January 26, 2011

From skyscrapers to silos

“Let’s sit in order, from urban to rural,” I said. Our desks were arranged in a circle, so I figured it would be cool to see the spectrum. After all, we were reading urban nature literature, and where we were from would affect what we could contribute to the discussion.

At first my students just stared at me, not sure if I was serious. It was only the second class of the semester, but already some were beginning to suspect that I’m crazy. But then they stood up and started moving around the room, comparing notes as they chose chairs.

To my left, I could hear the rural kids. “Where you from? Is there a McDonald’s in your town? Is your driveway paved?” One kid was listing his qualifications: “I live on a farm. I work in a farm store. I own a chainsaw.”

To my right, the handful of students from Big City Like No Other were arguing that Manhattan was more urban than Brooklyn, and they were pushing the Long Island kids down the line. “Long Islanders wish they were part of the city, but they’re not,” one student said jokingly.

Across from me, in the middle part of the circle, the kids from the mid-size cities were trading notes. “We’re known for chicken wings,” said a kid from Bison City. “Chicken wings and ... well, not much else.”

Once everyone had settled into a spot, I told the students to tell us what stereotypes they’d heard about where they lived. We began with the city “where you will get murdered by a gang member with a gun if you walk the streets alone at night,” and ended with the country “where you will get murdered by a guy with an ax if you go into the woods alone at night.”

“How come horror movies are always set in either the city or the country?” Plaid Shirt asked. He was a local kid, and he seemed a bit jealous. Clearly, it’s cooler to be from a place that is supposed to be dangerous.

Another student from Snowstorm City said, “Hey, we have parking garages. Think about it. In the movies, any time a person goes into a parking garage, you know someone is going to jump out with a gun or hit them with a car.”

Plaid Shirt brightened. “Yeah, we have tons of parking garages.”

“How many kids were in your high school graduating class?” one woman asked the group. “About 900,” answered one student. A student at the opposite end of the spectrum said. “Wow. We had 24.”

Some of the students came up with stereotypes that they said were based in fact. “You’ve heard that cab drivers in Manhattan honk their horns constantly? For no reason at all? Totally true,” one city kid said. “And what they say about everyone being in a hurry? Also true.” The kids sitting next to him laughed.

Once we were done comparing notes, we turned our attention back to the essay we were discussing, but it was exciting to see the range of life experiences we had in the classroom. It’s going to be a good semester.


jodi said...

I like how you bring out the unexpected in your students.

Magpie said...


Paige said...

What an awesome exercise. Thank you for writing about it. I might use that sometime...

Di said...

I LOVE this. Having lived in a million places, and having known so many people who have only lived in one, it's so great to hear about this conversation taking place.

I'm so glad you're doing this.

undine said...

What a great exercise!

liz said...

That sounds like it was fabulous!

Lomagirl said...

Shake it up! I'm sure your students appreciate this if they compare it to a staid lecture class.
I have mine partner up by birthdays sometimes- either the closest or farthest. And the student with the most or least brothers and sisters sometimes has to write for the group. It gets them talking about something else for a bit.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Oh, I love this game!

Where I live we have lots of McDonalds' but no malls, although we do have a Gap in one 'shopping district.' We three sushi restaurants but not a single Italian restaurant. My driveway is paved but my neighbor's is not, *and* he has deer antlers hanging on the outside of his garage. This is the largest city for almost 100 miles around, but even still, its population is almost exactly half that of American City Named for a Corinithian City-State.

They call it an 'exurb.'

Who's next? : )

kathy a. said...

oh, this is great! one of the things i loved about college was meeting people who grew up different places, with different experiences.

my college was small, and my entire freshman year was in a dedicated multidisciplinary course, with small discussion groups, so we did talk about these things. one of the most memorable times was talking about the watts riots -- and a guy who grew up not 20 miles from me lived right there. his experience was hugely different from mine, in a quiet suburb over the hills. what we have personally lived is not the whole story.

Sarah said...

I'm a former teacher, and I applaud your creativity. It's always fun (and enlightening) to re-frame experiences, with the courage to embrace the unexpected.

I'll be back, to read some more of your entries.


Rana said...

I miss that sort of teaching. :/

karen said...

I wish I could be in your class!

julieunplugged said...

What a sneaky way to teach social-location and its impact on interpretation of literature! Or, perhaps just good fun. ;^) You are inventive. I love the way you catalyze thinking.