Everything You Need to Know to Own Mr. McAteer’s Class

The students who have preceded you have reported that entering our classroom is like entering a strange world where everything you thought you knew is put to question. They say that the first sign of strangeness is the bathroom rule, the one where you’re not allowed to ask permission; you just get up and go. They have difficulty figuring out why you have to get up and change seats in the middle of class, why the teacher almost never provides what you might call an “answer” to their questions, why they don’t get penalized for “late” assignments.This guide is designed to tell you everything you need to know to avoid the fog of mystery that shrouded the ghosts of students past. You will learn how to navigate the different sections of the classroom, how you need to know only three things to complete every reading and writing assignment you’ll get this year (to be posted next week), and how to recite the key words that will help you win every time we play “Guess What Mr. McAteer is Thinking.” On top of that, I’ll give you an overview of the goals and content of every “lesson” I’ll “teach” this year. So buckle up, baby, and get yourself ready for full-contact English.

Let’s Not Play the Game: What Does the Teacher Want Me to Think?

If you’ve been successful as a student to this point, then it’s likely that in one or more subjects you’ve learned to tailor your thinking to your perception of your teachers’ preferences. Before I tell you what NOT to do, let me tell you the one thing I am asking you to do with each and every assignment you have this year:

Pay attention to details as you go.
Then, write to think about what you paid attention to.

Again, the two actions you should perform: Pay attention. Think.

You will screw this up. You will do things like read a chapter of a book, and respond in a way where you have a point and then try to support it with details. You sophomores will try to write a personal essay in which you tell a story and then conclude with some insight.

So here are the DO NOTS of this class:

  1. Do not have a point and then use details to support it. I know, I know, this is contrary to what you’ve learned. So I’ll explain my reasoning, and you can decide whether to keep playing the game or to flip the board over and play by the rules of logic.

Let’s take the concept of a “point.” When you have a point, you presume to have knowledge. And there is surely plenty that you know about your life and your experiences. But about literature, it’s in your best interest to take a dose of humility and replace the concept of knowledge with inquiry.

Now, let’s extend that concept of a point – it presumes that the knowledge you have comes with a certain level of expertise; in the game of English class, this might mean that once you’ve read a book one whole time, you are supposed to have the expertise to offer authoritative judgments about that book. Well, you know how to eat, but does that give you the authority to be a restaurant reviewer? You’ve seen movies, but does that mean you know what goes into making them?

You are hereby relieved of the pressure and responsibility related to determining whether or not Shakespeare was successful in communicating a theme in one of his plays (he was, idiot!), or of determining (at last!) the meaning of a symbol in a novel. Here is how you’ll do it:

  • Replace “point” with “purpose.”
  • Replace “supporting details” with “inquiry into details.”

What you’ll end up with is work in which you define a purpose and then try to discover how the details you’ve chosen relate to that purpose. By treating responses and essays as inquiries into something you want to know more about, you will turn your writing assignments into opportunities to discover something you didn’t already know, to draw an insight into an idea that matters to you, to reach a conclusion that is actually a conclusion instead of a restatement of what you’d already written.

  1. Do not ask to go to the bathroom. Just go. If you feel some communication about your sudden leaving the room is necessary, I will demonstrate the subtle head nod that indicates our understanding that you have to take care of some business.  Just make sure you don’t come back with a muffin. Nobody should ever eat a muffin that they found in the bathroom.

That’s pretty much it for the Don’ts.

If we all understand that it’s ok to not be right all the time, that you’re a teenager trying to learn stuff and not a literary critic trying to express an authority you don’t feel like you actually have, then we can stop worrying about playing some fake game of school and focus on intellectual and personal growth.

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