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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

34. My teaching life 6: What exactly happened?

I woke early this morning with memories of that amazing lesson still in my mind. But perhaps seeing more than was actually there. Perhaps I was creating a fantasy, something to make me feel good and keep my spirits up as winter approached.
And yet I had been sure that something of great significance had occured between 2.40and 3.20 yesterday. I decided to check out my perceptions, and ask the students who had been there to write their responses. That way, I'd have 20 or so views to go on, and not just my own.

I visited 9.2 in their HUmanities class, and the teacher agreed to allow me 10 or so minutes with them....
In all, 21 students who were in that Wednesday 9.2 class are in class today. I explain that I want them to write honestly about the session; I give them ten minutes. They settle reasonably quickly, and soon there is silence.

The first piece I read comes from one of the girls. It is very short. Jessica writes:

Yesterday in English Mr D conducted a litle Deep and Meaningful session about Stand by Me. It started off (we were) talking about the movie but then we bagan to talk about coming of age. I've never really seen the class so serious about something.

Her words reinforce my sense that something important, perhaps extraordinary, happened:

I've never really seen the class so serious about something.

As they finish, they hand in their sheets to me. I quickly skim the contents ... and know that I was right; what I thought happened had indeed happened.

Of course, this positive response is not universal. Two of the students were untouched by what occurred.

L. is one of the youngest in the class. My expectation - that the conversation will not have engaged him, either intellectually or emotionally - is borne out. He writes:

It was very very very very boring. All I did was laugh at people and get bored ... Some bits were funny though, like when Mike hit James with the rubber thing (he means the duster) and when Glyn said he tried to burn his parents room when he was five.
By Lachlan
PS It was very very very very very boring.

Clearly, Lachlan is not ready for this kind of conversation. His immaturity shows through in the flippancy of his writing.

Dylan mentions that Yesterday in English class we did something different but concludes:
I thought is was boring to tell you the truth.

I thought is was boring to tell you the truth.

These two students, for whatever reason, were not engaged.

Emerson, who is class captain, wrote about the way the discussion on the topic of 'coming of age' went:

... My response was that I had become more mature in a way that I could only describe as miraculous. I used to be a real pain by annoying people ...

Most of his year 7 and 8 teachers would agreem as would many of his friends.... but he goes on:

... but ever since one of my friend's mums died of cancer I am more aware of my surroundings and people's feelings. I believe this session helped our grade come closer friends and get to know each other better.

Robert wrote of how
people opened up about their experiences. It took all lesson and people confessed their feelings. I didn't say a single thing. I liked the session because we didn't do any work and we weren't forced to contribute.

Dominic has done a lot of growing up since the February fires of 2009, when his home burned to the ground, family friends died, and close family members - especially his grandparents - were lucky to get out alive. He wrote:

When we first started the conversation I thought it was going to be really boring, but as we kept talking it started to mean something to me. I started to think about how I came of age.... after my house burned down I started to learn the value of things and how to be strong for the family. After the fires I started to think that part of me became a man, and that I knew I had to be responsible from now on. ... Overall it was a great lesson.

Tracey describes how
The discussion turned into away for us to tell the others in our class how we'd grown up in the last couple of years ... I remember Mike saying something about when you get older you take on more rights and have more responsibilities... I said that school days are the best days of our lives and everyone was like, No Way! but after I explained it, they all understood what I was saying.
Everyone in the session matured a bit and I definitely learned something about myself and the rest of the class.

Glyn liked the duster idea. It was
good because when you had it you were the only one that could talk so you felt respected by others in the class.

Glyn movingly describes what he felt:
Some people really opened up and told us how they matured. At the end of thye lesson I have never done this wit a teacher but I went up to Mr D and thanked hoim for the lesson.

Like Tracey, Niki observed:
I actually quite liked yesterday's lesson and it was interesting to see how some members of our class matured over the period of the lesson.

People reading this might say of this piece: How can that be? How is it possible for people to 'mature over the period of a lesson'?

I'm taken back to that notion of moments: that we live our lives in moments, and that our lives turn on a moment. It is a rare thing for us, as humans, to be fully, intensely present in 'the moment'. As I write, I'm listening to the sounds outside my office, I'm aware of my tummy grumbling and the discomfort in my gut, I'm wondering about my Karin, my partner, and about what's for tea tonight. I'm partially focussed on this moment of writing, but I'm partially fractured too.

It's even rarer for two or three people to be intensely present in 'the moment'. Much of the time, the classroom is the last place you expect to find real intensity of focus. Such moments are so rare, and that is what makes them so special.
Cam's response is significant:

... we were going to have a good class discussion about the film Stand by Me. It became into a sort of sad discussion when I got asked how I have grown up in the past few years. I said that when my dad died I didn't understand it at first, because I was only little, but as the years wnet on I understood that I had no dad. So it was sad for me. Although I said I grew up because I got on with life and put it behind me and thougt of all the good in life. I know my dad would be proud of me. Overall, that day in English I thought it was a really good session for everyone.

An unidentified student wrote:
Everyone added to the talk ... Some people said some great things ... we discoverred more and more .... as we talked and talked.

Laura wrote:
Everyone satred to share persoanl stories from when 'coming of age' occured for them. It was a really good lesson and eveyone got a lot out of it.

Keeley's response was particularly insightful:
Aftre Mr D opened up about one of his stories the whole class, including me, I think were touched. Overall I enjoyed this conversation. Now I have a lot more respect towrads my classmates and new sub teacher.

Billy hit the nail on the head:
We all took it seriously after a while and some of us really opened up. I know I did when I said I have learned to cope and endure horrible things in life. Another good one to me was when Cam said that he had trouble growing up as a boy without a father. People don't realise (until they actually open up) how hard it is to admit something personal, or talk about something that has affected your life in a big way. The only sad thing is that people who haven't suffered from a life pain are oblivious to how much it can affect someone each day...

Jess' response was, as usual, thoughful:

The talk turned into away for us to tell the class about how about the way we have personally matured. I saw that what some people had said was very hard for them, like Cam telling the class about how his dad doied when he was only one, and (someone else) saying that her mum got very sick sometimes. I felt like I could have said something more powerful that had just happened inmy life, but I chose not to.

Lauren summed the lesson up as follows:

Yesterday we had an extraordinary English lesson. The class were seated in a circle and we had a very deep and insightful conversation o 'coming of age'. In the lesson the whole class was completely engaged throughout the 50 minutes and were interested and everybody listened to each other make valuable points and took turns holding the whiteboard eraser as they spoke....

I felt the class really connected with each other and think that some of the most valuable lessons are not ones dictated, written on paper, or wtached on TV - yet persoanl life experience, which is something they should teach in schools ...

We have spoken at length, at our school, about the need to engage our students. In this lesson, conducted by a young graduate teacher in his first year of teaching, engaged the students.

Lauren's version of what happened is not exactly true, of course. As these accounts show, not everyone was engaged, and not everyone was engaged for the full 50 minutes.

The gravity came upon us almost without warning. I think Keeley pinned it when she says that it was Mr D's story that was the turning point - at about the 20 miute mark or so. The film, Stand by Me, had become a focus for the class's attention for a week or more - it also 'engaged' the class, and Mr D had done a great deal of the groundwork that made this lesson, this miraculous moment, possible.

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