Guest contributor: Debora Black

Bad Advice Wednesday: It’s All About the Gaga

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Precisely one-third of the way into the first day of Composition II, Kent, a fresh-faced college junior, interrupted my course introduction and blurted out, “This is the best English class I’ve had since seventh grade!” My immediate response was a rush of deep pleasure.  Could I possibly be the world’s greatest teacher?   Did students really want to write papers?  Could it be the best kept secret on every American college campus?  But then I got a little nervous.  This was a throw down, unsolicited, unplanned and stated before the entire class.  Could I live up to Kent’s expectation?  Could I be the best English class since seventh, or ninth, or fourth grade?

Lady Gaga, bike, Colorado mountain trail

I looked around the room.  Uh-oh.  Some sort of wild spark was flitting about.  Eyes brightened, lips curved, and foreheads shone.  I sensed other memories happening, could feel a collective dream begin to form.  The Best English Class.  A few chairs creaked.  Bodies straightened, leaned toward me.

What would I say?  What could I do?  After all, I was only five-foot six, a hundred and fifteen pounds.  I could not leap tall buildings in a single bound.  I had not founded a corporate giant anything as a young start-up hotshot.  I was not a supermodel or a rock star—although I had in my possession, from a shop called Authentic Stuff, in New York City, New York, a pair of Lady Gaga’s shoes, which were made from bits of tumbled glass in glossy kaleidoscope colors and which lifted me to a sensational height, and I swear, when I wore them, I became imparted with some sort of galactic-supermodel-rock star oomph.  And yet I would need more.  What else did I have?  I had to think quickly, before the momentous moment passed.

I knew!  I knew what I had!  I did!  What I had was the accomplished voices of a whole society of brilliant authors!  I had the poetic, the lyrical, the funny, the captivating—all to engross this audience of had-to-take-this-class writers.  Plus, I knew the advantages of sharing control and decision-making in my leadership.  I believed in the intelligence and creative capacity of my students, and I knew ways of accessing this part of their natures.

I acted!  I abandoned my lesson plan, most of my syllabus, all of my careful considerations, all the valuable time spent in development.  What was about to unfold would be better.  I asked Kent to lead the charge, and we each defined what made the best English class great.  We agreed to adopt those practices and set out in a state that could only be called exhilaration—a few of us, I noticed, rather too wild-eyed for my own comfort, and I made note to tone down my motivational talk the following semester.  Nonetheless, for the next 15 weeks, it would be the end of the cookie-cutter essay.  We would do what real writers do!

Gaga and Jinx

And so began the writing, the rewriting, and the first difficult strains of invention.  “It’s so hard,” “I can’t think of anything more,” my protégés whined.  How quickly they had gone pale and limp-hearted!  I blamed certain educators for this.  After all, when I scrapped their exalted construct, The Writing Process, when I circumvented their cause to annihilate the unpredictable, the outcomes of free thought, and all the accidents that are genius itself, their collective gasp blew across the country in hurricane proportion.  Standing there in my Colorado mountain classroom, I could taste the salt from the Atlantic Ocean, and I literally pulled a palm leaf from the long strands of my wind-whipped hair!  Exacerbated, I pushed back, a little sweaty, a little shrill, “Where is your passion,” I kept asking, “Where is your passion!”

But then came the breakthroughs, the tears, hugs, laughter, and self-righteous snit-fits.  Students began showing up for class wearing berets and carrying portable cups of fragrant, froth-capped coffees to lead boisterous discussions on the merits and shames of submitted drafts.  We waged war on meaningless prattle, misinformed babble, and disheveled sentencing.  We exercised any means to invent and shape the written word.  In short, we wrote until our fingers bled.  Our writing was electrified.  Students shook their heads at their work—proud, amazed, disbelieving it could be theirs.  “I had no idea I could write like this,” one student said.

In the end, as I sat reading the student evaluations on our course, I was immensely gratified: consensus was that we had fulfilled that hope for The Best English Class Since, and I was further gratified that my students could assess, through their own writing evaluations, how they had developed as writers.  Glowing in self-congratulation, giddy from the psychedelic heights of my glossy Gaga rock star shoes, I returned to read the final evaluation, familiar handwriting, a young woman’s: “in my opinion,” she wrote, “far too creative.”

  1. Kath Lawrence writes:

    You Go “Girl-GaGa!” Forever crafting their minds to pursue such Creativity & Self-Awareness…yes that is what you have done and now you share this extraordinary moment in your fulfilled life with us! Impressive and Extraordinary…because you always are…both.
    Thank you….sorry I was delayed….Kath

    • Debora writes:

      Kath, I’m glad you made it! Thanks so much for your kind thoughts. You’ve tapped into the point, it’s easy to feel insignificant out there. It’s easy to give up. But it’s a lot more fun to be a Rock Star. I like working with young people because they are all heart, passion running wild. They have the best ideas and the worst ideas you’ve ever heard of. They make me laugh, and they can really piss me off–like the student who got the last word in my essay. And in the end, she taught me a lot about myself–because really I was so mad that I finally had to laugh at myself. I give her a lot of credit ’cause she knew exactly how to push my button! Haha, makes me laugh. It’s all about the gaga, my friends.

