The Tangents

Dear Students,

I know what you’re doing.  It’s nothing new.  You think you’re distracting me, skillfully diverting the teacher’s attention away from the lesson and starting me on some tangential discussion.  You think you’re somehow “winning” because we didn’t get as far as I’d planned in the lesson.

An Empty Classroom by anime-girl963

(photo credit: anime-girl963)

I love it.  You think I haven’t seen this before?  I know who you are.  I know what to look for, when to indulge you, and when to steer us back on course.  Don’t you understand? I want nothing more than to engage these discussions, to embrace your questions, and to revel in the spontaneity of learning!

Yes, learning.  Believe it or not, this is when the “shaping lives” part of my job takes place.  This is when I can talk to you about things that are real and relevant to you right now.  Not that my planned lessons are irrelevant – they’re important for reasons you probably haven’t even considered.  But the tangents are important, too.  This is when you get to see me as a real person, as someone who might have something of relevance to say.  This is when I get to see your personalities and quirks, which actually helps me plan lessons down the road.  The better I know you, the better I can teach you.  Besides, you hold on to these tangents, even if you don’t realize it.

So we talk.  We discuss the differences between British and American English, an unnecessary offshoot of the discussion on why Shakespeare’s language is so hard to understand.  We talk about Christianity in non-Christian settings, which is something many of you haven’t had to face yet.  We commiserate over the possibilities of a weather-related school closing tomorrow, and I confide that I wouldn’t mind if that happened.  We talk about realistic career goals when you should be taking a vocab quiz.  Yes, these conversations stall class and delay the lessons, but sometimes, that’s OK.  Sometimes something bigger is happening than discussions on the character motivations of Hamlet.  It happens whether you see it or not.

I’m watching the clock.  I know what I need to cover by the end of the period.  Despite what you might think, I’m fully aware of what’s happening, and I’m letting it happen.  Because you’re thinking while we talk.  I can see the wheels turning in your brain, and it’s so much better than the blank stares I get from you other times in class.  You’re questioning the universe in the safety of my classroom, and I’m privileged to play a role in a crucial stage of your development.  And you think you’re just distracting the teacher… Ha!  If you only knew.  🙂

You see, I was you in high school.  I was a master at distracting the teacher.  I remember classmates whispering to me before class, “Hey, Christine! Can you talk to Miss McIntyre today so that we don’t have to do anything in class?”  And I would.  I would talk to her for 45 minutes straight, cutting her block period in half.  My classmates and I thought I was manipulating her.  Instead, I was forming a relationship with a mentor who would later offer me advice and guidance as I began my own teaching career.  (And, yes, I still learned a lot about history in her class, too).

You should be asking questions.  You should be engaging in conversations.  I’ll make sure we still spend enough time on the lesson.  It’s my job.  But I want you to learn more from me than verb conjugations and literary analysis.  The tangents are when that other learning happens.

Trust me.  You will know what you need to know by the end of the year.  I will teach you those character motivations and research techniques.  You will be a better scholar and intellectual by the time you leave my class.  And maybe, because of the tangents, you’ll also be a more developed person.  So let’s talk.
Sincerely,
-Mrs. Roberson

107 thoughts on “The Tangents

  1. Our class distracts our teachers by starting off with the line “Miss/Sir, do you like Subway?”. One of our teachers once spent a whole class talking about Subway 😀

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  2. I love your post way too much actually, it’s that i’m a student myself and in most of my ‘boring’ classes, the main reason to keep me interested in to have ‘tangents’ as you call them once in a while. Teachers afraid of talking about real life topics kind of scare me and lose their credibility as i suppose ‘if they’re not interested in my questions, why would i be interested in his stories about imaginary numbers and so on’… If only my teachers were more like you on this point. Anyhow, thanks for the entry and thanks for showing us that teachers do care about ‘education’ in its deep meaning. Teachers teach future employees that’s for sure, but they also teach the citizens of tomorrow… xx

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    • Exactly. If I’m not interested in you as a person, why should you be interested in what I have to say as a teacher? Even if the topic seems silly, these conversations build rapport between the student and teacher. Thanks for the comment. I’m glad to hear students appreciate it, too.

