September 10, 2006

Leaving the classroom

ropescourse

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.

lakefront

21 comments:

kate5kiwis said...

wowee zowee.. am i the first? love your photo jo(e). love the way you are so *real*.. with everyone.

Linda (FM) said...

The last couple of posts have caused me to think a lot about my college composition class. I wonder how I would have viewed/used writing differently if more attention had been given to two things: 1) I was terrified of writing (still am to some extent), and 2) there was an unspoken bias that chemistry majors don't write (expressed in an odd way from my comp prof...instead of helping me find a way to connect writing to my study of chemistry and math, he tried to woo me to the English department, forcing me in a sense to choose between writing and studying science).

Anyway, I'm glad there are profs like you who pay more attention to the process, and not just the mechanics of writing. I wish I could take your class.

lisa V said...

ROPES course! Team building! At the hippy-dippy school of peace love and understanding with do this starting in 5th grade with camping and adventure. Next week the 5th through the 8th graders (76 kids) and 20 adults- parents and staff will go away for 5 days to do this stuff. The kids love it, and it bonds them, and allows them to build self-confidence and see the world in a new way.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

jo(e), I wish you were giving courses on how to teach in a University setting. That's amazing.

Girl said...

I don't feel like I learned the value of collaboration until I was years out of college...but I seem to have gone through college in a daze. Correction: I seem to have gone through life in a daze.

Time to wake up!!

Yankee, Transferred said...

You never cease to delight and amaze me.

Kristen said...

If I'd had a teacher like this in college, I would have started writing regularly (outside of work) a lot sooner than I did. You're giving your students something amazing here.

sabreader said...

hey, I want to take your class! I once had a freshman seminar that I took out on a hike, it was nice to get out of the classroom and though it was only a couple of hours, I got to talk individually to each of the 20 students. And you're so right about reciprocity!

Kyla said...

I want to be in your class!

YourFireAnt said...

Hey, Jo(e), I'm reading your blog early today because Tall Brown-eyed Poet Friend is in my office bagging up her love letters for burning. I've read several passages out loud to her, and she says "I bet Jo(e) is a great teacher!" and wishes she had known you were going out in the woods with your students this weekend earlier, as she would've sent the letters with you.

pPB said...

If I can't be one of your children, can I at least be in your class?

Saoirse said...

I want to be in your class too.

BeachMama said...

I am sure it is an experience none will forget. And years from now, they will still be telling the story of their awesome teacher that took them out team building in the first week of classes. That type of weekend is one few will forget.

listmaker said...

What a great experience for the kids!

Chip said...

I can only hope that if my kids go to college they get to have experiences like this!

Silver Creek Mom said...

I can only Pray that my daughter meets up with a person like you when she goes off to university. I wish I had I might have continued and got a degree.

Good JOB , Like you need me to tell you that.

Lauren said...

Teaching should be reciprocal. Amen to that. If only that were a commonly held understanding!

TheRona said...

After our retreat two years ago, I got the courage to dump my abusive high school boyfriend. Today is my two year anniversary of being single.

PS: I'll hopefully have more time to write in my blog after my candidate wins her primary today.

Marie said...

Gee! Why wasn't my college experience like this? I'm with all those others who want to be in your class. Lucky students. Teaching is reciprocal...great learning.

Pure Luck said...

Going across a wire at 40' above the ground would be quite the 'ball crawler'. As a woman I expect that you will not fully understand that term.

As to those isolated towers - I have seen many on the mountains I know. Where they were whole they were locked and empty. On many peaks only mute memories remain of their presence; concrete footing, rusting cables and stays. Those who wish to work apart from their fellows will need to seek elsewhere than the mountaintops. Fire spotting is now done by planes.

Leslee said...

How cool. I never did anything like that in college.