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.