Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Wed, 15 Dec 1993
It was kind of nice walking this crisp morning. The air had just enough nibble. It made me feel alive. It sharpened the images that were dancing in my mind like sugar plum fairies. After almost a week I can still feel the excitement. I am still thinking in wonderment about my students during the last week in the Quarter. That last week started off as if we all had anchors around our minds and feet. There were just five days left. We had just come back from a week-long Thanksgiving break, and I think they were still concentrating on all that food in their tummies rather than the forthcoming food for thought. It was hard to get back in the rhythm for the remaining week. Many triads were about to make "final exam presentations." I was anxious. I didn't know what any of them were going to do. A four triad group in my morning class had been scheduled to present, but eight of the students weren't in class. I waited a few minutes. No students. My palms were just a tad sweaty. I was thinking, "What if this idea of mine falls flat on its face? What the heck am I going to do then?" I had told them in the syllabus that they could use any format for their final exam: written essays, music, painted pictures, performed plays, sculptured figures, written diaries or letters, or whatever. The only requirement was that whatever they did had to capture and communicate the essence of their understanding of the historical issue. "Anything goes," I constantly told them in response to their nervous question, "What do you think about....?" I always threw it back to them. "What do you think? If you think it's a good idea, run with it. You don't need my approval. Trust yourselves." Of the forty triads in both freshmen classes, to my surprise, thirty-five scheduled to do presentations at the end of the quarter. This was to be the first. I kept telling myself, "Calm down. They won't let themselves down. You know what they can do." Then, I nervously second-guessed myself, "But do they?" I guess I wasn't as sure of myself or trusting of them as I should have been. I need not have worried.
Just as I was about to say something apologetic, Holly jumped up and yelled, "It's time to play 'Schmierpardy'!" To the theme song of Jeopardy, into the classroom trotted four students carrying a home-fashioned large 6'x 6' jeopardy-like board with categories, "people," "religion," "slavery," land," "government." More students poured in, pushed me aside, divided the class into three groups, and for the next thirty minutes proceeded to involve the class in a full game of "Schmierpardy," double "Schmierpardy" with a new set of categories, and, of course, final "Schmierpardy." There was an "Alex Trabek (sp)," the Jeopardy jingle with new lyrics, commercial breaks for sponsors such as the Erie Canal Company promoting westward expansion on "clean, safe and speedy water travel," and for such public service announcements as those presented by William Lloyd Garrison calling on people to "rouse themselves from their moral slumber" in support of the abolitionist Anti-Slavery Society. The place was joyous bedlam as the three groups vied to be the first to answer the questions. Each member of the winning group received a tootsie pop and the "right to return to Dr. Schmier's class next quarter." I got a courtesy pop. After all, I am the professor and I am entitled to a perk or two!
That was just the beginning! Next, a triad went to the front of the room while the place was still abuzz. The class quieted down as Debi began reading an entry from her journal: "As I sit here only one day away from Thanksgiving, I find my mind wandering to History class. I'm thinking about some of the discussions we had in class. The topic was a very sensitive one--prejudice. One thing that I think would help this country is to ask ourselves one question. Could we walk a mile in the person's shoes that we condemn?" So, the members of the triad, in answering the question dealing with the issue of unity and division in American history wrote an original song entitled "Could you Walk a Mile," with six verses and a chorus. Each verse dealt with a different issue of division and unity: religion, abortion, slavery, women, and sex. The last verse, about Vietnam, was dedicated to Don, one of their non-traditional classmates. It went like this: "He'd known the Ten Commandments from the time that he was five. But in the jungles of Vietnam, there was no wrong or right. He was a decorated hero when he stepped down off the train. But some folks in his hometown, only made him feel ashamed." Don, a Vietnam vet, had tears in his eyes. When they finished, you could hear a pin drop. We quietly left class anticipating the next day.
