Proud

I am so incredibly proud right now. I am not a parent, but I imagine this is how parents feel when their children accomplish a goal.

In my American history classes, we’ve spent the past five months using the Harkness method pretty extensively, and my students’ discussion skills have improved by leaps and bounds. This is to say nothing of their comfort-level in a student-centered classroom.

Well, I was forced to miss class yesterday for a professional development workshop, and so I figured this was as good a time as any for them to show me what they could do. “I don’t really give tests,” I said to them, “but you might think of this as a different kind of test. There won’t be any particular grade for it, but it’s an opportunity for you as a class to show me what you’re capable of.”

I gave them a couple of readings (a chapter from David Halberstam’s The Fifties about the development of Levittown and other tract-home postwar suburbs, as well as a magazine article from the 1950s entitled “Homogenized Children of New Suburbia”), and told them that after the substitute took attendance, they should hold an entirely student-run discussion for about 40-45 minutes. I gave them a focus question (“To what extent did suburbs like Levittown represent the realization of the American Dream?”), but encouraged them to feel free to venture elsewhere in the discussion if they were interested, as long as their conversation stayed somehow related to our overarching theme of “American Dreams” or the issues of suburbia, prosperity, conformity, etc. I asked them to record the discussion so that I could listen to it.

The sub (a retired history teacher himself) reported that the discussion was “on task” for nearly the entire 85-minute block, and he seemed impressed by what they could do on their own. This made me happy. Unfortunately, we’ve had some technical difficulties with the recording, so I haven’t been able to listen to it, but I look forward to talking with those students tomorrow about their perceptions of the discussion.

This morning, I did essentially the same thing with my other section of American history. (The only difference was that I was actually in the room, but I refrained entirely from speaking and tried to make myself as inobtrusive as possible.) The students seemed a little unsure of how to get the ball rolling, but after about 90 seconds, they decided to just jump right into the focus question, and from there, they were off.

As they discussed, I took notes and tried valiantly to keep a huge smile off my face. Again, I was afraid that any reaction from me–positive or negative–might have the potential to shape the conversation, and so as best I could, I sat passively and tried to look almost as if I were ignoring them. As thoughts occurred to me–the things that I might normally ask if I were in the discussion–I just wrote them down. This wasn’t something I had planned to do, but it developed naturally as I was taking notes–mainly just a way for me to keep myself from screaming, “YES, BUT WHAT ABOUT THIS OTHER PERSPECTIVE ON THE ISSUE?!” I decided that when the discussion petered out, I would then use these questions to both probe their thinking more deeply and review the discussion as a whole.

Were there opportunities for deeper exploration that were missed by my not participating? Sure. Looking back over my notes, though, I realized that for many of the questions I noted, students eventually got to them in some fashion. This wasn’t true for all of my questions, and I did pose those questions at the end of class, mostly as “food for thought” as we go forward. We didn’t answer my questions in depth, but I’m learning to live with that. If they leave my classroom with even one of my questions stuck in their mind (an unlikely event, perhaps, given that they have to shift gears to take a Spanish/Calculus/Biology test in five minutes), I’ll consider it a success.

As I reflect on this experience, though, it occurs to me that my questions are sometimes a resistance to delayed gratification. Students will most likely get to the heart of the matter themselves if you give them time, but sometimes I lack the patience. It’s almost as if I’m asking, “What do you think about this NOW, not in five minutes?” In that context, it seems like a silly question. Who cares if they answer it now or in five minutes? And it’s probably better that they come to the question themselves. The answer–whatever it turns out to be–will certainly mean more to them if they do.

I really strive to let the students carry the weight of discussion on a daily basis, and I would estimate that I talk no more than a quarter of the time in any given class. That said, it was enlightening to muzzle myself completely for a change. I learned a lot about my students, to be sure, but I also learned a lot about myself.

Mainly because I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut any longer, I brought the discussion to a close after an hour (twenty minutes longer than I told them they “had to” talk), and I told them just how incredibly proud I was of them. I also told them that I hoped this proved to them that they were capable of taking charge of their own learning–that they didn’t need a teacher to simply “give them the answers.” More than anything, I hope they learned from this discussion that they are intelligent and thoughtful young people. They lack experience, but they don’t lack ideas, and if they are willing to put in the time and energy, they can find meaning in their “work.” They can also find joy.

Today, I certainly did.

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