Monday, February 18, 2008

Discussion, Discussion, Discussion

One of the most resounding things a teacher ever said to me, actually asked me, was, "In light of Columbine, do you feel safe at school?"  I was a senior in high school the year of the Columbine shooting (1999) and I remember looking around the room at the solemn and terrified faces of my classmates.  We had been through this in 1997, our sophomore year, with the shootings in Kentucky and it seemed impossible that it would be happening again.   Glassy eyed, tight lipped, slump-bodied head shakes were the only answer the teacher received.  She stood in front of the class in silence for exactly three and a half seconds before turning to the chalkboard and saying in a chipper voice, "Well, on to polynomials!"  It was a math class.

On, Friday my classes seemed antsy and attendance was down, but I didn't think anything of it until now.  Were my students afraid to come to class in light of what happened at NIU?  Did my students feel the same despair, shock and perhaps fear that I felt in high school and more recently, during the Virginia Tech shootings?  I know that many of my students (98%) are first years and most are between the ages of 18 and 20 (99%) and since so many of them were not in college last year, they have not had a chance to be "so close" to it.  What I do think they need is an open forum in which to talk about what has happened.

I'm not sure how many of them will remember Columbine (since most went into kindergarten in 1995!) or if the Virginia Tech shooting were as close to home for them as the NIU shootings may be this year, but I do think that I should not just go on in a chipper voice and talk about polynomials, or in my case conclusions and the Toulmin schema.  What I do know is that I might just need to take a moment to ask, "Do you feel safe?" and to listen to the answers even if they are just body language.  

I think I will throw out my planned discussion about what it means to annotate and why a naysayer is important in an argument essay, in favor of talking, just talking, to my students about what this all means for them, for the university, for the U.S., and for the world.  I suspect that I will get a lot of discussion.  Except this time there will be one thing very different about our discussion.

No poking, no prodding, no interrogation, no asking for more information, no devil's advocate, no challenges to defend statements with specific passages form the text, no restating the question if silence of more than 20 seconds passes.  No, Wednesday will be different, I will ask my students what they have to say and then I will listen, even if they aren't sure they want to talk about it yet or is the resounding opinion is stunned silence.