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  3. This is sort of related, in my own weird mind. I remember once in my freshman year I was in JROTC and we were having a history lesson on WWII. The mood in the classroom was really tense and sad, as we were talking about mortality stats. We’d had a long semester already with personal conflicts between the cadets and our sergeant ended up letting us spend about 10 minutes discussing pizza. (We were talking about the invasion of Sicily, so it kind of connected… A little bit.) I was really impressed with how in-tune he was to exactly what we needed, meaning a chance to relax a little before we got too depressed and reconnect as a group.

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    • I totally get that. I once gave a group of students who were having a hard time for various reasons a ten minute “venting session” just to get the weights off their minds before we started class. It took ten minutes out of my lesson time, but they needed it. And they were much more focused for the rest of the period than they would have been otherwise. Moments like that build trust between the students and teacher, and like you said, it helps for class bonding, too. Never underestimate class bonding. 🙂

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  4. Thanks for this. My students think they are getting away with this, too. I love our tangents, and I have a small time-limit set aside for them. After about 4-5 mins, my inner timer goes off, and I steer us back on course. Fun times!

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  5. Even though I’m old (in my forties), I remember my friends and I doing the same thing to teachers when we were in high school. I guess we wrongly thought we were getting away with something too…Great post!

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  6. I wish some of my classmates could just read this! We think we are smart, not pausing in our brash confidence to reflect that our teachers ARE WAY smarter than us. Sigh!
    That apart, it’s teachers like yourself (so awesome that I got a few like you too!) who make lessons amazing!
    Congrats on being freshly pressed.

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  7. Remember when school was almost nothing but philosophical and intellectual tangents, when people lounged around in beautiful, stimulating settings to learn and the school uniform was as comfortable as you could get? Probably not, as you would have to have lived in Socrates’ time. Lucky bastard.

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  8. I can’t help wondering if my 15-yr. old son’s teachers understand this? I home schooled my kids for many years (not every year, but almost) and now my son attends public school. I hope, I HOPE he has teachers who understand that some of the most important learning/teaching is found in the tangents. Thanks for this!

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  9. This is such a fantastic post. The teachers who taught me the most and with whom I’ve remained in contact many years after high school were those who knew when to indulge our tangents. Sometimes you move forward better and get much more out of those tangents… And indulging us every so often made us more willing to get back on track when she insisted we do that. If your students don’t realize yet how lucky they are to have a teacher like you, they will with time. Really great post and congrats on being freshly pressed!

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  10. what you’re doing sounds like how emergent curriculum is conducted, following the students interests in order to reach your lesson objective, but I’m not sure why you’re “bragging” to students about it like a “trick” on them. You don’t have to trick kids into learning if you’re a good teacher. you bring the love of learning to them through your own love of learning and learning about them as people is how you reach them.

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    • “Bragging” and “tricking” wasn’t my intended tone, though I can see what words and phrases would give you that idea. That’s probably my snarky, sarcastic side getting the better of me and coming through poorly in print. I was more thinking that I was letting them in on the inside joke in my mind, because it does amuse me that they often really do think they’re getting away with something when they distract me. But I do want them to see how valuable those moments are. I haven’t encountered the term “emergent curriculum” in the schools where I’ve taught, but it sounds like a really fun way to teach!

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  11. Haha. This took me back to the days of school when we would try to distract the teacher just to avoid having to pay attention to class. The funny thing is, as you mentioned, we are actually thinking during these moments unlike in regular class. God know how many teachers humored us over the years.

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  12. My math teacher goes off-topic by herself and randomly starts talking about anything and everything… mountains, cranes, trains, microwaves, she is an easily distracted person…

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  13. I just don’t think anybody really likes to be “humored”. It’s condescending. Students and young people want to be valued like anybody else. I understand inattention and distraction in students can be a challenge, and I see that you have a sense of humor and an investment in teaching, but they were probably “onto” you before you let them in on the joke. Kids are smart. What sounds great to me about your classroom, is that you allow diverse discussions to take place and invite the students to participate. And I seem to be the only nit-picker responding. Looks like a successful post. Congratulations! Thanks for above reply.

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  14. Looking back, I realize that those I consider best teachers did the same thing. I suddenly missed being a student! Thanks for sharing, ang congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

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  15. What a great teacher you must be. I think too much time and effort are spent on the agenda, and not enough on the reality of life. Kids want to learn, but they want to learn on their terms. Keep up the good work. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

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  16. I taught for forty years and the tangent was always there. But in the end we somehow got back to target. I noted that social intercourse was a big problem for many students. Their attention span was short and therefore they loved going all over the place. So I divided my lesson into three points and usually got them in.

