Classroom Perspectives

Teaching the Teacher: Generational

Teaching the Teacher: Generational

By Cameron Conaway

Art evolves, science advances, history is made. The relentless energy of a global economy churns, consumes, expands. Globally integrated political discourse can cause situations on other continents to have profound effects directly in your community. As wars ensue, fashion styles recycle the 70’s and enter them into 2011. Political uprisings around the world are updated in real-time on Twitter while the standard newspaper you’ve read each morning for twenty years shrinks, and in some cases disappears altogether.

Whether we realize it or not, many of us become set in our ways. It’s natural. A term used to describe this phenomenon is “functional fixedness.” This means, especially as we age, we find what works and what we like, and we stick to it doggedly in order to make our lives easier. The body and brain are in constant states of adapting. When summer comes and the temperatures rise, our bodies become more efficient at releasing heat, whereas in colder temperatures they become more efficient at storing heat. Think about how you brush your teeth. Often, it’s the exact same patterns of wetting the brush, squeezing out the paste and brushing with the exact same hand. Often, dentists recognize the same patterns of yellowing when their patients come in for cleanings. To have to think about every step would be taxing— we’d become completely inefficient. Imagine if we got out of bed and had to seriously think about which hand to use to grab the toothbrush, or which row of teeth to begin brushing first. Imagine an entire morning of this. We’d be completely exhausted before we ever entered the classroom.

This is all a primer to say that there are perfectly acceptable occasions to be set in your ways—even within the classroom for basic tasks like collecting papers. However, for the sake of this essay, there are tremendous differences between you and your younger students and anytime a tremendous difference exists there is an opportunity to learn.

Do a Google search for the lip-glossed singer in which your students so emphatically speak. Watch an episode or two of the cartoon many of them have on their lunchboxes. Read the latest YA-thriller book even if you’ve got a hunch that it might be trash—I admit, I read several vampire novels that my students were crazy about. While I didn’t find them to be literary masterpieces, there were scenes where the writer did an excellent job of balancing multiple characters and I could see myself using these techniques in my own writing. However, the real benefit was that I bridged the gap. The students and I, now having read the same novels, were able to have an enlightening conversation for an entire class period that would not have been possible unless I invested time in something of interest to them.

Bridge the generational gap. You will find many unexpected benefits along the way.

Cameron Conaway was an instructor for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and was the 2007-2009 Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona’s MFA Creative Writing Program. During his residency he taught in diverse environments throughout Arizona–from the Tohono O’odham Native American Reservation to lower income high schools, from University Honors classes to juvenile detention centers. His book, Until You Make the Shore (January 2012, Salmon Poetry) grew out of his experiences teaching inside the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center in Tucson, Arizona. He is currently studying Muay Thai kickboxing in Thailand thanks to the sponsorship of To ask Cameron questions or to join his team, connect with him via social media at


Also in the Teaching the Teacher Series: