Being Reminded of Being a Student

February 13, 2011

I have a good memory.  I remember lots of things about being a child and a teenager and a young adult.  This sometimes comes in handy as a teacher and a mom, because I have a lot of empathy given that I remember similar feelings.  But one thing I tend to forget is what it feels like to be a student.

I have taken classes as an adult, of course.  Not only do I remember college and graduate school, but I’ve also taken classes along the way to support my teaching.  In general, I’m a good student.  I look at the work that has to get done, I pace myself, and I work hard  (without usually having to work really, really hard).  I like to do a good job and I like it when teachers are pleased with something I’ve done or said.  Really, I’m the same student I was as a child.

And so therefore it is sometimes frustrating to me when I see a student struggling, or a student who clearly doesn’t like school, or a student who doesn’t seem to be seeking my praise and delight.  These are foreign concepts to me.  Sure, I struggled in a few classes over the years, but I attributed that to a tricky subject matter or an unclear teacher, not to something about me.  Some students are ciphers in the way they feel about being a student.  It’s not a role they enjoy.

But I’m beginning to understand.  To support our study of ancient China this year, I signed up for a class for teachers at our art museum.  It’s on “Religious Arts in Southeast Asia.”  I’ve taken a few classes there before, and they’re always interesting.  There are four sessions, and I’ve now had three of them.

The schedule and format each session are the same.  We arrive at the media room for a two-hour lecture by a professor about a particular region.  We have an hour-long break for lunch, then meet quickly before heading up to the actual galleries for another two-hour lecture by that professor with actual objects.  We then meet again to summarize and talk about what we’d like to see more of as teachers.

The professors have been amazing.  They’re knowledgeable and engaging and interesting.  I take copious notes.  The galleries are full of things I knew nothing about, and now I know some things about their origin and meaning.  The other teachers are, for the most part, intelligent and thoughtful, and I’ve enjoyed chatting with them and eating lunch with them.

I have, however, discovered that my brain feels full before the day is over.  After about an hour in the galleries, I start to tune out.  I have trouble focusing on what the professor is saying, and my eyes roam the room.  My brain starts thinking about songs that have the word Buddha in them, or about Simpsons episodes on Zen Buddhism.  I take fewer notes and start doodling.  I am sure that there have been meaningful things said in the second hour of the gallery talks, but I don’t really remember them.  I look at my watch, I notice that my shoes are starting to hurt, I look out the window and wonder if it’s warmer or colder than forecasted.

Granted, it’s a more intense class experience than my students or I have been in.  Our classes at school are about an hour at most (appropriate for fourth- and fifth-graders).  My college courses involved 70 minute lecture courses or labs that were a couple of hours, but generally not an entire day on one topic like this class.  Six hours of class with an hour break for lunch is, indeed, a very intense day, and we don’t expect our students to do anything like this.

Still, I know that what I’m feeling at hour three of “Buddhism in Korea” is what some of my students feel after 20 minutes of math class.  And I know that it’s a hard feeling to overcome.  Do I want to be more focused and attentive?  Yes.  Does that matter to my brain?  No.

One of the things I have tried, in an attempt to keep myself focused, is to ask more questions.  But I’ve also now had the experience twice in the last three sessions of asking what I think is a totally reasonable question about Buddhism (which, to be honest, I’m still just not really understanding as a system of beliefs), only to be responded to by the professor with some irritation, as if I’ve asked the stupidest question ever and clearly haven’t been listening.  This is also a new experience for me, and it makes me shut down.  If I’m going to be treated like that, why raise my hand at all?  I’ll just go back to doodling and wondering how much longer we’re going to be in this dark room of artifacts.

I find I have a new understanding of some of my students thanks to this class.  I know what it’s like to start to lose focus despite my best intentions.  I know what it’s like to ask what feels like a completely rational question, only to be met with frustration by a teacher who thinks it’s not a very good question.  I know what it feels like to know that I’m learning a lot, but to look forward to the end of the class.  Now I can use this experience to help me reach those who are struggling, which is perhaps a more important lesson to have learned than the many pages of notes I took on the rise of Buddhism.

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4 Responses to “Being Reminded of Being a Student”

  1. I would argue that a student’s day is really not much different than this. Though broken up into smaller chunks of time, it’s still full of things they might not be in any way interested in. After hours and hours, years and years of this, it could easily create a disinterested/disengaged student. This seems against the idea of creating life long learners. You chose to sign up for this course. Students don’t have a choice. That feels wrong it me.

    It’s a difficult balance: trying to introduce students to a wide variety of content (to create a truly “educated” person) and letting them follow their unique passions and interests. I do believe we currently err on the side of overly regimented, and could use a bit trust in proclivity.

    • You’re right — it is a tough balance. We don’t operate in a vacuum, and we worry about what later schools (high schools, colleges) will expect students to know, and we want to make sure they’re prepared for that. John Dewey would say that there’s a way to teach everything students need to know through their own interests and passions, and while I agree with that, I also agree that overseeing that kind of learning requires a lot more time than I generally have with my 15-30 students (depending on the configuration) during the day. With a group of five students, say, we could work together to collaboratively create a curriculum that combined their interests with what I know they need to know.

      The other issue that factors into this kind of independent passion is motivation. I have seen every student motivated to do something with passion; I don’t always see a way for that passion to translate easily into something “academic,” and then if you try to find something similar that’s more academic, the student loses motivation. My math class loves to play games on the computer but the students generally dislike the games that require arithmetic, say. They prefer spatial tasks in their games. So I started them off with a list of “approved” games to play during math class, but a subset of students is always trying to convince me of the value of some other game they’d rather play. (And I’m not sure of the academic value of an online version of Pac-Man.) So then I’m stuck. I know what their passion is — playing a set of online games — and I can’t figure out how to match that up with what they have to learn, such as multiplication tables, and then they lose motivation to do the task I’m asking them to do. It’s a puzzle.

      As for the class I was taking, while it’s true that I chose the course, I wasn’t really aware of what would be covered. I saw an immediate link between “Southeast Asian Religious Art” and our theme of ancient China, but only one of the four weeks focused on China, and the level of information being covered was way too advanced to incorporate into our theme this year with 4th and 5th graders. Do I know some interesting things about Asian art that I could share with them? Yes. Could I have gotten that level of information from one two-hour lecture/gallery visit? Probably. Every other teacher there taught older students (most often high school) and was an art teacher or a world culture/religions teacher. I think one other teacher taught at a K-8 school, but he also teaches summer institutes for high schoolers and teachers and was thinking about those classes. So the class was interesting in a randomly abstract kind of way, but not directly applicable to teaching, which sometimes made it hard to focus.

    • Thanks for the links, Jerra!
      I do like to let students doodle, but it’s hard to draw the line (so to speak) — sometimes the drawing gets to be the focus of their experience instead of the class. When they start pulling out markers and scissors and tape, I ask them to please put the art materials away because we’ve now shifted from doodling while listening to a fascinating book to doing art with some reading going on somewhere in the background.

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