Never have I read the ending of Night and not cried:
One day I was able to get up, after gathering all my strength. I wanted to see myself in the mirror hanging on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me.
The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.
Elie Wiesel uses these words to explain the everlasting effects of the Holocaust, to show the transformation caused. To me, they are some of the most haunting words in literature. And I cry.
And I always cry in front of my students.
Years ago, before reading the ending of Night, I would give myself a pep talk. You know what to expect. You’re prepared.
I would still cry. Eventually I stopped the pep talk. Why wouldn’t I want to cry with my students? As I taught literature throughout the years, I’ve realized that showing emotion is part of teaching literature. I laugh, giggle, share my goofy thoughts with my students – why wouldn’t I cry?
I nerd out* to literature, and it has improved my teaching. Here’s why.
1. Students know I’m honest with them. This is part of building relationships, a classroom community.
I’m brutally honest with my emotions related to literature. I was Team Gale, never Team Peeta. Romeo whines too much, and I wish I could meet Brutus. Lady Macbeth? I want to observe her – be her maid or some such.
Because I’m honest, students trust me. For some reason, students question if Gene and Finny are lovers in A Separate Peace. I truly believe they are not, and when students challenge me, I remind them of my stance to always be honest about literature.
I share my emotions and nerding out thoughts with my students. Sometimes they think I’m a bit cooky (fair!), but most often, they laugh along with me and share their ideas. This builds trust and community.
2. A suggestion for parents is to model reading. It’s a good goal – but what if parents don’t read in front of their children?
Perhaps these students don’t see adults laugh and cry over books. They should; they will see the power books have.
Think of a time you and your students have nerded out, maybe to a movie. I typically share a moment with students when they realize our mutual love for the “Star Wars” trilogy. Of course I think Luke is a dreamboat. Yes, I talk like Yoda sometimes. I sure do want to sneak into Darth Vader’s meditation chamber and see that claw remove his helmet. Whatever the example, I’m sure you’ve shared a mutual love with your students.
Do it with literature too. Find something you passionately love or dislike, and nerd out to it. Model what literature can create as you read.
3. Having emotion is an extension of good literature – why hide it?
A reason I madly love books is because of the nerding out reaction. I get emotionally attached to characters, I ponder themes for years, and find an unrecognized nuance while rereading. I share these ideas with students. If I don’t feel strongly about material, I imagine with students. (Would I have felt emotion when this story was written? What if I had different life experiences? What if I were a different gender?) Nerd out with a unique approach.
The beauty of teaching literature is that you can nerd out to it – and share those experiences with students. Not only does it make class more interesting, but it shows students that yes, literature is powerful! By nerding out to literature, you are showing students your love of reading, which hopefully they emulate.
*I hereby suggest that “nerd out” be an idiom, on that particularly described an action of ELA teachers in regards to literature.