Hot for Teaching

I am coming up on a new quarter at my high school gig and a new semester at my college gig. I recently received my finished schedules for both of them, which means I have roughly a week and a half to prepare for all of them.

Despite my desire this summer to reinvent my college-level creative writing class, once the school year got going, I found myself too busy to act on it, so the class I’ll be starting next week will probably look much the same as the one before. I may get inspired between now and then to implement some changes to my weekly lectures, but the general syllabus of the class will remain the same.

As for my high-school teaching duties, I have another section of Dungeons & Dragons this quarter, which though it takes a lot of prep, doesn’t require as much as it used to thanks to the number of times I’ve taught it now. I also have Creative Writing, which will run like a simpler version of my college course (this one will be one-on-one, just me and a fifteen-year-old student, so it won’t run — and can’t run — exactly the same as a college course designed for two dozen 20-year-old students).

I have a bunch of other classes that will require some significant prep time though. I’ve taught on similar topics in the past, but these classes really need to be designed from the bottom up if I’m to address the unique needs of this year’s crop of students.

The first new class is called Talking Politics, Religion, and Sex: The Art of Difficult Conversations. This class will meet three times a week and include five upper-level students (the youngest is fifteen; the oldest is nineteen). I’ve asked one of the older students to act as our facilitator so that she can develop and demonstrate her speaking and listening skills as per her graduation requirements. The other students and I will act as the interlocutors, sharing our understandings and opinions on various difficult topics of the day. The students will participate in the selection of the daily topics, but I will provide each week’s general theme (politics, religion, or sex, for example).

I don’t want the class to just be a bullshit session, however, so each week will also include direct instruction in the various strategies, styles, and norms that come into play when we engage in difficult conversations. This isn’t something I can pull off the top of my head. I will need to do some research if I’m to understand exactly what I need to teach and then some creative time if I’m piece it back together in a form my students will recognize. Finally, I’ll need to do some systematic thinking to understand how I can weave the direct instruction into the flow of an overwhelmingly dicussion-based class.

The second new class is Women’s Studies, with a dose of Marginalized Communities. I’ve taught a version of this before during a series of seminars on the historic waves of Feminism, but that was to a classroom full of eager philosophy students. This version needs to meets the unique needs of a single teenage boy.

I have one intention with this class: to get this teenage boy to not become a sexual assailant. As a teenage boy growing up amidst rural poverty and ignorance, he is, unfortunately, at risk. I’m creating this class solely for him, and I’m creating it as the father of a young girl, the mentor to dozens of other young girls, and the professor of over a hundred young women. I don’t do this to protect them; I do this to make their lives easier and to ensure their sexual experiences are more free from tragedy than those of their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and so on back through eternity.

We see a lot of memes about the shotgun-toting father. I’d like to see one about the story-telling teacher, the one who can engender enough empathy in his male students that they begin to value their female counterparts not just for their bodies, but for their minds and their spirits, a teacher who turns his young male charges into boys and men who can see in girls and women the same struggles and desires that they see in themselves, and realize, when they look into their faces, that they’re looking at human beings, creatures with a right to just as much liberty as them, and not one iota less. Where’s that meme, huh?

So that’s the self-righteousness that I’m bringing into the class, which is obviously not a good thing. Self-righteousness does not a good teacher make. I need to tone it down and simply meet the kid where he is at…and then gently lead him into the future with the rest of us, a future where women are truly equal, not only in their opportunities, but in their estimations.

The “dose of marginalized communities” is included in the title as a tangential topic because it’s not my motivating force, but I do understand that the lack of empathy that opens him up to being a potential sexual assailant lies at the root of not only misogyny, but also of racism and nationalism, two more ideologies that lie like a curse across this country’s future. This understanding will be like a bass line beneath all of our discussions, but the class will focus more directly on his relationship to women; that is the fault line that will shake him to his core and loosen his ideologies up for a shift on everything else. I’m still not sure how to do that though.

Another relatively big class I need to teach is Civics. This particular class includes five students ranging in age from fourteen to nineteen, and all of them were assigned to it (i.e., this is not a class they’ve asked for). I’ve taught some version of civics in a variety of contexts, including a deep dive into the Supreme Court and others into some of the agencies subsumed under the Executive branch.

But this class is a little bit different. First, I’ve yet to teach this particular combination of students, and I’m unclear as to how well they can work together, let alone my reservations as to how each of them will work (or can work) on their own. Leaving that aside, I’m also unclear as to my overall objective with the class. When the class is all said and done, what do I want them to understand and what do I want them to be able to do?

Two of my five students are eligible to vote. The other three are not far behind. When it comes time, I want all of them to be able to do that — to vote — and to do it in as informed a manner as possible. I don’t want to shape the way they think about political topics (they can vote for whatever and for whomever they like), but I do want to shape the way they think about their role in our government.

I want them to see the entire tree of our democracy, understand its main branches (including the military), and feel their own standpoint as being deep down among the roots. I want them to understand how their actions and their decisions help feed the entire tree. I want them to have a sense of civics that is less “how a bill becomes a law” than it is “how a person becomes a country.” I think that could be kind of fun.

I’m also teaching a small class to two students about The Art of the Sentence. I haven’t taught this one before, but I’d like to make it a staple of my quarterly offerings.

The majority of my high school students hate to write, and most of them have been socially promoted throughout their education, leading to a situation where not only do they hate to write, but they flat out don’t know how to.

I haven’t ever addressed this question head on. I’ve focused more on the shallowness of their thinking than on their inability to write down their thoughts (neglecting, in the process, a major contributor to the cause of their shallowness). With so many of them hating to write, I concentrate a lot on their verbal skills (hence, Dungeons & Dragons), trying to get them to ask questions when they don’t understand something and to reiterate a speaker’s points when they think they do. When I’ve forced them to write, I’ve concentrated on the way they introduce, support, and transition through their ideas, focusing my instruction on the highest levels of their argument.

I’m hoping this new class will correct my error. By reducing their focus to the sentence (rather than to, say, the paragraph or the argument), I hope to change the entire game that they’ve been taught to play, and in the process, try to engender a new joy for writing.

I don’t yet know how to do that exactly. I don’t know what example sentences to provide; how much grammatical jargon to use, and whether to teach it and insist on its use directly; how much time to spend on punctuation; when to introduce each piece of new information; how to assess for their understanding and practice; etc. But regardless of how I do it, I know I have to do it, and for that, I’m excited.

The final class on my upcoming schedule is called Technology. It’s a one-on-one class with a graduating student who simply needs a quarter-credit in Technology to graduate. Essentially, I can make the class about anything, as long as it includes technology. I have a couple of ideas: podcasting; blogging; a conceptual breakdown of the Internet, supported by technical materials…but I haven’t spoken with the student about it yet, so I don’t want to make any assumptions. The podcasting thing could be fun, but we’ll see — it’s really up to him.

That may seem like a lot to prep before January 23rd, and the truth of the matter is that it is, but each of the topics are of real interest to me, so the prep is something I’ll enjoy. I’m sometimes too busy or exhausted for it, but I know that every moment I can give to it will pay me back in spades.

I guess one word for what I do is called work, but working is easy when you truly love what you do.

Compliments, Criticisms, Questions?