Take them to Neverland

Everyone who knows me knows that before this blog gets off the ground, I have to mention Peter Pan. I am so in love with the story that I couldn’t even tell you why. Because people fly? Because it speaks of the power of the imagination? Because it approaches childhood as something valuable which should be cherished forever? Whatever the reason, I encourage you to use this book in the classroom.

But why (other than my intense passion for it) should you share this story with your class? First of all, it’s timeless. It’s been around 100 years and there are still people making spin offs of it (most recently, Syfy’s 2011 prequel miniseries Neverland), the play is still performed all over the world, and there are several movie versions. People love this story. It’s a fact. And they probably love it because it is relatable, whether you are relating to the adventures had in Neverland or the conflict of growing up, or both. It’s a beautiful story and kids get it.

Second, there are many many different versions, so you can find the one that is most appropriate. There are versions with only a few sentences per page. There are versions which cut out the darker parts, like Peter and Tink’s respective almost deaths. There are versions that put all of that in but still do so in a picture book format with gorgeous illustrations. There are pop-up versions, versions with sound, versions with read-along, and even sing-along CDs. And of course there are the original novel and play. And I read the novel for a college class, so you can’t tell me that some students are too advanced for this.

But most importantly, you should read Peter Pan with your students because it is about Neverland. Neverland, the embodiment of the imagination, is something I have always felt is important in teaching. In the original novel, Barrie spends a good deal of time talking about Neverland, and one thing he says is that every person has his or her own individual Neverland, which encompasses his or her imagination, dreams, and passions. This is more than a teaching philosophy for me, it is a life philosophy. Whether you are in the classroom or not, if you aren’t in Neverland, you should rethink your happy thoughts and figure out how to fly there. And as a teacher, it’s a place I want to take my kids.

The greater explanation is really the story of how I ended up in my present teaching situation. It was sort of an accident, and something I never expected even a year ago. As I mentioned before, I am enrolled in an MA TESOL program, the majority of which occurs online, and for this program, I must complete a teaching practicum. Reasonable enough. Because I could live anywhere, I had intended to move to Albuquerque with a friend of mine. We would share an apartment, he would cook, and I would traverse the world of slam poetry in my spare time. I could use the university library to do research and work with international students for my practicum. It was perfect, so of course the plans fell through. Instead, I ended up living with my parents just outside of a town with population 3,000 and working in fast food to make ends meet.

Fortunately, the school through which I am completing my program has an English language program where I could apply to teach and earn my MA practicum credit at the same time. Even more conveniently, the head of the program is the practicum professor. (Oh yeah, and it’s in another country, so I would also get to spend three weeks abroad teaching.) So I sent in the application and arranged for an interview with my teacher over Skype. Once again, the plan was perfect…

Suffice it to say, my teacher was not impressed with me. She was appalled by my lack of teaching experience (you don’t get much teaching experience as an English major) and was less than impressed that I worked in fast food. I, in turn, was appalled by her lack of knowledge about my teaching experience (which I felt I had mentioned more than once) and less than impressed by her use of language (as I put it, “she asked questions that said nothing, and I said nothing back.”)

But I had to prove to her I wasn’t totally worthless, so I embarked on the story of my one and only substituting job. I had applied at a local school district, and my first call had been to fill in for a third grade teacher with a doctor appointment. Thus, I found myself one afternoon staring down a roomful of eight year olds, and quickly getting trod on by them (hey, give me a break, I’d never taught before.)

During what would have been the teacher’s planning period, I pulled myself together, thought “okay Mel, you’re great at troubleshooting. You must have a trick up your sleeve.” Well, I did. In fact, I had something probably no other teacher in that school had, regular or substitute: seven years experience as an amateur performance poet. So when the kids came back, I told them I would perform for them, provided they were good and paid attention and did their work. Soon they started reminding each other to follow the rules, and everything went smoother. That’s not to say it went perfect, but as we’ve already learned from this story, perfect is never to be.

My teacher was not impressed. In fact, her response was something along the lines of “well, you can’t just recite poetry to kids whenever you need them to behave.” Well, this just goes to show where being an experienced teacher gets you. Because in reality, you can recite poetry whenever you want kids to behave.

Okay, okay, I’m exaggerating now. It depends a lot on the kids. My teacher works mostly with high school students, and I work mostly with elementary kids, and as long as you’re animated and reciting something funny, poetry recitation keeps kids’ attention pretty darn well. The class I performed for was begging for me to perform it again, but we didn’t have the time. And if I had not gotten the fast food job, and continued subbing, I know that the second time around, they would have behaved themselves for a chance at more poetry. I’ve seen similar reward systems–kids get to sing Elvis songs at the end of class, or dance to YMCA, or act out the story of the Three Little Pigs. People who don’t work with kids regularly would be amazed at how important simple pleasures are to them.

Granted, with older students, this isn’t always the case. I don’t know that my high school English class would have paid more attention in class for the chance to act out scenes from The Picture of Dorian Gray. But there are certainly equivalents. What about going outside and playing basketball the last ten minutes? Or playing ipad or cell phone video games? Or taking a nap? And as far as poetry goes, a lot of high school students actually do like poetry, especially performance poetry because it isn’t the same dusty metered stuff they’re forced to read for class. All you need is a poem about something that matters to them like meeting a girl, standing up for yourself as a woman or even your crazy sock puppet imaginary friend (Note: Poems are not rated G), and a person who loves to perform poetry.

That’s the key here. When my teacher said “You can’t perform poetry whenever you want to get kids to behave,” what she meant was “I can’t perform poetry…” Because she doesn’t believe in poetry. But it works for me. And it works for me because I love it. It is part of my Neverland.

So when I say take them to Neverland, I mean help them find their Neverland. Teach them how to fly. Good teachers recognize student interest and encourage it. They find ways for students to experience and utilize their passions in class. But in my experience, the teachers who do this best are usually the ones in Neverland themselves. So when I say take them to Neverland, I mean show them your Neverland. Show them your imagination. Students can tell the difference between someone who is really passionate about what they do and someone who just attempting to appear prestigious by utilizing an extensive polysyllabic lexicon.

The last reason you should read Peter Pan in class (and the sum of this teaching philosophy) is this: because in doing so, it hopefully will encourage not only your students, but yourself to believe in the power of creativity and the imagination and to maintain the childlike demeanor that makes you face down new adventures and take risks. This is how you fly.


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