Monday, November 17, 2014

Another Sign My Teaching Has Changed

I granted my 12th graders 90 minutes to work on a research paper due Wednesday. I pretty much stayed out of their way, rotating through to deal with individual issues regarding citations and organization. I gave some instruction about some methodological issues and made some materials available they might find useful. But generally, I let them work. And they worked. The conversations I overheard consisted mostly of peers checking with one another on how to cite a source, or how they'd recommend structuring an argument. The talk and work, the hum of activity, showed me that they came prepared.

Today was one of many signs that my efforts to create a the culture I've wanted with these seniors has largely paid off. 

There was another sign. I called one of my students aside to congratulate him on earning a perfect score on Friday's test, a test I'm returning to the class later this week. A smile beamed across his face. "Hey, that's the first unit that I read the chapters for!"

I exercised my discretion by not reminding him of the dangers of ending a sentence with a preposition. 

I don't doubt that it was the first exam for which he adequately prepared. I've approached the economics course I teach in something of a casual style. There is no point value for homework completion or for quizzes. The only grades that matter, really, are for exams and projects. I permit students the freedom to evaluate the costs and benefits of spending their time to prepare for class. They can conclude whether or not they were satisfied with the grades coming forth from their efforts. Teaching this course has given me the humility to know that despite the best of my efforts, some of the material will come more easily to some than to others. My understanding of the nature of kids is that they need to experiment with cutting corners and taking risks. 

Some might say that I'm irresponsible for not requiring reading and homework, for not demanding more of a commitment from my students. Yet I consider myself privileged to be in a position, due to my experience and credibility, to offer my students the chance to take risks and figure out what they want. It's an over-programmed world, a world in which kids are accustomed to adults making the major decisions for them. AP Macroeconomics is a forum in which I can let them dabble with responsibility and irresponsibility, and let them figure out what they're capable of doing, even if doing that means learning from the lessons of underperforming. 

I'm learning a lot this year about fostering the atmosphere that I want to foster in my high school classroom. An atmosphere for learning about what's interesting, about cultivating curiosity, about how to model the way in which adults and adults-in-training work with one another. I'm learning a lot about engaging with kids who have a lot in front of them and a bewildering amount of stuff going on around them. I'm laughing a lot, and modeling what it is to be engaged with the news, real life, an academic discipline, and with intelligent, interesting people.

I'm also learning how one cannot conduct a classroom in a manner inconsistent with the values of the discipline one teaches. Economics often leads us to the conclusion "it depends." Economics teaches us that we can give our best efforts to make something more likely, but a lot of stuff can intervene. It's a different kind of humility than the discipline of history, the discipline in which I have my formal training. And, sadly, it's a discipline that commands such a different outlook on how I should engage the learner that I might become unsuitable for teaching history. 

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