Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe, 1958
According to the district calendar, June 12 was the final day of the school year—but, really, the last day was March 12, since that was the last day the students were in the classroom. After that we took three weeks off, and when returned, we were in “distance learning” mode, which in our district meant no grades, no mandatory live instruction, and therefore no real sense that school was still happening. I was still busy creating video lessons every week, but teachers who taught sections of the same class—such as World Literature, which was taught by no fewer than six teachers, including me—were directed to coordinate on a curriculum rather than continue with our individual plans. In my case that meant throwing out the unit I’d been building up to the entire year. I’d started off the class with short stories, on the theory that we would gradually work our way up to novels. We didn’t get to most of them. But we did at least finish Things Fall Apart.
I’d read Things Fall Apart back in my own high school days, but while I recalled that it was about how the arrival of the British in Nigeria disrupts the inhabitants’ way of life, otherwise I remembered virtually nothing about it. I did remember the class ahead of mine getting assigned it and, demonstrating all the respect for other cultures that one would expect from Orange County teenagers in the 1980s, spending weeks repeating all the funny-sounding names and terms to each other in wacky voices: “Okonkwo!” “Kola nut!” “Ikemefuna!” The reason I ended up assigning it to my own class was simple: it was time to move into a unit on characterization, and I had seen another teacher do a lesson on characterization in the first three chapters of Things Fall Apart. It was also time for the kids to tackle a short literary novel as a stepping stone to the longer ones slated for the end of the year, and Things Fall Apart clocks in at a slim 50,000 words. The fact that it would also make for a quick reread was a bonus. When I did reread it, though, I discovered that the characterization in the novel is unusually explicit: Achebe tells us flat out what the psychological underpinnings of the protagonist’s actions are, so the lesson I saw really was an exercise in “Did you read the assigned chapters?” rather than in “Can you read between the lines and pick up on why this guy is doing these things?” That left me with a lot less to teach. I put together a grab bag of discussion topics, but they didn’t make for the sort of coherent unit I’d hoped for. I asked a couple of other World Lit teachers what they’d done with the book and they sent me some slideshows and worksheets, but these were largely in the vein of “What is colonialism?” and I was looking to take the discussion a couple of steps further. But the calendar doesn’t wait for your unit plan to come together, so I had to start in with the characterization stuff and hope that a eureka moment would descend upon me before chapter four.
As it happened, my classroom was across the hall from that of the African-American Literature teacher, and he popped into my room pretty often because it had a busted window that he was concerned about. He noticed some references to Things Fall Apart on my whiteboard, and offhandedly mentioned that he’d taught it thirty times. I quickly made an appointment to talk it over with him, and while not every angle he put forward was one I could use—I do not share his encyclopedic knowledge of African musicians who toured the West in the 1960s, for instance—one topic did come up that was perfect for my purposes: What makes Igbo society, as depicted in the novel, so vulnerable to European imperialism? Digging into that question provided enough material that, combined with the lessons I’d already put together on my own, I was able to fashion a unit I was pretty happy with. (For the record, Achebe makes it pretty clear that a fatal flaw in 19th-century Igbo society is that it has too many outsiders, making a “divide and conquer” strategy all too effective.)
Toward the end of my credentialing program, both the curriculum class and the professional practices class turned to one overriding focus: how to get hired. We were strongly encouraged to emphasize in our interviews how eager we were to “join the team of educators” at whatever school we happened to be applying to. So I did, but it always rang false to me. I get that the idea is that you’re trying to make it clear that you’re a team player and eager to collaborate, but still, unless you’ve subbed or student-taught at a particular school, that team that you’re purportedly so eager to join is just a bunch of randos. And when I was subbing back in the late ’90s and early ’00s—or, heck, when I was in high school myself back in the ’80s—that bunch of randos was kind of a mixed bag. It would be unfair to say that good teachers were rare, but it kind of felt that way because they were sprinkled in among so many checked-out droners, out-of-their-depth mumblers, grouchy coaches forced into a classroom, stealth proselytizers, and those that Mario Savio termed “employees” of the status quo, fully invested in the project of turning “raw materials” into cogs in the machine. (Dishonorable mention goes to the teacher I subbed for who said she needed to meet with me, had me come in on a day I wasn’t scheduled to be on campus, and… hit me with a multi-level marketing pitch.) Well, I don’t know whether I landed at an unusually good school, or whether in our wintry economic climate every profession has become so competitive that the bar has been set higher than it used to be, but as I have settled into my teaching job, I have been genuinely wowed by the quality of the team of educators I have joined. These are not the B students from Westfield State that I used to sub for; their degrees come from places like Amherst and the U. of Chicago and the Sorbonne. In my credentialing program, one of the things that had set me apart was that I had a bit more of an academic background than other members of my cohort, who were mostly coming straight from undergrad, but at the school where I’ve landed, everyone’s teaching critical theory and I’ve had to dust off my grad school books just to keep up. I’m also far from alone in having spent some time in other fields before coming to the classroom. For instance, one of my new colleagues not only has enough of a background in religious studies to have launched a new course of her own design on world mythology, but she’s also our resident expert on the use of social media in education, and previously had a career in journalism on top of all of this. And I haven’t even mentioned the most important thing: all of these people have found their own ways to forge real connections with this crazy diverse group of students. The sparkliest, most engaging teachers at the schools I attended would be about middle of the pack here. And all these teachers have gone out of their way to help me out. I was assigned an official mentor teacher as part of the induction program that clears my credential, and she was fantastic, but even teachers from other departments to whom I was just some newbie in the room by the elevator would share lesson ideas (as mentioned above), tips for dealing with the administration, all sorts of tricks of the trade. Year one was tough, and year two is probably not going to be much easier, since I can’t just re-run the lessons I’ve already developed but will have to adapt them for distance learning—and then of course I still have to create all the lessons that I never got around to because they were displaced by this year’s abrupt switch to a group curriculum. But all of this would have been a lot tougher had I not been surrounded by a group of teachers who are extremely good at their jobs and willing to take the time to help me get better at mine.