September 08, 2006

Avoiding bloodshed

On the first day of class, my three sections of first year students – sixty students who all live together on one floor of a residence hall – are a blur of faces, most of them quiet at this start of their college careers. But by the second week, I've learned their names and personalities. I can even tell the identical twins apart. And it no longer seems strange when one student talks about how he is flying his bird after class.

Last week, my students read aloud essays in which they each described something that could serve as a symbol of their home community. My urban students chose such things as the metro card, the Famous Alliterative Bridge, or the Huge Island Landfill. Other students in the class chose a cow, a pitchfork, or a pine tree. These discussions about our home community are the first step in forming this group of sixty students into a learning community.

By now our classroom discussions have turned lively. Once I know the students, I can figure out how to engage them. By the second week, I know which students like to debate and play devil's advocate, which students can be counted on to play peacemaker, which students love to go off on crazy tangents that can be surprisingly productive, and which students I can rely on to keep us on track. I know which students will come up with a sophisticated response and which ones will want to joke around. By now too, students have moved around the classroom and settled into seating choices that are incredibly revealing. I have twenty students in each section and we sit around a square of tables. Students who aren't getting along with their peers and who feel the need to be protected usually sit very close to me. A bully will sit in the far corner. The academically gifted students almost always sit right in the middle of either side table.

Later in the semester, we will talk about the roles we play in the classroom, and I will invite students to move out of their comfort zones: for a talkative student, this might mean staying quiet and listening more. For a quiet student, this might mean speaking up more, taking that risk. But for now, I am just watching their personalities emerge as we wrestle with the issues raised by our readings: what is nature? what is wilderness? how are landscape and story connected?

"Are we allowed to talk about politics in here?" one student asked today, a bit hesitantly. I get this all the time from students. Many claim that they come from high schools or communities where talking about politics is taboo.

"Well, we are reading a book about environmental issues," I said. "I don't see how we could possibly make it through the semester without talking about the Bush administration."

"There's going to be bloodshed," one student said dramatically.

And he was only partly kidding. The urban/rural geographic divide between my students means that the class contains students from very different cultures. Before we even get into a discussion, I know we will have a real range of political opinions in the room.

Is it possible for staunch conservatives and progressive liberals to have a discussion in which they both listen and learn? I promised them that we would begin class on Monday with that topic, and the we would brainstorm ways to make it happen. "World peace by the end of the semester" is our motto. In the meantime, I am leaving at 7:30 am tomorrow morning to take all sixty students on an overnight retreat at a nature center located near Gorgeous Town. I am guessing that a few political discussions might creep into our conversations around the campfire.

17 comments:

Monae said...

Hello....I was reading your entry in your blog and I am glad you shared this. I remember when I was in High School I was always the quiet student in all of my classes. None of my teachers ever took me out of my comfort zone so its good your doing that for your students. I was always the one who never raised her hand and I was NEVER made to answer any questions whatsoever. I wish I would have had a teacher like you when I had been in school. You sound like one amazing teacher and I'm sure you are. Your students are lucky to have you. Take care.

Yankee, Transferred said...

I keep saying-if OD has ONE professor anything like you, she'll be lucky.

Sarah Sometimes said...

I want to come on the retreat!

chichimama said...

Enjoy the retreat! I want to go too.

And as a progressive liberal married to a staunch conservative, it IS possible for both sides to learn from each other. But we had to devise an elaborate rule structure early in our relationship to govern our "chats."

Top of the list is the abiility to shelve a topic for a few days to allow for more research and/or to allow one or both of us to calm down so we don't degenerate into a screaming match that wakes the kids...

I'll be interested to see what your students come up with...

Pure Luck said...

Ah the relation between environment and story. You must have a field day (as it were) with Tolkien. He was really big into the setting reflecting the emotions and actions of the characters. He also liked the word 'turves' a lot, but that is a separate issue.

joanna said...

You can tell identical twins apart? Wow. I have never been able to do that, and wish I had the skill.
Chichimama, I have the same kind of marriage, and the same kind of rule-making. One of the things that I value about this marriage is that I am able to learn about authentic conservatism instead of the media-polarizing brand that gets so much attention.

Psych Master said...

Just thought I'd let you know that I changed my blog address to:

mytalesfromtheoffice.blogspot.com/

Scrivener said...

I love your choice of motto!

jackie said...

One semester in my class I had a straight male cop who loved Cher, a pastor's wife who loved "the passion of the christ", and a kid on methadone who had followed Phish for years. We had such amazing conversations in that class! having conversations about culture and politics in a room that is full of different positions and views is one of my favorite parts of teaching, and one of the most valuable services I think I perform as a teacher-- getting these Americans into a room and fostering a true discussion about our lives and our country.

Jenevieve said...

Can you come guest lecture in Scotland? Tie in conservation with veterinary practice, or something.

You can stay in our flat for free, though you may have to sleep on the kitchen counter, since that's the largest uninterrupted stretch of space...

Pink Shoes said...

Um, can I take your class? Please?

Marie said...

Damn, Pink Shoes stole my comment. But anyway, I still want to be in your class!!

Kristen said...

Wow, what an awesome class. Your students are really lucky to have you!

BeachMama said...

You are indeed the best Prof in the world. Can I go back in time and be one of your students? An overnight in the first week of school? Come on, that is the best way for everyone in class to get to know others. If only I had had a Prof like you, things would have been so different.

Here's to a fulfilling school year. World Peace by April? I love it.

Chip said...

classrooms are amazing places aren't they? Can't wait to hear about the retreat.

kathy a said...

i really loved college, because my college fostered the kinds of discussions that you do. looking at things from different angles. learning to listen and integrate; learning to contribute constructive points without fear. learning about each other, our different experiences, and the whole range of experiences that we read about and discussed. i bet the class and the reatreat are things your students will remember and draw on in 10, 20, 40 years.

Masterfraud said...

Gah, I love it. I have my own cohort of sixty students, and I hope to impart some tiny measure of the value of dialogue you seem to instill from day one. Can I take your class? How'd the retreat go?