Accidental Lessons: Redux

This article was originally published on August 8, 2015, just after I had finished teaching a summer session of freshman English. Of the 12 students who finished the class, eight of them were combat veterans. I learned more from those guys than I could have imagined at the start of the semester. They were not afraid to tell it like it is, even to my face. I must make a confession: all the experiences I shared in the article were centered around one student, not many, as I had led my readers to believe when I published it two years ago. I decided it might be important for my readers to know this all happened to the same guy (I’ll call him George). With this revision, I also added another lesson about annotation that George taught me, that I have used ever since.


It’s an odd juxtaposition: the teacher learning from the students. It happens to me all the time. Take, for instance, my mid-semester checkpoint lesson. I hand out index cards and ask students a variety of questions, including, “Are you happy?”—with their grade, with the job I’m doing. I ask them if they have any advice, or anything they’d like me to do differently. George wrote: “Act like a duck.” What? I thought it was a joke, and I was mildly insulted, so I asked him to explain. “You know how a duck, when it gets splashed with water, fluffs its feathers and shakes it off? That’s what I mean. When you hear something that bothers you, act like a duck.” I hadn’t realized my occasional anxiety was that obvious to my students. That really gave me pause, and it’s something I still think about a lot.

I have another activity in which I divide up a short article into sections which I read aloud, stopping after each section so students can write a short response. The lesson tends to get off track if it gets interrupted, so I asked that students stay seated, minimize their screens, and silence their cell phones. Just when I had explained the rules for the activity, and asked for no further interruptions, a student walked in late. I tensed, and then said, “Ok, no more interruptions. In fact, no more traffic through the door. You can’t leave.” As soon as the words “you can’t leave” came out of my mouth, George bolted out of his chair and left the room. I had no idea I’d triggered him, and he didn’t explain until much later; I mistook his actions as defiance. Later he explained that he and his unit had been locked into a compound in a high-risk area of Afghanistan for four months for their safety. It’s too bad I didn’t relax the rules on that lesson. Things would have gone much better if I had acted like a duck, as he suggested.

Later, we worked on a rhetorical analysis paper, which can be difficult to explain. In critical analysis, students examine an argument and either agree or disagree, then discuss why. In rhetorical analysis, students must examine the techniques and style which the author uses to convey the message. George was having a hard time distinguishing the two types of analyses, and I remembered that he loved motorcycles. An idea came to me during our writer’s conference: “You know how some bikes are better than others?”


“You evaluate whether or not you want to own a bike based on previous experience and research, right? You use critical analysis skills to make decisions regarding your bike?”


“Well, would you try to fix your bike with only a half-inch, box-end wrench?”


“That’s right. No author is going to use only one tool to fix, or persuade in an argument. Your job with rhetorical analysis is to evaluate the tools in the toolbox, not to evaluate the bike.”

“I get it!” The light of understanding flashed above his head. People think that little lightbulb is only in cartoons, but I see it all the time. It’s why I teach.

I asked the students near the end of the semester which lesson they found to be most valuable. George said, “annotation.” I always struggle with getting my students to annotate at all, much less to do it correctly. George tailored my lesson to his own learning style, and what resulted is a lesson on annotation that I still use today: a three-step critical reading analysis.

Step one: instead of highlighting first, as most people do, George reads through the piece deeply, underlining with a pencil anything he thinks is important. He circles terms he doesn’t know, writing them on a sticky note so he can look them up later. Step two: the second time he reads, he reads only the underlined parts, looking for connections among things in the article as well as to things he’s familiar with: movies he’s seen, books he’s read, or experiences he’s had. He makes notes about these connections in the margins, again in pencil. He puts the sticky note on the page with the words he defined, so he never has to look them up again. Step three: using highlighters, he color codes main ideas, examples, themes, evidence, and quotes he likes, using a different color for each. He includes a color key on the last page of the reading so he knows what each color stands for. With these three steps, George only has to read deeply once. I have taught this method every semester since; many, many students have told me how effective it is for them. I wish I could tell George how many students he has helped.

The last day of the semester is my favorite, when students are finishing up their final assignments, working on reflections, and getting consultations from me on their grades. It’s also the day that some students strike up some really interesting conversations that are totally unrelated to class, and I get to see new dimensions of their personalities because they are quite a bit more relaxed. I asked George, “You didn’t have to come to class today. What are you doing here?”

He replied, “I don’t know. I just don’t want to let this class go.” I know what he means. After a semester of getting to know my students, learning their styles and needs, getting them to critically think about and question everything, and helping them present their best work, I don’t want to let them go either. Most just need to realize that all they needed was a little confidence in their opinions and their abilities. George hugged me on his way out. It’s so gratifying to know I helped him, and other people in my classes, to realize they can write–and write well. I don’t expect my students to love writing when they’re done with my class. I just hope they hate it less.

I constantly seek to improve as an educator, and I’m still growing and learning. My students are a reliable source of honest feedback, and although most of my feedback is praise or constructive criticism, I got some negative feedback once that sill sticks with me: “You use too much gimmicky stuff. Spinners, games, stickers and certificates? That stuff’s for kids.” Yeah, but adults love them too. And guess who loves them best? Combat veterans. George earned every sticker in my collection, and proudly displayed them on his laptop lid. And on the last day, he held up his perfect attendance certificate so everyone could see it.

Many times my students teach me more than I teach them, and they don’t do it on purpose. It’s the accidental lessons that make the most impact. Thank you, George. I think of you often, and hope you are doing well.


The picture for this article was provided by my friend Kim Byerly. You can see more of her photos and read her blog here.

Photo By: Kimberly Ilene Byerly