Went in early as usual to tidy up plans, by messy corner, and maybe my mind. I enjoy the quiet atmosphere of the class on before my prep starts–the Spanish teacher is soft spoken and they kids listen and work away. Still felt scrambled, couldn’t quite muster my fighting stance for teaching as usual, after yesterday. In the shower I’d been relaxed enough for ideas to flow, ones I could get excited about, conversations I’d like to have with students, individually and as a class. I got the traditional lesson organized, a continuation of a lab that didn’t really work out due to a missing chemical, but using theoretical results in order to illustrate the concept of surface are to volume ratio in the life of the cell. Keeping those other thoughts in store in case I felt centered enough to share–some writing from the night before, my motes from the “Most Likely to Succeed” film.
I willed myself to relax, reminded myself that this first class had gone really well yesterday and I had nothing to lose by doing some of Plan B. So I brought up the film, told them about how the system they’d been locked into for the past decade had been designed a hundred years ago to fill early industrial jobs and was now proving to be a killer of creativity, initiative, and leadership in most, tended to neglect opportunities to teach what young people really needed no matter what they ended up doing–the ability to collaborate, create, manage time, learn new skills, reflect. How there was no connection between passing tests and having a long term store of useful knowledge. How since knowledge of all kinds was easily accessible, why not have education focus on providing opportunities to do authentic work for a real purpose. How I had an idea that we could create something big around big ideas in biology–maybe the cell. They were intrigued. I asked them to make a note on the index cards I’d been using of personal info, on what their strengths and skills were. Told them if they didn’t know, that was okay–I saw them in every one, and it would be revealed in time.The two girls who were the sassiest said they didn’t have any strengths–I contradicted them, said I saw a quality very important to have–strong will, willing to speak out and stand up to people who seemed to be out of line. Asked one what she though was the corresponding weakness, since all strengths had those. Yeah, she got it.
There was such a sense of attention and engagement–I stayed sitting down, stopped talking every time someone started to, told them I’d assume they felt they wanted to contribute and we could take turns. The ones who usually talked out of turn either shushed themselves or were shushed by others. I said I was planning on letting them work those things out themselves, I could wait–wasn’t me style to be an enforcer. That if anyone felt another student was out of line, would they please respectfully let them know.
Then I passed around paper and had each student write their name and pass to another so they could jot down on each others’ papers the strengths they saw–rules being no double meanings or subtle put-downs. They did one for me, too.
In the second class I went to the next level, thanks to an empowering chat with my supersecretary, set up a new seating arrangement: a big U with everyone facing in. They all said, “What?! as they came in (except the quiet guy in the hoodie), and found a seat. After sharing about the film, I went over diffusion and osmosis basics and told them I wanted them to demonstrate, with their bodies, what would happen to a cell (inside the circle of tables) in pure water. Then sat and waited. they looked around, a bit dazed, just like the freshmen in the film who were asked on the first day to set up the tables in a certain way. Then, slowly, there was movement, some took initiative. Others waited, all were totally paying attention. Pause, false starts, getting over the expectation that I’d be intervening (which I didn’t, though i sent out a few signals to encourage quiet students who understood to take the lead).
It was so, so cool. I learned more about individual students that session than the rest of the month. And I’m pretty sure they got the concept. I let them mimic bursting the cell membrane by partially tipping over the tables to make sure.
I wasn’t easy to sit and wait. But it felt so right. I could tell it wasn’t easy for the para educator either, but she’d seen the film, too, and knew what I was up to. Though she hinted I should help them. I said I knew several students knew what to do, if they’d just swing the others. In one class it was the quietest boy of all that brought the concept home. In another it was the girl who has an ADD diagnosis and forbids me to call on her.
This is the way our school is going, and it feels so natural and right. I get to study up on ways to deliver or find resources on what they’ll need to know for the big project (as well as the end of course exam in biology), define the basic parameters, and let them at it. I confessed to them that it was kind of scary, and when I felt tense or stressed I’d tend to fall back into my old, familiar, teacher-directed patterns, but that I was really looking forward to seeing what they could do.