is no device that my class needs to use when debating a point in a classroom forum. We read. We discuss. We write. Sometimes what comes of it is lively and engaging. Sometimes, it falls flat and getting through the class winds up being one awkward silence after another. And hey, I’m not going to pretend like I am transforming lives or anything, but you cannot look at my classroom and know everything that goes on. I strive to make English class interesting and fun for the students I teach, but the reality of teaching is that most days aren’t public relations moments.