Each school year, ELA teachers are tasked with covering a lot of diverse content in a relatively short amount of time. No longer just about instructing students on the foundations of reading and writing, we are also required to teach students to differentiate the conventions of fiction from nonfiction, multi-media texts from single-genre. Presentations. Collaboration. Persuasion. Revision. Argument. Analysis. Research. The list goes on and on. But sadly, the school year does not. At some point, we have to make hard decisions about where to spend most of our instructional time, squeezing in some seemingly less-essential lessons on lame duck days (you know the ones – the ones right before breaks or when assemblies gobble up half the class).
But what if we didn’t have to squeeze in these lessons like afterthoughts and leftovers? What if there was a way to incorporate at least some of these lessons directly into our instruction? Without any planning at all? Sounds too good to be true, right? But it is possible. The trick is to capture the moments when they come up.
Yesterday, for example, my students were analyzing the minor characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello. Students were tasked with exploring Act III and determining how each of the assigned characters fit into Iago’s plan. When one of my students offered her interpretation of Cassio, she responded: Cassio was forced into a fake affair, tricked into drinking, and sabotaged to lose his position.
What a perfect response, I thought. What an amazing burst of luck. Here we were, talking about puppets and puppet-masters, and this student instinctively framed her response by using the passive voice.
I knew I had to pause.
Over the years, I’ve taught lessons on active and passive voice. I’ve used PowerPoints, handouts, news articles, station activities. You name it, I’ve tried it. And the moment students get up from their seats, I can practically see the content falling out of their minds. Why? Because absent an authentic context, lessons on active and passive voice are perceived as having no real value to students. It’s just something to memorize for an assessment and then discard.
But this moment was different. This time the student had framed the argument – these were her words, not mine. She had a vested interest in the discussion, as did her classmates who are almost always (and understandably) more interested in what their classmates are saying than what their teacher is saying. And this time, all of the students heard – in live time – the effect of the passive voice. By framing Cassio as a man for whom things simply happened (or in his case, were thrust upon him), they were able to recognize the role of the passive voice in emphasizing his lack of agency. He was not in control. And the passive voice, which this student instinctively adapted, underscored that point.
So we stopped and talked about what she had done. We discussed how the meaning might change if she adjusted her statement to employ an active voice. We considered the effect of each voice on what she was trying to argue. At the end of the discussion, it was clear that the passive voice was really the only option that would fully convey her meaning. We closed this instructional detour with a discussion about the importance of choosing our words – and our approach to arranging those words – deliberately and for effect. In short, by the end of the discussion, students came to understand the value of choosing their words carefully and deliberately.
The whole discussion took less than five minutes and we still had plenty of time to flesh out the larger discussion about Othello. But by seizing the opportunity presented in this student’s response, we were able to add in a meaningful mini-lesson on style that was student-driven rather than teacher-driven. And moments like these are not rare. If we listen carefully, we will hear them on a near daily basis. Each day, be on the lookout for these opportunities and capture the moment. By the end of the year, you’d be surprised by how much content you are able to cover one moment at a time.