Every quarter I lead 50 college undergraduates in an inquiry-based course called “Teaching as a Profession.” My students are not teachers. At least, not yet. They are majoring in everything from Chemistry to Computer Science. But they are curious about teaching and so they sign up for the class. That, and they later tell me it “sounds easy.”
Imagine the looks on their faces when I tell them that they will be leading the course and doing most of the talking and question-asking. They cannot saunter in with a Starbucks in one hand and drop into a chair thinking I’ll do most of the cognitive heavy lifting. They’ve complied their way through school the last thirteen plus years. They are pros. They know when to add a question or make a comment to ring that participation bell. I was the same way. But this is not that class.
I wait to register their reactions. I’ve got their attention, that’s for sure. Around 3-4 will drop out. Those that return to the next class are placed into small teams of three. These teams are then assigned a 90-minute class period to design, lead and assess based on the reading.
I’ll never forget the first team to step up to the challenge. We had just finished reading a chapter from bell hooks’ book: Teaching to Transgress. This chapter explores the role of institutionalized racism and the effects of poverty on education. I’ll admit, I panicked a little. This was a heavy topic. How would they approach it? I sent emails over the weekend offering my help.
But their response was clear: We got this.
At the beginning of class, I made a few remarks and then took a seat in the back row. I held my breath. What would happen? How should I react? “Welcome,” one of them said. “We now invite you to leave your things here and step outside with us for a few minutes.”
Fifty students now spill outside of Miller Hall and stand on a chalk line that extends behind the quad. They form a line of babies. I don’t mean this euphemistically. “This line represents birth,” the team explains. For a few precious seconds everyone is equal.
The team then hands each student a stack of 16 papers stapled together. It is at this precise moment that I snapped the photo you see below. Each paper in this stack represents a major event in their fictional life. For example, your family enrolls you in Head Start – move two paces forward. Or, your mother is arrested for drug possession – move two paces back.
Significant life events and their research-based impacts are presented to students one at a time, year after year. “Your father loses his job.” Or “A teacher identifies you for the gifted program.” Each situation either moves them forward, backward, or keeps them rooted in place.
Towards the end of this simulation, I can see students visibly shaken. Many are so far behind they’ve literally hit the building’s brick wall. Some are so far ahead they cannot see their classmates anymore. The metaphor is beautiful, painful, powerful.
After they all turn 18, we slowly file back into the classroom and the team leads a discussion. Some feel angry. Others feel tremendous guilt. But it’s clear that everyone feels something. The ensuing discussion is deep and no one is ready to leave at the end of the class.
The pressure to lead a class or solve a simulated problem is far more motivating than the sort of pressure students usually face in classrooms. And they are allowed to play around with how they react and who they are.
As the quarter progresses, not one team defaults to a lengthy PPT-aided lecture. In fact, the simulations just continue and get more creative. My role shifts to meta-cognitive coach and resource. I rarely speak in class. And it’s the most fun I’ve had teaching in a long time.