I had one of the most amazing teaching experiences this past month- the kind that sustain you and reinforce that I am in the right field. I taught a class called “Diversity in the Classroom”- for the first time ever. It’s a required course for people who are thinking about being teachers- and so there is a wide mix of “maybe I want to be a teacher… or a nurse… or something with kids?”, to “I’m going to be an elementary school teacher”, to “I love English, so I guess I’ll get a teaching degree”, to “I heard this was supposed to be an easy class”. I’ve been teaching a long time, but this course was new to me, and the content “hot”, so I had prepped and prepped and prepped.
June 4– Room 213- blank walls. 1:00pm. Hot. The class started off inauspiciously. 25 students. 8 African-Americans. 4 males. Needless to say, that was exactly how the class was laid out geographically in front of me. The males on the edges of the aisle, African-Americans on one side, and white females on the other. I couldn’t have asked for a better sociological experiment if I had tried. “Oh wow- this is either going to be an amazing class, or they’re going to lynch me,” I thought as I stared out at a group of tired, crabby college students who were not, needless to say, excited to be spending every Tuesday and Thursday and Friday from 1-4:30 for four weeks in this hot, stuffy room. They perked up a bit when I informed them that, in fact, they would not be spending Fridays in this classroom, but having online discussions about the readings. Part of their grade was participation- both in class and online.
And so I waded in. I went over the syllabus. I reviewed the expectations. And then, we got to know each other. I asked them to share the stories of their names. One woman’s name is the result of her dad’s poor handwriting on a fax. Another is after her dad’s old girlfriend- a name originally unbeknownst to her mother. Another was named after her grandmother. Another, after what her parents thought was an unusual name- a name that was shared by three others in the class and countless others across campus. Humor and family stories and meanings began to creep out as people shared. And they were willing to share. We talked about how important names are- how they are part of your family history and part of your culture, and part of where and who you come from.
We talked about perspectives. I showed them my cell phone- a smart phone on one side, white plastic cover on the other. I asked two males from across the aisle from each other what they saw. They discussed how they “knew” it was a phone, but what they saw was just different parts of the phone. Different aspects. Different interpretations. And then, I brought up two women- one from each side of the room, and asked them what I could see from my perspective. With awkward glances and a literal step of discomfort backwards, they took turns muttering, “The class… it’s divided… blacks on one side… whites on the other…”. And we all stood there in discomfort, realizing that people tend to sit next to people who look like themselves, that you tend to find people who act like you do. And we talked about how this class would break down some comfort zones and that by recognizing differences, you might become uncomfortable. It is to be expected. It is going to happen. And in this class, I asked them to sit somewhere different every day so that they could see the class from different perspectives; so that they could see the class next to someone else.
And then, we went outside. I had them pick a blade of grass- one blade of grass. They got to “know” their grass for one minute. Then, they threw their blade of grass into a pile- a small pile of 30 blades of grass and I asked them to find their own personal blade of grass. Within 30 seconds, they had each found their individual blades. And we talked about how among a group that all appears the same, there are still differences; there are still things that make their blade of grass unique. And how this class was going to look at big differences, big labels and big groups, and how group membership was important, but so was individuality. And therein lies the balance of teaching.
And they listened. And they thought and they participated.
Month of June- After this amazing beginning, the class continued to blow me away. Their online discussions were rich and full. They read chapters on disability and cultural differences and language issues and gender differences. We used Paul’s Wheel of Reasoning to analyze a variety of articles from multiple points of view. Perhaps the most exciting part was that a number of philosophical differences emerged. There was the guy who was deeply conservative. The girl from a very conservative background who was beginning to think her own thoughts. “My family would kill me if they read this,” is how she ended her final paper. The very liberal girl. And they continued to listen. And they continued to dialogue and respect each other. It was a community of thought- not a commune with one single thought. They followed the ground rules established at the beginning. They put aside their differences and focused on becoming teachers. They sat all over the classroom, which made passing out papers challenging for me, but I was happy to see new discussions and new relationships forming.
June 29– And then- and THEN, they presented their “Cultural Autobiography”- an assignment in which they were to discuss their family background, family cultural values, and how those values might conflict with others. I asked them to make it visual, NOT a paper. I asked them to present it like a science fair, so that we could walk around and talk about it, rather than be “formal”. I asked them to think about how they are shaped by their families. I asked them to understand others by understanding themselves. I had no idea what to expect.
And what I got was true sharing. What I got was in-depth understanding. Even from the ones who had blown off the assignment and just brought in “stuff” to share- even from them, I got insight and humor and sharing and fellowship and discussion of how they were individuals and yet proud of, and part of their families. We learned about the woman whose family had been illiterate for so long, and she was the first to go to college, and so she made a scrapbook- the written down story of her family’s oral history. We learned about the woman whose family “started” with a slave woman and her master, and how there is no history before then, but every single member of the family is accounted for after them- and the importance of reunions. The power of their name. The man from Central America who traced his art and his path to Southeastern Georgia. We learned about a woman whose family is from here, but she grew up in Germany because her dad was in the military, so she is from here, but not of here- how she sees the world differently than her family who has never left. We learned of one man’s humility that he learned from his family who comes from poverty, but that they have a strong sense of self-reliance. How they farm and they value education as a means of freeing yourself. Another woman made a scrapbook of her family and shared some of the family tensions that strain at those bonds.
We learned each other’s stories and histories and values that were different and shared. We learned about each other as people. As more than the roles of students, more than race, more than gender. I thanked them for their honesty and that I was humbled that they would share to that degree.
July 1- We came back together for the final exam, and I was struck at what I saw. The class was all mixed-up. There were no patterns of gender, age, or race to be seen in the seating . They were still talking about the presentations and asking more questions to each other. I thanked them again for the experience and I asked them how this would impact their teaching. Their answers made me teary.
“I will absolutely do this with my class. It’s so important to see kids as individuals, but to respect where they come from.”
“I don’t understand teachers who say that a diverse classroom is a problem. There is so much to be learned from so many different kinds of kids”.
“I used to see us all as grass, but now I see us as the different blades of grass. I get what labels help us do, but I also see how labels are only a starting point.”
“We were able to share because you modeled listening. I know that I can make that difference in my classroom, too.”
Sometimes, teaching is learning. I learned that with respect and trust, you can accomplish a great deal in a class. I learned that disability and race and cultural differences can be celebrated. I learned about the value of relationships and the power of reaching and teaching. I learned why I am a teacher of teachers.
— and those of you lucky enough to have these college students as your child’s teacher in a few years? I am glad that they spent June in Room 213.