September 10, 2006
Leaving the classroom
When I take my students outside of the classroom, different aspects of their personalities emerge. After an overnight retreat to a nature center, I can see which students have established themselves as leaders. I can see which ones are shy, which ones are extroverts. I learn which ones love a bonfire, which ones play the guitar, and which ones are homesick. I learn about their families, their secret talents, and which card games they play. I know which ones are afraid of heights, and which ones are willing to dangle from the treetops without hesitation.
What does this stuff have to do with teaching?
Students, especially those who are majoring in a hard science, often think of themselves as bad writers. In fact, they are often scared of writing. So I try to create an atmosphere in the classroom in which students can talk about their fears, in which they aren't afraid to be vulnerable by sharing their writing with their peers. So when we do a high ropes course, each of us in turn climbing high into the trees to tightrope walk across a wire or jump off a platform forty feet in the air, and we talk about our fear of heights, it is really just a practice run for the academic fears we will face in the classroom. All of us need to feel comfortable feeling vulnerable with each other.
This includes me, of course. The week before we leave on the retreat, I make a point of telling the students that I am afraid of heights. And it's true. When I have to climb forty feet into the air, I have so much adrenaline going through my veins that it's ridiculous. And when I have to leave the comforting trunk of a tree to tightrope walk across a strand of wire, I cannot look down. Despite the belay line, I am terrified. What's nice is how encouraging and supportive my students will be, all cheering from down below and yelling supportive comments.
Any college student needs to learn how to work in a group. Scientists collaborate, business people collaborate, firefighters collaborate. I tell my students that any career they go into will likely involve some element of working with other people -- unless of course, one of them gets hired as the person who sits all by himself in the tower in the mountain and watches for smoke. So from the beginning, I watch the students to be conscious of the groups they form and the roles they play, in hopes that I can help them be aware of some of these roles, to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and to sometimes even step out of those roles.
Sometimes I will get students who are pretty self-aware. For instance, Brown Baseball Cap was silent as he climbed up the spikes on the tree to get to the wire on the high ropes. After he walked across the wire and it was time to come down, he began to joke around, twisting his body, fluttering his arms, and talking in the voice of Glinda, the good witch from the Wizard of Oz. When he reached the ground, his classmates were laughing at his antics, and he said, "See? Humor is one way to mask your fear."
Of course, developing critical thinking skills in the classroom means that my students need to learn how to engage in discussion, to analyze what we've read, to put information into a context, and to evaluate information. As I get to know my students, I can steer the discussion towards issues and topics they care passionately about. It helps, of course, that most of my students have chosen to come to a specialized college, but it's even better when I know why they are interested in environmental issues and which topics within that realm interest them the most. It helps me to know which students hunt, which ones plan to go to vet school, and which ones are vegan. Informal conversations often lead to a paper topics.
The other reason, of course, for taking my students out of the classroom is the most obvious one: it's fun. And I learn so much from my conversations with them, from the stories they tell about their own life experiences. Teaching works best when it's reciprocal.
Posted by jo(e)