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  17. My old math teacher was a dog fanatic, so someone in class would start up with “puppy problems” to distract from the lesson. She played us all the time and would assign double-time if we took away from her lesson time.

    Joke was on us, foolish kids.

    I don’t blame her getting distracted for me pulling a D in my remedial college Algebra, though, I blame my own “math, numbers, what the fuck” stupidity.

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  18. Isn’t it wonderful what you can learn about your students, and what they don’t know they are learning when they try to kill time in class. What a great post! As an English teacher I completely identify.

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  19. I believe that tangents are important parts of teaching/ ,My favorite teacher in high school often went on tangents,some of which had little if anything to do with Speech or 12th grade English, the subjects he was paid to teach.We learned to give good 3 to 5 minute speeches with or without notes but the biggest takeaway in my opinion were the tangents. Like the explanation of why he disliked the word “stupid” so much that he forbade any of his students to use it every semester when he wrote his syllabi. He also explained to my classmates that wheelchairs cost about the name as some used cars and an extension of personal space which effectively stopped my classmates from kicking my tires or using my chair as a footstool

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  20. Since I teach social studies, I call it “filibustering.” When I taught that term to my government class one year, and called them out on their attempts at filibustering my class, my students were shocked to learn that I was fully aware of their shenanigans. 🙂

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  21. Pingback: Dear Students, | isengrapherblog

  22. Pingback: Dear Students, | ISENGRAPHER™

  23. Tangential teaching indeed forms an integral part of our teaching routine.It tickles the class into active thinking.Learning and teaching takes place simultaneously.As teachers ,we enjoy doing that…it brings us closer to our teaching objectives and also adds to our repository.

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  24. Here’s to you Mrs. Roberson! Making tangents relevant and keeping students on task is a great skill. I’ve never taught HS, but I’ve taught in universities in the US, Spain and Portugal, and it seems students, no matter where they are, try to get professors off on tangents. In Spain and Portugal the students were often interested in what a professor from the US had to say about current events or cultural matters, which I could often make good use of. But in the US, students usually tried to bring up subjects of TV shows or sports to try and get me off on a tangent. Neither TV or sports worked very well for me, because I haven’t had a TV in over 30 years, and I don’t follow sports.

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  25. Now I wonder if my professor at the graduate school is doing just the same 🙂 I’m also an aspiring professor and my goal is to share discussions with my students about the more relevant things in their lives. I want them to speak of how they feel, what they think of that controversial news on TV last night and stuff.

    Your post inspires me to continue dreaming of such. Thank you!

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  26. As I student, you have made me realise that there really are some teachers out there that care about education. This post has also made me want to become a teacher even more now. Great post!

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  27. I was that pupil. And after teaching in schools for a few years I have to say, I love that pupil too. Questioning and inquisitive, excellent qualities!

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  28. My two favourite high school teachers did this, and it’s one of the reasons I loved being in their classes! If only more teachers found ways like this to connect with their students – and I understand that most teachers have several classes, and sometimes teach upwards of 100 students per school year, but to me it’s equally as important as the curriculum.
    Thank you for this post 🙂

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  29. Teaching is about relationships. If you don’t go to where they are, they will never go with you to where you want them to go. Sometimes the tangent is just the hook you need to lead them into all kinds of interesting discussions that are on topic. And as you know…Romeo and Juliet is about them. All that drama about relationships, friendships, and parents who don’t understand. Just this week I sucked my students into the causes of World War I by comparing it to a fight in the school hallway. Excellent Post!

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  30. This is so true. They always do that but I would tell them to talk to me after class if it was really important haha! But yes, I do enjoy the occasional conversation with the class to engage them a little before continuing with the lesson (:

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  31. I teach exactly the same way! These beautiful tangents start with some simple curriculum objective and veer off into areas that cause such amazing “ah ha” moments for the kids…and sometimes me too! I strongly believe with all the Learning Styles in the classroom that need to be met and the need for constant differentiation techniques, these “tangents” acknowledge so much learning. I love it when the kids say, “That was an awesome class! Mrs T, you teach so weird but I love it!” I always answer back that I’d rather be weird than boring. Lol.

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  32. Pingback: Very true to our course: The Tangents | The Riot Sessions #TRS

  33. Bravo! Interesting to see the internal dialogue of an educator. I’ll keep this story fresh in my mind for a while! Thank you and cheers😀

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  34. Pingback: Interesting read on student behaviour in class | Study Hannah

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