History

August 16, 2013

I will admit that I was never particularly interested in history.  As is often the case, this might have to do with history teacher I had.  High school offered one history teacher who was seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and while I appreciate now her insistence that we memorize things (such as the preamble to the Constitution), she didn’t inspire me to care much about the topic.

Since then, I have generally become interested in history because of something that pulls me in.  Reading a book by Amy Tan made me wonder what happened in China during World War II.  Seeing “Argo” made me wonder about the history of Iran.  (I was a young child when the events in “Argo” occurred, so you can’t blame me for being a little fuzzy about that time period.)  And I love a good story, so history that is told like a narrative tale is more compelling to me than a list of facts or dates.

My son is about to turn 12, heading into middle school in a few weeks.  Yesterday he heard news on the radio while I was waiting for a traffic update, and was horrified by reports of what was going on in Egypt.  This morning he read the article in the front section of the newspaper about it.  (Usually he just reads the comics.)  As we talked about it, I realized that while I understood recent events (because I read the newspaper), I’m fuzzy on how we got to this point in history.  My knowledge of Egypt is mostly about ancient Egypt — I know almost nothing of what happened between the last pharaoh and last month.

And while I am comfortable admitting that I don’t know everything — my students and my son have certainly heard me say, “I don’t know.  That would be an interesting thing to look up.” — I am embarrassed at my lack of historical understanding.  The things I learned about ancient civilizations in my middle school social studies classes, along with a large dose of World War II in Europe (from my father and from my one college history course), pretty much make up all the history I know.  And that’s not acceptable, not for an educated person in the U.S., not for a teacher who’s trying to inspire and excite her classes.

Off to the library to try to find a good book about modern Egypt.

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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.