Lighting the fire

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” ~William Butler Yeats

This summer my virtual colleagues on the TLN Forum shared our favorite education quotes. It was a wonderful exercise that helped reenergize me about teaching. I copied them all into a word file and selected a bunch to post around my classroom.

I had a beautiful ending to my week.  It was the third day of school, Friday, and students were going to be finishing writing me letters about education and the role it plays in their lives (an assignment inspired by Renee Moore’s recent post). I decided to see what my students would have to say about Yeats’ quote. It turned out to be a great assessment of my students’ ability to think abstractly and work with metaphors. It also sparked a great discussion. (no pun intended 😉

I gave the quote out as a “warmup” when the students entered class and asked them to write down what they thought it meant.  Most students were stumped for while.  I told them that was fine. Many took a decent guess and wrote something like, “It means don’t come to school to play around or do nothing. Education is serious.”  But a number of students in each class had interesting interpretations that I couldn’t have even thought of myself!

I called them to the meeting area and they began sharing.  Here are a few of the most interesting responses:

  • “Knowledge is power and that if you light a fire you can see.”
  • “He means it is like an opening to another side you have never seen.”
  • “Get an education and have a bright future.”
  • “Education is not just finishing school, but doing something with it.”
  • “Your education is like a fire. You light it up by learning.”
  • “This is a true saying, ’cause education is not going to be easy all the time.”
  • “It is not the beginning of something big, it is the beginning of something huge.”
  • “It means education is energy! (It means we are powerful because we are educated)”
  • “It means that if you don’t understand something, you should at least do your best, and our fire is going to build up and up.”
  • “Education is not done at a certain point, but instead you learn more and more everyday, like a fire keeps spreading.”

And finally…gotta love 8th graders for making me wonder if this was tongue-and-cheek or not:

  •  “I think Yeats means that having an education can get you high in life.”

It was also interesting to see which kids wrote something insightful but chose not to speak.

After we shared, I knew there were a bunch of students who still did not grasp the metaphor.  I drew a pail on the board. I said, “This is a pail.”  Then I drew some shapes that looked like crumpled up pieces of paper above the pail, kind of dropping into it.

I asked, “What does the pail represent?”

“You…your brain…your mind,” students said.

I pointed to the objects going into the pail.

“What do these represent?”

“Knowledge,” they said, light bulbs going on as the meaning of the image became clear.

“So… what’s the pail doing?” I asked.

“Nothing!” they said.

“Yes!” I said. “It’s like me coming around to all of you and dropping pieces of knowledge into your minds while you just sit there!”  I acted this out as I said it.

“Hm…” their faces seemed to say.

“And how do you feel if you’re a pail?” I asked. They laughed at the absurdity.

“No way, really… Bored!” they said.

Then I drew a fire. Without my prompting, kids started saying, “Fire is powerful…it’s exciting…like when learning is fun…It means inspiration!”

“So, where is the fire?” I asked.

“Inside of you,” students said.

One boy (who had written nothing on his paper before) raised his hand and said carefully, “See, the pail has a limit to how much it can hold. The education ends. But the fire has no limit. It gets bigger and bigger and can go everywhere.”

Another boy built on that saying, “The fire takes you into your future, into what you desire for your future.”

In one class, a student added, “But what about water? Water goes into the pail, but water makes the fire go down.”

“What would water represent, then?” I asked.  Students thought for a few seconds.

“Boredom!” someone called out.

“True…” I said.

Luckily, I had another quote handy from one of my TLN colleagues, and it was posted in the highly visible spot right below the board, around which the meeting area is centered. I pointed to it…

“The cure for boredom is curiosity.  There is no cure for curiosity.”~Dorothy Parker

Suffice it to say, I am very excited about my students and the year to come!  A special thanks to the Teacher Leaders Network for helping to relight my fire for teaching (a process which happens in a slightly different way each year). I’m working on a new sign to post in the classroom that will have a drawing and say something like,

Don’t be a pail! Keep your fire burning!

(Suggestions for alternate wordings welcome)

[thanks to http://inphotos.org/category/night/ for the great photo of fire and pail image found at craftamerica.com]

Related categories: ,