Friday, February 29, 2008

Resistance is Futile! Part 2--the aftermath

Monday came and with it the 621 tutors. I anticipated a few questions from students, but there were none. One student sent his tutor to ask me what the function of the body was within an essay. Clearly, the exercise had had a short term negative effect on him. I wondered, was he afraid to ask me questions now? I asked the student to stay after class and told him what I was trying to do on Friday. He seemed relieved and even laughed a little, then he told me he hadn’t taken it personally and insisted that he just still wasn’t sure. I suspect he was lying.

On Wednesday I began my class normally. Smile, “How is everyone? Let’s get started with the reading quiz.” After the quiz I closed the door and sat down in a student desk. I was silent for a few seconds. The room was heavy with an emotion I can’t quite grasp.

“So,” I asked, “what did you think of last Friday?” A few students said they hadn’t liked the assignment or made other minor complaints, but there was no mention of my attitude. In fact, I think there were great pains taken to avoid talking about it. “Ok, good. What did you think about my attitude, the way I was acting and, yes, I was acting?” I asked. The class exploded, “I thought you were having a REALLY, REALLY bad day!” and other similar comments were offered.

“How did my attitude and the way I was acting affect the classroom? Did you like the way the room felt on Friday?” There was a resounding “No!” Then I asked, “Why do you think I did this?” Silence ensued, but I knew that the point had been made. I then told my students, “I’m on your side! I want to see you succeed. I want to come to graduation with an air horn and shout, ‘That’s my student, I taught him/her,’ because I am just that damn proud of you. Don’t tempt me, ‘cause I will do that. I want you to go on to 110 and blow them away with your mad MLA skills and I want you know that you have, right now, everything you need to be successful. I want you to pass. I want to brag to the other 100 teachers that all my students passed. I want you to make it easier for you. I can’t do that if you won’t let me. I don’t care where you came from, but I do care where you go and I want that to be successful.” I had practiced this speech all weekend.

I then made the students take out a piece of paper and allowed them to do an in-class journal about how the exercise had affected them. Did they understand where I was coming from? Why was their attitude just as important as mine? How could we better connect in the classroom? And most importantly, how might it feel to be me and get that kind of treatment times fifteen during each class? My students wrote furiously. I haven’t looked at the journals yet, but I am hoping for the best.

I also apologized to individuals at whom I had snapped, but made it a point not to apologize to the class as a whole. After I allowed the students to write for a while I moved on to a lecture. I stopped about two minutes in, as usual, and asked a question. Something amazing happened. Students who normally sit at the back of the class with folded arms, straight or disinterested faces, and obvious irreverence for me and the class looked completely different. Arms were uncrossed, faces were softer, and the “wall o’ irreverence” was gone. One of the biggest resisters looked pensive and said, “Slang, would that be one?” “His suggestion was correct. I smiled, acknowledged his answer and thanked him. Others began to chime in. EVERYONE in the class either asked a question or participated in discussion in some way.

Class ended on a higher, but still resonate note. A student raised her hand and asked, “What can we do?” I told her it was up to her, but whatever it was I supported it.

I think it is important in a class such as 100 for the students to know that the teacher truly supports them and that the teacher is not there to simply dash dreams to bits or hold them back for some crazy, sadistic pleasure. More importantly, I think it was necessary, in this case, for my students to see me as human. Before that day, I think I was either an emotionless teacher-drone or a force to be seen as hostile in my student’s eyes.

Resistance is Futile! Part1--the experiment

The following is a dramatic re-enactment of actual classroom proceedings. No students or teachers were harmed during the making of this blog.

Like many of my colleagues, I have been increasingly aware of the small things my students do which bug me. Most strikingly, my ENG 100 students seem to have an attitude problem that even Freud would be hard pressed to describe and define. Sure, they come to class, but they are unprepared, they refuse to participate in discussions, they complain that they are tired (the class is at 11am), they outright ask me if they can go home early, the text while I lecture, they talk to one another, and every time I give an assignment I get an immediate barrage of heated “whys” and grumbles reminiscent of May thundershowers. This is not a good learning environment.