  2. Bill writes:

    Do those shoes come in a men’s 10W? Cuz I’m there. Lucky students, Debora, including the ones who don’t know it. And great post!

  3. Dennis writes:

    I’ve always enjoyed Ms. Black’s ability to bring you into the room and the moment. No surprise that her students respond as they do. Another well written piece.

    • Debora writes:

      Dennis William, thanks for checking out my post! It’s good to hear from you, and thanks for the really big compliment!

  4. Tommy writes:

    When life is good, you’re in the right place at the right time, (being a student in your magnificent class is a good example) and magic happens. Of course, some people can be in the right place at the right time (the author of the last evaluation you shared) and still miss the magic. Bill would argue, it wasn’t, therefore, the right place at the right time FOR THEM, and I’d have to agree. But too creative?!? Don’t try telling that to Jinx, he’s not buying it. (She??) Those ARE some fantastic shoes, but looking at them makes MY feet hurt!! Lucky are the few, who pass through your doors – and learn how to THINK!! 🙂

    • Debora writes:

      This is why I like you so much, Tommy, you make me think! Lucky for me, Bill was only a phone call away when I started teaching college English. He had to explain a few things to me about the inner workings of faculty life and the writer. He also made me a better teacher.

      • Tommy writes:

        Thanks, Debora. I used to get my kicks on Route 66, now I get them at Bill and Dave’s(TM). You have added the voice of the siren to the menagerie, and I Love it! Has your great- butter-making-grandmother ever chased a raccoon with a broom??

        • Debora writes:

          More likely it was a shotgun. Irish women mean business–so you really need to duck if one ever comes after you with anything in her hands. There is that rumor too, about my Great Grandmother’s wedding. When I was a little girl, I did the math on my fingers. It’s all a little suspect.

          • Tommy writes:

            Math lies. (I can get away with that on a blog of, by and for – writers!) And you can prove anything with statistics. Anything! What matters is three generations ago, somebody did the right thing, and because of that, you can do the write thing! It’s all good, I don’t know why we look so hard for scandal – doesn’t anyone believe in love. Or butter. 🙂

            • Debora writes:

              Love and Butter. Right on! Perhaps a braid to tell that story. My grandmother and my mother are all wrapped-up in the actual telling of my great grandmother’s life. I haven’t mentioned my mother…I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother looked exactly like Elizabeth Taylor. Her brownies won a blue ribbon at the county fair. And once at the Officers’ Club at Kindley AFB in Bermuda, she accidentally stepped on Alan Shepard’s foot. She was pregnant with me, so I like to say WE stepped on Alan Shepard’s foot. It surprised her, she gave a little squeal and then giggled up into his face. He had already become the first American in space, which must be hard to top, but I’m sure that even pregnant, my mother left an impression.

              • Tommy writes:

                What a great group of brownies that must have been! I wonder how many of them went on to step on the toes of stars, how many had their toes stepped on, and how many, instead of stepping on toes, married toads? It’s fun to measure any group, and wonder – where are they now?! The cute girl, and the astronauts: sounds like they were all living, “I dream of Jeanie!

                Wait, brownies was a snack, and not a gaggle of future womens……. never mind!

    • Debora writes:

      And, yes Tommy, this is Jinx in the pic–my big handsome man!

  5. barbi johnston writes:

    very descriptive and passionate. i really enjoyed reading it.

    • Debora writes:

      Barbi! Glad you made it to Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour and very pleased that you enjoyed my post. FYI everyone, Barbi keeps me well-supplied with my Rock Star wardrobe at Kali’s Boutique. She has this fantastic Diva talent…

  6. Barbara Winternitz writes:

    If only Noah could have such a teacher and such a class! Miracles might be worked.

    • Debora writes:

      Hahaha. Noah’s such a cool kid! And you , Barbara, always an advocate of the arts! It’s always fun to work with parents like you, with great ideas and talents that influence schools toward dynamic learning situations and well-rounded content.

  7. Tina writes:

    How exciting! Where do I sign up for this class?

    • Debora writes:

      Tina, check out Bill and Dave’s writing workshops! Also “Writing Life Stories,” by Bill–terrific writing exercises. I use this in my classes.

  8. Stephan Zittel writes:

    Far too creative, indeed. A wonderful essay and commentary. It’s nice to see teaching outside of the box, instead of the drab curriculum that I received in school. Good Job Debora!

    • Debora writes:

      Thanks, Stephan. I feel so lucky to have had many wonderful teachers whose own magic become my inspiration for my teaching. Great writing always captures its audience. My students have loved works by Bill Roorbach, Pam Houston, Dorianne Laux, and SO many more.

  9. Ann writes:

    Fab-u-lous!!! Loved the writing and the message!!! If only we all had had an English teacher this creative and dedicated. More power to you Prof. Gaga- shoes!!!

    • Debora writes:

      Thanks, Ann! There are lots of great ones out there, but they are spread-out among so many schools…Makes it seem like there is no longer a collective voice standing up for what makes education a great experience for students.

  10. Toni writes:

    Well written piece, Debora. I enjoyed your descriptive imagery; I was able to feel your passion as a teacher. Well done, Toni