Monday, July 30, 2012

The Joys of Summer School

I have spent the last few weeks teaching a summer course in writing and college readiness to incoming freshmen.  My 28 students are all women, and all biology majors.  The program is structured so that they spend the entire day, eight to three, in a room bristling with technology.  There are 25 PCs, four hook-ups for additional student laptops, a SMARTBoard and Epson Projector, four LCDs for display, and all of it controlled by the Utelogy Techpod within the studio.  That is what the room is called, not a classroom, but a studio.  The techpod is embedded in the teacher’s podium, giving me the feeling that I am either piloting a 747, or about to start World War III.  Heady stuff for a dyed-in-the-wool chalkboarder like me.

The students have three hours of math, an hour of writing or critical thinking, an hour of college readiness, and a concluding hour of scientific research with time for lunch and a few breaks sprinkled throughout to give them a chance to breathe.  When I arrive for my writing workshop, they are usually working in groups or one-on-one with a computer finishing their math projects.  I find them to be eager students, even with writing, which many of them will attest is not their strongest subject.  How I wished to proceed was left entirely up to me, and as I began to plan my lessons, my question was quite simple:  what do they need to know about writing as they begin their college experience?  The college readiness portion, which I was team teaching with a colleague, would cover the personal issues of moving to the college level along with some of the academic challenges.  Students new to the rigors of college life are often thrown off their game by disappointments, failures, family problems, roommate issues, and day-to-day survival.  Many of my students are the first generation in their families to attend higher education.  They need healthy doses of perseverance, diligence, resilience, and courage to push through the loneliness and stress of study.  I sometimes have to remind myself that even though college students appear to be adults, they are still children in many respects.  They need time for relaxation and play to break up the routines of study and classwork.  My guiding question for college readiness was, what do they need to know about life?

My writing workshop was a challenge with such a short time frame.  Do I begin with the building blocks of composition, like grammar, sentences, and usage?  Do I jump in with whole writing, throwing topics at them to compose on demand, following up with an analysis of the results?  Do I need to cover the writing process:  prewriting, note-taking, forming a thesis, outlining, drafting, and developing revision strategies?  I knew for sure they would need to know how to research within the MLA and APA formats and how to document sources.

I decided to get them writing as soon as possible, so I walked in the first day and gave them a question to respond to and about 15 minutes to write.  We shared a few pieces, and then launched into a grammar lesson, beginning with common sentence patterns and subsequent errors.  The journal writing went well and seemed to be embraced by the students, but when the grammar portion started, my lesson died.  The connection between writing and grammar was a bridge too far.  They began to tune out, to lose focus, and I flailed away trying to keep things going.  It became clear very early on that the goal of each session would be to get the students composing their words in a coherent and organized fashion.  If we could do that, something major would be accomplished.  If I could integrate the mechanics of writing, all the better, but the students needed to write every day.

In the college readiness portion, I realized that although they had been taken on a tour during the perspective students’ visit to campus, they did not know many of the basic offices and officials they would need to contact to complete their registration and get enrolled in the proper courses.  I decided to take them on a survival tour of the school.  This also served another purpose:  they had been sitting in the room for quite a bit of the day, and a brisk walk would get the blood flowing.  What happened next, I did not expect.

We traveled through the halls and offices of the campus and finished on the top floor of the Humanities building which overlooks the Getty Center, downtown L.A. to the east, and Santa Monica Bay to the west.  I was halfway down the hall when I realized I was walking alone.  Behind me was a chorus of excited voices.  I turned to find 28 faces peering out the window at the incredible view, a view that was so commonplace to me that I usually breezed right by it.  The students, however, were mesmerized.  As we passed between buildings and traversed the walkways and paths around campus, the students stopped to watch lizards dart away into the flower beds.  Several noticed the hawks swirling in the updrafts over the Santa Monica Mountains.  I told them some of the history of the campus and its buildings, and they listened, truly interested.  In the science building, they crowded around the doorways and windows of the biology labs.  This is where they would be doing most of the work in their majors, and they were actually excited to see the classrooms.

This summer, I have been reminded that education should tap into a student’s sense of awe and wonder.  This is not easy to do in our superficial, cynical world, but when the moment comes, we need to run with it.  Education at its core must be joyful and offer discovery of the world, of self, of what it means to be alive.  I have asked my students this summer to tell me what negatively colors the educational experience for them.  They told me they hate teachers who are stale, who are old, not in age, but in spirit.  Teachers who are flat, unenthusiastic, and condescending ruin the educational experience for them.  When a teacher finds joy in teaching and learning, it makes all the difference.