Call and Response

Once in a while, someone is gracious enough to invite me into their room, not to observe or to lend a hand, but to teach the class. To orchestrate the lesson. To set the purpose, plan the activity, lead the students, and make the close.  Last week, a colleague asked me to do just that. I’ve been singing ever since.

It isn’t easy for a high school teacher to surrender his or her classroom to the instructional coach. In elementary school, people come into and leave from classrooms all day long. The principal drifts in and out and is not just there for formal evaluations. Volunteer parents, reading tutors, paras, aides, and specialists of all kinds are constants in the elementary classroom background, and when someone else leads a lesson, it’s not a big deal. Kids don’t wonder why.

But in a secondary classroom, there are no reading tutors and parent volunteers. Aides are largely silent, and when the principal is present, it is almost always to conduct an evaluation. So if someone else leads the class, unless it’s a guest speaker with credentials to warrant a special presentation on the topic at hand, inquiring students are likely to wonder, “Why isn’t my teacher doing this?” Or the teacher may fear that the kids are wondering that.

It takes an unusually confident person–or a person who’s comfortable saying he or she isn’t an expert at everything–to let the coach model a strategy or demonstrate a technique.

It’s not without danger for me, either, teaching that class.  My reputation is on the line and so is my own self-esteem. The students aren’t mine. I have no relationship with them. Nothing to draw on if the lesson goes awry. No prior knowledge about their dispositions, proclivities, interests, or backgrounds. I don’t know their hot buttons or what might make them laugh or cry. I’ve got to establish credibility in the first fifteen seconds and maintain momentum for the whole fifty minutes. If it goes right, it feels at the end like a song.

Recently, I had a conversation with a singer-songwriter new to my town and at the beginning of her career. On a nippy Saturday morning, I watched her perform at our local Farmers Market. She was pounding the keyboard with gusto and singing her heart out. The people gathered around her were swaying back and forth, keeping time with their feet, nodding and bending in sync with her rhythm. It was as much fun to watch them as it was to watch her.

Afterwards, I remarked on the energy she expended, the connection she’d created, and the fun she seemed to be having. “Call and response” she said, using the term to describe the electricity between the performer and the audience–and I thought to myself then, that’s just what teaching, when it goes well, is: call and response. Like an old-time preacher and the congregation.

The lesson I taught last week was Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse.” The class had just finished Of Mice and Men, and the teacher had asked me to model for the students the close reading technique I love so well, the one I call the “slow reveal,” where line-by-line the teacher guides the student from the beginning to the end of the poem, helping the students discover for themselves the gradual accumulation of meaning.

I had created a two-columned handout for the students, the poem as Burns originally wrote it and, beside it, the standard modern translation. I asked the students to skim the original first to find the line that Steinbeck was alluding to when he wrote Of Mice and Men, and then my colleague played an online recording of that original poem. They could find the line–The best laid schemes o’ mice and men/Gang aft agley–but the poem mystified almost everyone.

We dispensed with the Gaelic for the time, and worked our way through the modern version, focusing our attention on words they didn’t know– timorous, dominion, social union, ensuing–and the capitalized words–Man and Nature. I drew their attention to the two colons–a punctuation mark with authority, used twice in this poem, in both cases to announce a key idea. In the first instance:

But Mousie, you are not alone

In proving that foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Go oft astray

And  leave us nothing but grief and pain

Instead of promised joy!

More words to be sure we know: Foresight. Vain. Prospects. I hear a few gasps as students make the connection to Lennie and George and the collapse of their dream of a little plot of land where they could live and raise rabbits and live off the “fatta the lan’.”  I slip in the word allusion again and move to the turn, a word in a poem that signifies the poet is going to stand an idea on its head.

And Burns does. Nice as the connection of the penultimate stanza is to George and Lennie’s schemes gone awry, it is not all that Burns has to say. The last stanza features  another colon announcing another idea, the one that has propelled this poem about a mouse whose home has been plowed up by a farmer from the realm of simple and sweet to profound and memorable.

In this last stanza, the poet makes the distinction between Man and Nature, between the farmer and the mouse, (as Steinbeck implies centuries later, between George and Lennie): Still, you are blessed, compared with me!

What? The mouse is luckier than the man? How can that be?

I say: “See that word Still? What does it mean here?”

They say: “But.”



“Even though everything I have said is true, there’s more.”

I say: “Yes!”

Still, you are blessed, compared with me!

Only this moment touches you:

But oh! I backward cast my eye

On prospects turned to sadness!

And though forward I cannot see,

I guess and fear!

They say:

“The farmer is cursed by his memory of the past!”

“By its disappointments.”

“He fears the future!”

“He can’t see what will happen and he’s afraid.”

“The mouse lives only in the present!”

“So what do you think?” I ask. “Who is luckier? Lennie or George?  Don’t shout it out. Think before you answer. Relate your answer to the story and explain yourself.”

Hands everywhere.

“Lennie: He dies happy, looking across the water and imagining the farm.”

“Lennie: Because George has to live with what he’s done for the rest of his life.”

“George: Because at least he’s alive!”

“Lennie: Because he doesn’t experience regret. Or fear. He just thinks about those rabbits.”

Then my colleague played the recording again–the original.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But och! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear! An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,

I guess an’ fear!

Ah…it makes sense now. Some of the students even prefer the Gaelic. Especially Gang aft agley. Much more expressive, much more memorable than Go oft astray.

At the end of the hour, as the class was filing out, a boy approached me. He’d been too shy to speak up in class, but he was brave enough to say to me privately, “I was going to say George because Lenny has only one emotion, really. One idea. He’s limited. George can experience things. He can do new things and feel things and see color and well…learn.”

Call and response. Like a song.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s