Saturday, 16 June 2012

Teaching the Teacher

Playing the guitar in class on Friday
As a high school teacher I understand that I need to be an "expert" in regards to the specific curriculum that I am teaching. It is a given that I should have a stronger background in the subject area than the 14-17 year-olds in front of me. That said, I believe that the teacher should model the attitude of a learner and find ways to allow students to contribute to the learning of the classroom as well.  Without exception, the successful teachers I know find ways to connect with students and discover their passions and interests in order to build relationships. However, what if the purpose wasn't just to connect for the purpose of improving the learning within the classroom?  What if we (as teachers) honestly honoured the idea that the course of our own lives could be altered in a positive way through our interactions with our students? I always attempt to look at my classroom as a microcosm of life where 25-30 people are crossing paths on a regular basis everyday. Our lives are all intersecting and we should all become changed in some way because of our connections with each other.  The belief that the group is stronger because of the diversity of those within it, and that our lives are richer if we learn from others is a lesson that should extend well beyond the classroom. The classroom then becomes less of an artificial construct to control student behaviour, and more of an authentic, organic exchange of ideas and information.

My son playing his new guitar
There are a number of students that have had a powerful influence on my life this year, but for the purpose of this blog I will focus on two that are in my current Literature class.  The first student is playing the guitar in the picture above, and I discovered his passion for music one day when he was fooling around on his guitar during his spare block.  We struck up a conversation and he mentioned that he had been playing since he was 11 years old. I have always wanted to play the guitar, and my son just turned 10. I have such admiration for musicians and I truly want my son to grow up playing a musical instrument. Thus, this student prompted the purchase of guitars for myself and my son and the commencement of lessons. In a nutshell, our family life has been dramatically changed because of this decision. It is difficult to describe what a  powerful experience it has been to truly learn something new side by side with my son. Singing and playing our simple songs together has been one of the highlights of my relationship with him,  but it has also been a strikingly clear  reminder of the struggles of learning something for the first time. It has become an excellent opportunity for me to reflect on my own approaches to learning and motivation by thinking about my experiences as a beginner. Bringing my guitar to school and showing my student what I have learned is also extremely humbling because he is so skilled, but it puts me in a position where I can show true respect for his abilities. 

Another student in my class has a certified obsession with zombies. I kid you not,  if a zombie apocalypse was to happen (and it could happen) this young man would be organizing the survival plan for the human race.  Through our discussions early in the semester he managed to convince me that a comprehensive knowledge of zombie lore was a key component to a well-lived life and he offered to supply the resources I needed to improve my understanding. His reading suggestions included "World War Z" and "The Zombie Survival Guide" by Max Brooks and he recommended viewing the first 2 seasons of "The Walking Dead" television series as well as numerous zombie movies. I started by reading the Max Brooks books and simultaneously watching "The Walking Dead".  (For those interested, Season One is available on Netflix).

Mandatory reading  
My brave venture into zombie literature was as gruesome as I had anticipated, and yet much more intellectual. I had assumed that most of the books and films would involve excessive violence and gore simply for the sake of shock value. What I discovered were thought provoking perspectives on the human condition including discussions of war and faith and sacrifice and the ultimate question of "What does it mean to be human"? Both the books I read and the television series turned out to be much more challenging and contemplative than I had expected. As with a lot of high end science fiction there were key themes of ethics and morality woven intelligently throughout the story (which in this case involved numerous gratuitously gory scenes of brain bashing and corpse chewing). I hate horror movies. I never watch them, so "The Walking Dead" was well out of my comfort zone, but I have loyally followed the well developed characters through two blood soaked seasons. I also never thought I'd say this but I have recommended the series to others! (From a teacher's perspective I have also benefited because about 90% of the student population is familiar with "The Walking Dead" so it is great for references). 

The truth is that my life has been enriched by the fact that I have known these two boys. The message when it comes to building the community in the classroom is that we are truly better if we see value in others and allow our lives to be impacted by them in a positive way. My son and I are now playing the guitar together because of the first student, and the second student has proven to me (against expectations) that very intelligent social commentary can come from the horror genre.   My next plan is to donate blood because of the discussion that came up in class about the experiences of another student. Again, something completely out of my comfort zone, but I know that I will have the experience because of the influence of the student, and I will now never forget how he changed the course of my life in a small way. 

The five months that I have spent with my students hasn't just been about me teaching them Literature 12; it has been about the collective exchange of the strengths and passions and energies of everyone in the group.  The hope is that students will understand that everyone has something to teach them and important lessons and experiences can come from almost any source if you are open minded enough to let yourself realize it. I also want my students to recognize that our "teachers" are not just those in positions of power or influence over us, but that every member of the class (and our society) has something valuable to contribute. What better way to honour and respect our students than to send the message "I can learn from you as well"?  We need to be open and curious towards new experiences and try things out of our comfort zone. Of course there is nothing directly related to zombies or the guitar on the curriculum for Literature 12 but when members of the class are open to accepting and appreciating and learning from each other then a more productive learning environment will naturally occur. (For the record, both of these students have been incorporating their passions into the class throughout the semester, and both will use them in their final projects for the course). I don't just want my course to be about learning classic literature; I want it to be an organic experience with everyone learning from each other and connecting to the themes of great literature throughout.  If I want them to truly value the passions and experience of others, then as the teacher I must also model my willingness to learn. Giving someone else the power to influence our lives makes us vulnerable, but it is essential that we share how our own lives are enriched when we give others the power to teach us. 

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