A Quest for Self-Discovery Through Shakespeare, 2Pac, and the Holy Qur’an
By Yousef Alqamoussi
Part 8 of 9
When I graduated from Fordson High in 2005, my plan was to carry on the legacy of my high school teachers by becoming an English teacher myself. At the time, I envisioned the classroom as a Platonic academy of radiant learners engaged in passionate discussion and innovation.
But to put it mildly, I discovered that eighth-grade language arts is not that.
After working as a parapro at Universal Academy in Detroit, my first full-time classroom position was at Woodworth, my middle school alma mater. In addition to the challenges of large class sizes, complicated schedules, and the all-encompassing enigma that is the “middle schooler,” there was the largely impossible task of keeping one hundred fifty children seated, engaged, and academically functional for an entire hour, every day. This was a doomed objective from the start; despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get my students to listen. No matter how straight they sat up, how dead-eyed they stared forward, or how tightly they pressed their lips, I couldn’t penetrate their firewalls of distraction. Despite their sincere intentions, they could only manage to sustain that yogic position of classroom etiquette for so long before dissembling into chaos and disarray.
The only time they actually gave me their full attention was when I played videos on the Promethean Board. As soon as the lights and sounds appeared on the screen, their conversations ceased, their bodies oriented toward the front of the room, and almost in unison, they leaned forward in transfixed hypnosis. But the moment the motion on the screen stopped and I approached the podium to discuss, they fell back into mayhem and distraction.
Ahmed, in particular, never listened to me. In fact, he never listened to anyone. He was so notorious for his horseplay and disruption that he’d been dubbed a frequent flier at the principal’s office. The students, however, really liked Ahmed and often joined him in his antics. And despite our frustration as teachers, we were generally fond of him. For me especially, Ahmed bore a unique significance. He might not have known it, but his presence in my class inspired one of the most important developments of my teaching career.
In the fall of 2014, my students were reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and by reading, I mean they were throwing erasers, passing notes, and falling asleep in their seats. However, I did manage to capture their attention at the end of the hour when I mentioned in passing that the SpongeBob SquarePants episode “Squeaky Boots” so uncannily paralleled Poe’s short story that it would be reasonable to assume that the episode was based on it.
“We should watch it,” Ahmed said.
That’s a good idea, I thought. I went home and found the full episode online, and when the students arrived the next day, I was excited to announce their lesson.
“Today, we’re going to watch SpongeBob!”
They were ecstatic, and fell into complete silence once the video began. I noted their unwavering focus. Ahmed, in particular, was so absorbed in the episode that I actually felt a bit jealous.
“Is a screen that much more interesting than me?” I thought. “Why won’t they listen to me like that? I bet if I was on the screen, even Ahmed would listen to me.”
And then, it hit me. If I were on the screen, he would.
That afternoon, I searched for a program for making simple videos. An app called 30hands allowed me to upload photos, record and attach audio, and sequence them into one complete video. I skimmed the next day’s PowerPoint lesson about figurative language. I was planning to deliver that same lecture to each of my five classes. And so, I simply uploaded my PowerPoint slides to create an eight-minute video lecture. I called it The Mr. A Show.
When students arrived the next day, I said, “Today, we’re going to watch a video.” A huge yellow smiley face appeared on the screen, and then, much to the students’ amusement, my voice announced, “Hi everybody! This is Mr. Alqamoussi. And today, we’re going to be talking about the differences between figurative and literal language.”
I sat in the back of the room and watched the students absorb my lesson. Afterward, I gave them a quiz. Almost every student passed, and most answered every question correctly. Ahmed earned 100 percent. I repeated this process in each class with similar results. It turned out to be my easiest and most effective day of instruction.
“That’s so weird,” a student said after the show. “SpongeBob was just like the story. Even how Mr. Krabs put the boots under the floorboards.”
“You could even hear a heartbeat in the background,” another student added.
“That’s right,” I said. “They’re very similar. In English, we call that an allusion.”
On the whiteboard, I wrote allusion.