Today, during a break, a student told me that my class was shocking to him, in a good way.
The reason? Basically, that unlike his other professors, I don’t ask a question with only one predetermined right answer in mind. I have the class entertain several different answers to a question, think about which one is important to them, and have them make decisions on what they want to focus.
Sure, this is impossible in a math class, but this guy is a fashion design major, and he was saying my class was shocking because it’s different from his other ones.
Of course, I didn’t take credit all for myself. I noted that this was what most of the teachers whose classes I learned the most from did, too. I’m not sure that it’s actually hard for me to do this most of the time… it comes naturally to me, after all, since that’s how I learned myself.
Sometimes it is, though. For example, the discussion we had about terrorism and attitudes towards 9-11 discomfited me at points. I discovered just how different the popular, but superficial, anti-Americanism of Canadian youth is from the anti-Americanism among young Koreans. Even bright, generally nice people were saying things that I’m not sure I can imagined college-educated Americans saying were the situation reversed. We were working through how to express opinions and emotions (with qualifications) versus how to declare facts (either gesturing towards evidence or simply stating them as facts), and I suppose I could have chosen a topic in which students would be less likely to turn my stomach. I think next time I will, in fact… when a student asked me my opinion, I demurred on the grounds that I have no need of practicing my English. But even in this awkward class, I shut up and asked questions and students themselves led me to interesting places, questions, and ideas.
One of the things I’ve discovered is that making students do things they’ve never had to do before, but can do, is helpful in breaking the Classroom Mersmerism. You know, that altered mental state where students sit in class and get lectured from on high about facts and somehow set their own opinions aside and politely regurgitate the “right” answers.
In my public speaking class, today, students were working on using gestures and emphasis effectively, and one exercise involved telling a fairy tale as if to a group of children. They seemed surprised at how much easier it was to focus on getting those skills solid when the speaking part was easy. Or, likewise, the students in my writing class are working on one-page descriptions of a single particular emotion or feeling, like “hunger” or “anticipation.” While difficult, these writing exercises are well within their ability, and unusual, which means they need to stop, think, and make a plan about how to do the writing assigned. For me, it’s all about that now — breaking the Aura of the Classroom. My Public Speaking class was actually quite happy to hear that we’ll be meeting outside as much as possible once it gets a little warmer. That’ll mean that fully half of my classes never meet in a classroom (but instead in some other appropriate space like my office or a nice spot outside) or only meet in a classroom when it’s necessary.
The interesting thing is how the change in setting has affected my students. I teach two courses doubled-up, and it’s my perception in each case that the group which is not regularly meeting in the same classroom, or in any classroom at all, is advancing at a much faster rate than the larger group which is stuck meeting in the classroom. We’re able to work through more complicated discussions and account for different imbalances in the group much more effectively. In other words, in smaller groups, fewer students get left behind, but also, in different settings, more comfortable settings with tea and reasonable lighting and comfortable seating and a more convivial atmosphere, more students can avoid slipping into passive-student-mode.