Throwing agendas out the window

Last week, I had an extraordinary class.  One of the best by far.  And perhaps ironically, it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with getting me out of the way.

Let me start from the beginning.  This was for my BIC 1212 class, a sort of introduction to living an examined life while in college.  Our course pulls on the famous phrase from Socrates, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”  During this particular class, we were examining how to deal with conflicts appropriately using Olsen and DeFrain’s rules and regulations for fighting fairly.  I naively went into class thinking we would discuss each rule as well as bad fighting habits to avoid in great detail, with the class giving vivid examples and pulling on their own struggles as freshmen half-way through a semester of living with a complete stranger (their dorm roommate). “They will love discussing this stuff!” I thought to myself.

I was wrong.  Moments of silence and looks of disinterest stared at me from the classroom.  With the exception of a few dominant voices, most students looked like they weren’t even sure why they were there.  I can’t blame them.  In many ways, I was going against my one philosophy of teaching, which is to actively involve my students in the learning process by making it become alive.

Inside I was disappointed and panicked.  “What should I do?  How can I make them interested?” I thought to myself.  A-ha!  Interest.  Learning.  Creativity.  Doing.  All of these things sprung to mind.  “I have to find a way to make this stuff real,” I thought.  And in a teaching whim, I asked some student volunteers to come to the front of the classroom.  I had them come up with some fictional disagreement between roommates.  They chose not taking out the recycling and letting it pile up onto the other roommate’s side as their point of contention.  Then I told them to act it out as individuals who were engaging in a variety of the poor fighting techniques we had learned about.

The audience/class went wild.  And I have to say, my students really delivered with their performance.  They made us laugh, while all the while demonstrating many of the bad fighting techniques we had learned to avoid.  Next, I asked them to act out the same disagreement (recycling issue) but using all six rules of fair fighting.  They did so brilliantly, and the class loved it.
After this “mini play,” we went on to dissect what had just happened.  Which fighting techniques were used?  At what points can you see each of the six steps of fair fighting being used?  They had brought the whole article to life, which in turn made class more engaging.

The class loved it so much that they begged me to let them stay a little bit late after class to do the next exercise I had planned.  It was a good moment as a teacher.  When learning becomes something your students are passionate about and can’t wait to get their hands on, then you know you have done your job for the day.  Sure, I did not create a formal outline of the reading and go point-by-point through every part of the reading.  I started out doing that, but everyone was bored.  Instead of repeating what they already learned (from having read the article), I made them APPLY it.  And that’s when they came alive.  And the material came alive as well.

So yes, I’m hoping for more of those days this semester.  Thank you, brilliant students, for pushing me to teach better.

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About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

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