Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Teachers: Why Cultivate Dreams?

I didn't delve into heavy study of American literature until my English graduate program. I instantly fell in love with Langston Hughes' writing, and the entire time period of the Harlem Renaissance.
"Dreams" by Hughes struck my heart deeply, and I know why. Not worth mentioning for this post, but why Hughes, above all?

I'd like to take a moment to take you, as the reader through the process of my instruction of this poem, and what its development reveals to my students.

Every new class I've taught, I've started by teaching this poem.

We discuss the metaphors.

What is being compared directly, and how is that different from a simile?

"For if dreams die
Life is a broken winged bird
That cannot fly."

Notice the emphasis on "is". How is that different from "like"?
What if the poem had been changed?

"For if dreams die
Life is like a broken winged bird 
That cannot fly."

Which version hits the reader more deeply?

If your dream dies, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.

Have you ever seen a broken winged bird?
What do they do?
(Hobble around, whimper, quiver, shake, stunted--unable to fulfill its destiny)

What do you think of when you see a broken winged bird?
(sad, lonely, unhappy, brokenness, loss of spirit)

So what is it then?

A life void of a dream is sad, lonely, unhappy, broken, and spiritless.

That's a strong statement, and one that Hughes' declares in this poem.

Hughes continues...

"Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow."

With the loss of a dream, life is not like a barren field, but is a barren field.

Have you ever seen a barren field, frozen with snow?

Take a moment to picture it.

What do you imagine?

A never ending vast flatland. No trees. No vegetation. Ice. Frozen. Cold.

So what is it then?

A life void of a dream is flat, cold, no growth, fruitless, vast hopelessness.

What a strong image Hughes creates with this brief poem!

 Students begin the year, not only studying this poem, but breaking it down-piece by piece, internalizing every element.

They write about their hopes and dreams.

I read them and respond to them. I cultivate them.


Because, above all, teachers serve as inspiration to every child, and every child has a dream to cultivate. Yes, it's important for students to do well on the standardized tests. Yes, they must learn the content. But, above all, they must have a dream, a reason to love life, a reason to strive, because I guarantee the assessments are not what gets them coming to school every day.

What does keep them inspired?

It's the dream. It's the hope of possibility, knowing that their teacher knows them, has faith in their abilities, and values them as people above all else.

This is why I love Hughes' work. He creates that spark within me, so that I might pass that on to my students.

Currently, I'm helping one young student get funding to build a computer for his Science Fair project. That is his dream. I told him I would help him, and he was so thrilled that he went home, and on his own created a tri-fold board display, writing the reasons why he should be sponsored.

On the display, with no prompting from me, he included Hughes' poem.

It blew me away.

That is what teaching is to me. That is what makes it so wonderfully rewarding.