I made my plan very carefully. On Friday of last week I actually put that plan into action. I went into class and without my usual smile. I usually ask how everyone is and take a few moments to listen to complaints and comments, but on this day I just set my stuff down and looked at my students. Without my prompting, a few offered up some suggestions like; “Can we go home, it’s Friday” and “I’m tired.” To which I shortly responded “No and get more sleep.” The students looked confused and a little hurt. The tired student said, “Well, I would if work didn’t keep me so late.” My reply? “Not my problem. Now, get into your groups from Wednesday and get started on your projects.” The students began to grumble and nobody moved. I looked up again and said, “That includes movement. We don’t have all day. Hop to it.” The class slowly and grudgingly began to move.

As the class began to work on the project I had assigned, I took out my papers for ENG 110 and started grading! Of course these were fake papers and I wasn’t really grading, but listening to EVERYTHING the students said. As the class progressed I began to make more comments. “Guys, I hear what you did this weekend when I need to hear about your projects.” When a student asked if spelling counted I looked at him blankly for a moment, took out my cell phone and pretended to text, snapped the phone closed and said, “What did you want?” He again repeated his inquiry. I paused and then said, “Of course, when did you think it wouldn’t?”

Another student came up and asked me what I wanted him to write as the function of the body in an essay and I said, “We had this conversation, you and me, the exact same one on Wednesday, did you not write it down?” The student went back to his group and a small murmur arose. The entire class had heard me and a few people started to jump to this student’s defense. I cut them off frankly, “How about you do your stuff and do it quietly so we can get it done and go home? Then we can all be happy.” I was pretty sure I was going to experience a coup, but nothing happened, just a few whispered “what’s her problem?”

The students had had enough. One looked at me for a moment and then pointedly drew a smiley face on the board. I looked up, straight faced, and then turned away to begin grading again. Another student tried to get a response from me by touching the coat in the chair beside me and saying, “That’s a pretty coat…” My only reply was, “Projects are what you need to be doing and don’t touch my stuff, please.” The class began to do more things to get me involved and laughing or at the very least responding. Some made jokes about the class or other classes, others tried to compliment my hair, blazer, jeans, handwriting, shoes and even glasses in order to elicit any kind of response. They were working extra hard to get me just to say something, but the harder they worked the more resistant I became.

Class ended and I felt horrible. I spent all weekend worrying about losing students and fretting that I had just made them afraid of me. I wanted to take it all back and tell them right then and there that it was all an act and that there was a point to what I was doing, but I decided against it. I just let my students leave without saying anything.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A Day Of Teacher Bliss

On Monday I had what I can only describe as a "Teacher Bliss" day. You know, those days where the academic cosmos align, I have good attendance, students are interested and engaged, discussion and lectures flow freely, and I go home with the affirmation of why I REALLY do this.

It seemed simple enough. Talk to the 621 tutors for my 100 class and discuss with individual tutors the problems that have arisen, then decide a plan of action to bridge the gap between the classroom and the tutoring sessions. It went well, I am pleased to say. Then my actual 100 class time was nigh and I got to see the tutors in action. I had pretty good attendance with a few stragglers and I only had one absent student. The tutoring session went fantastically well. As I looked around the room, all my students seemed engaged and both the tutors and students seemed to be comfortable and conversing easily. I also saw some students actively engaged in re-writes and brainstorming. All was at peace in the ENG 100 universe.

Then it was time for 110. I was antsy because the students were turning in the annotated bibliography today and I feared the usual excess of excuses. There were none. I decided to ease the class into the I-Search and critical thinking unit by having them look at an article from my hometown newspaper. The article focused on a school board meeting in which banning a book from a dual credit class was discussed.

I wasn't sure that my students would react as strongly as I did to the article (I know and have argued against the man who was advocating the banning), but the results were astounding. I began by asking, "Is this censorship?" There was a resounding no. Then I asked, "Are the arguments that Mr. Hitchcock makes sound in their reasoning?" The first answers were yes, but a few students began to see the fallacies in the argument. We haven't even gone over fallacies in class yet!!! The arguments got deeper and more heated between the opposing sides and the analysis of the argument got better and better. One student even pointed out the irony that the argument against the book was mostly because of the ending and that by banning the book, Mr. Hitchcock was actually repeating the ending. Students who have never said a word in class spoke up with their opinions. I was so proud of my students. They actually stayed LATE to finish up the argument! The universe of ENG 110 was in my favor.

I'm not sure if there was actually much pedagogy in here, but I really needed to brag about my students and say thanks to the tutors. Days like this function as a true reminder of just why I want to stay in the field. It is the times when students exceed all expectations and out perform themselves from even my wildest dewy-eyed teaching dreams that I know I am truly lucky to do what I do.