The next day proved to be no less exciting, nor did the rest of the week. As each triad or group of triads presented, these freshmen, whom a colleague just before the holiday break described in frustration as "airheads," cooked up a smorgasbord of creative, imaginative, entertaining, innovative and substantive learning dishes. Everyone, myself included, rushed to class each day with great anticipation to see what was the next surprise, the next treat, the next accomplishment. I wish there were time and space to describe all the recipes they concocted, all the delicacies we tasted. I wish I had command of the language to convey the supportive sense of family that bound those students together. There was no sense of cut-throat-back-stabbing competition. No losers; no winners; no embarrassment. It was astonishing. There was respectful laughter when one triad sang an original song off- key, a "negro, black, African-American folk spiritual" entitled "Slave Folk Can Survive;" there was clapping and dancing to the rap, "Let's Talk About History;" and there was reflective silence as the class listened to original poems, "And They Call Me Racist" and "A Woman's Lot." There was a 50 word down/across crossword puzzle worthy of any Sunday supplement dealing with the impact of science and technology on American culture that we all had fun struggling to solve; more original songs and lyrics; poems about the American Revolution, the Civil War, industrialization, women issues and racial strife. One poem, "The Good Ole Days," was submitted and accepted for publication. Julie, who was scared to say a word in class all quarter, stood up and told the class, "This poem grew out of this class. The way I see it, if it's good enough to win a contest, it's good enough for a final. Besides, Dr. Schmier said time and time again that it's our class. So, I figure why not turn a poem into my answer to one of the final exam questions. This poem says to me what a five-page essay would say. I hope you all agree. But, this is our choice." It took guts for her to say that in front of me, and she had prodded the other members of the triad each to write an original poem of their own. >From other triads came an oil painting of a slave mother holding her child in the middle of a cotton field entitled, "No future;" another oil, a two-color oil, on slavery entitled, "A Study in Black and White Anger; a pen and ink drawing of a faceless slave called, "Ain't I a Man?", a talk show called, "Makers of American Society," in which Andrew Carnegie, Sojourner Truth and Dorothea Dix were interviewed and fielded questions from the class; a magnificent eight-page, desk-top-published newsletter bannered "American Culture," complete with a multitude of short articles on a variety of subjects, a crossword puzzle, political cartoons, a comic strip, a colonial Irma Bombeck column, a victorian Dear Abbey column; a puppet play in three short acts entitled, "Let's Outrace Race." There were collages dealing with religious diversity, racial prejudice, industrialization, and one entitled, "United States, a Country of unending revolution." One triad put together a 40 minute musical anthology drawing together religious tunes, revolutionary songs, country folk tunes, negro spirituals, tunes from West Side Story and Hair, depression songs and so on. Another triad created a 30 minute video tape on the role of women in American history. A third did a video tape on the issue of individual rights. And a fourth, merely gave me a large envelope as its presentation. It was entitled, "America, the magnificent jigsaw puzzle." Inside was a note. It read: "You made us work our tails off. Now if you want to give us a grade, you have to work yours off." Inside was a collage cut into a 200 piece jigsaw puzzle. It took me two hours to put it together!! It's a good thing I'm a nice guy. And, as if a grand finale was planned, the last group of triads on the last day, had the class playing on a life-size game board called the "Magic of History" modelled after the game "Sorry." There we were, rolling over-sized dice, moving each other, answering very good question cards, discussing wrong answers. Winners got tootsie pops, me included.
After watching the awesome raw intellectual and artistic talent that surfaced, after reading these students' final self- evaluations and some of their journals, which I wish you could read, I have come to believe that self-worth, creativity and learning are in some way very close to each other. I'm not sure how, but during the last week of classes and on into exam week I saw evidence of that relationship. I saw students putting aside their self-deprecating, "I can't," "I'm scared," "I'm a listener," and "I'm not" part of them that they so often let get in their way. I saw them take the chance on themselves and, to their surprise, be creative, imaginative, exciting, entertaining, different, risky, substantive. I saw them find a way of expressing their uniqueness, of listening to the part of themselves that knows what's the truth about them and that speak in a simple, real, common, and yet powerful way. I saw them move closer inside themselves, to see a part of themselves that they can know is true about them.
You know, I am amazed by students. We teachers should look at them, and they should look at each other in wonderment. We should give ourselves half a chance to believe in them, to give them half the chance to believe in themselves. Students do not come to school to fail. Getting an "F" is not high on their priority list. They do not expect to fail. With few exceptions they continue to try. They struggle to stay awake. Yet, as we all know, too many quickly start to fall into a defensive sleep. And though it doesn't make teaching fun for us, we let too many of them remain in the blissful arms of Morpheus. A "Silent Majority" still unfortunately exists in all too many of our classes. Maybe one reason is that most teachers and parents motivate students to perform out of fear. They admonish, scream, advise, warn: "You're going to fail if you don't...."; or "You'll be on probation if you don't...."; or "You won't be good enough to...."; or "You won't get into graduate school if you don't...."; or "You won't get that job if you don't....."; or "You'll be a 'loser' all your life if you don't....."
I've heard them all. In past years, I've even used them. But, they are terrible images. Fear has an adverse effect on the students' performance. I know that. I don't think education is a reward and punishment system. It's not about getting people to change out of fear of being ignorant or jobless or left out as if they were lab rats in a psychology experiment being prodded by an electrified grid. It is about showing people how they can increase the quality of their lives, and if they can get a good job as they probably will, that's great, too. It's a matter of educating students, of showing them how they have potential. It's about getting them to believe in themselves. It's about creating new hopes, new dreams, and new opportunities they probably didn't think or know about. Our students are a heterogenous mix. Different students bring different perspectives, different preparedness, different talents, different gifts, different this, and different that. Why is it so terrible to play to those differences? Different means only assorted, diverse, unique, distinct, separate or varied. It does not mean better or worse, right or wrong, good or bad, smart or dumb, intellectual or "high schoolish." That's why I always say, education is not a thinning out or sorting game, separating the supposed bright from the supposed average or dumb, based on an arbitrary one-dimensional measurable scale. The trick is to have each of them develop his/her own voice and acquire the confidence to sing solo. It's about teaching people to learn that there is so much to learn out there and inside them that they didn't know was worth learning. It's about lighting up lives, not dimming them. And, these students have been lit up. My, oh, have they been lit up. So have I. And as I retain the memories of these classes and I am constantly reminded of them by their creations which I have on exhibit in my office, I remain lit up. I'm already looking forward to next quarter, anxiously and expectantly asking myself "what unexpected wonders will come into the classroom."
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) firstname.lastname@example.org Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____