Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Sat, 30 Apr 1994
I went out walking late, real late. My son had a party at the house last night. And while the music was delightful, there was no chance of getting any sleep. So, there I was out walking with the temperature as high as the coming south Georgia summer noon sun. As sweat poured off me in a network of small streams, I was in deep reflection about a bunch of things which have occurred during the past two weeks. I was thinking very humbly about Julissa using me as the subject of an English composition class essay on the most influential professor she has had at the university. I thought of Tom bravely standing before the class on Thursday to tell them about how he failed last quarter, decided to challenge himself to repeat the class, challenging others in the class to risk challenging themselves, and offering his assistance in that effort. He got a tootsie pop on Friday. The picture of Kirk popped into my mind. During the quiz on Friday, normally quiet, shy Kirk had called me over to ask me what the word "volatile " meant. "Don't ask me," I replied. "Stand up and ask the others." He hesitated. The other members of his triad encouraged him. Despite feeling self-conscious, he stood up and asked. He got his answer. Seeing that it was not an embarrassment to ask for help, it was just a few minutes later that another student stood up to ask about the word "sanction." Then, a few minutes after that still another without hesitation stood and asked about "tacit." I went over to Kirk and whispered, "See, what you started?" He'll get a tootise pop on Monday. There was Ray, a non-traditional student who had spoken with me in my "office" one afternoon to explain how a discussion we had in class about slavery had a profound effect on him, and how much he owed to Yemenja, an African-American, non-traditional Muslim student, for her impassioned comments during that discussion. "Don't tell me," I told him. "Tell her." He did. As I was passing out the quiz, he asked if I could stop because he had something he wanted the class to hear. He got up and explained that he had never thought about the cultural amnesia that the slaves and subsequent generations of African-Americans had to suffer, and the damaging impact that had and still has on the African-American psyche. "I went home that night and had a long conversation with my wife," he said. "I will see to it that my daughter will understand that. It's not much, but it's a step. And I want to profoundly thank you, Yemenja, for that understanding. You opened my eyes and I hope I can help open other eyes." Across, the room, tears swelled up in Yemenja's eyes. I noticed that hers were not the only watery eyes. After class Ray came to me and said, "Was that OK? I sort of fumbled around and rambled." I quietly replied, "It was deeply sincere. You can't ask anymore than that of yourself." Then, there is Mark, an eighteen year old, first generation college student. Mark had come to me about ten days ago to talk. He wanted to tell me that the reason he didn't engage in discussions during class was that he had been brought up to listen respectfully to adults. "It's not considered proper in my family," he explained at one point, "for the kids to say anything or interrupt or join in when the adults were talking." I replied, "I can understand that, but you told me that you're eighteen. When are you going to start becoming an adult? When are you going to start talking so the children listen?" He was quiet for a minute and said, "I never thought about that." Well, Friday I told Mark that he hadn't handed in his journal for the week. In reply, Mark said he wanted to talk with me after class. "Dr. Schmier," he started the conversation as we sat on the steps, "I've been wondering what a college education is really for. I mean, I know a lot of people who are making a lot of money who never went to college. If a college education is so important, it has to mean more than a job and money. I've been trying to write about that in my journal. What will it do for me as a person?" Boy, talk about being caught off-guard. I thought he was merely going to give me some lame excuse for not having handed in his journal or having missed class on Thursday. Now, I saw he had happened upon the "right" question to ask. I suddenly focused in on every word he said, every gesture he made. My "blueberries" were at full alert. We talked on those steps for over an hour. In the course of our conversation, we talked about him getting out of a college education what he puts into it, about what he wants out of an education and thinks he should want out of it. I told him not to ask what a college education would do for him, but what will he do with a college education. We talked about how, ideally, a college education can provide him new horizons, new flexibilities, new options; about how, ideally, it could teach him how to live, how to grow as a human being, how to learn; about how, if he wanted a real college education, he could have experiences rather than get grades. At the end of our talk, he asked, "Could I hand in my journal on Monday? I have a lot to think about and write about." I told him to hand in the journal at the regular time on Wednesday. As he got up and said, "Yeah, you've given me a lot to think about and write about," I sat there for a minute or two, a bit stunned, wondering if I was witnessing a creation, thinking to myself "when the heck did all this happen? How does it happen?"
Mark is not in Julissa's class; nor is Ray or Yemenja or Tom. Maybe the "stuff" project had some catalyzing effect I hadn't anticipated. "Stuff" is a bonding and self-development project. I got the idea while attending a conference on teaching. I had introduced it as closure at the end of class last quarter. The students went wild for it, but strongly suggested that I start using it about four weeks into the quarter to help the triads bond about. So, to the surprise of this quarter's students, I had walked into class last week carrying a large roll of butcher paper on one shoulder and a box of color markers under the other arm. "We're going to do 'stuff' today," I proclaimed. I told them that each triad had to design a "family" symbol or crest, and come up with both a motto and name that would express the collective personality of their triad. They stared at me. From the stunned expressions on their faces, I could tell they were thinking, "where did he come up with this one?" Then, the whole place quickly exploded into a mass of fervent movement and zealous excitement. Some cut a sheet of paper and rushed out of the class.
With coffee in hand, and swirling a tootsie pop in my mouth, I watched the students spread out all over the floor of the class, out in the surrounding hallways, and outside on the entrance sidewalk to the building as they hovered and crowded around large pieces of butcher paper. They were lying prone, leaning, kneeling, sitting. In the classroom, chairs were pushed aside and even piled on top each other. Color markers were scattered about. All sound was drown out by the din of laughter, discussion, small talk, argument, joking. Bodies were hopping about, hands were moving all directions, heads were bobbing and nodding, brows were wrinkling, eyes were staring. The students were pushing each other in friendly banter. Everywhere, splotches of color were appearing in psychedelic delight on the paper.
The place was oozing with concentration, imagination, reflection, hesitation, creativity, adventure, discovery, innovation as the students struggled to find those common bonds. They were having fun exchanging, analyzing, searching, evaluating and deciding with each other, about each other, and about themselves. They discussed, argued, and pondered as they grappled to design a crest and come up with both a motto and name that would best express their triad. As they worked feverishly and vocally, faculty and students passed by, stepped over, walked about. Most gave them strange looks. A few even stopped and talked. The students thought it was interesting. The faculty who passed by thought it was "cute" or "silly."
One colleague from another department, however, asked with a scornful smirk on his face, "Schmier, not again. What's it this time? Looks like kindergarten." Not appreciating his comment, a couple of the students gave him hidden scornful glances in return.
"No," I answered with great enthusiasm. "It's a bonding exercise to create a feeling of family and to help strengthen the sense that the class is a mutually supporting learning community. They're getting to understand each other better and to get closer so they can work with each other and help each other better."
"You're crazy as hell," he laughed with obvious suspicion about my sanity. "I thought you taught history."
"I teach students," I proudly informed him.
"You're no professor. You're a teacher." I took that as a compliment. I don't think from his tone of voice and body language, he had meant it as one. "Maybe, when you retire you ought to go to the elementary school."
He didn't get it. But, the students did, and that was more important. As I wandered about, I saw normally quiet, unsure, frightened students smiling and participating. I saw students ever so slightly opening that door and getting a peek at their inner potential. I saw students who "don't like to rely on others for their grade," relying on and coordinating with others. I saw cooperation and compromise as triad members trusted each other and divided up the responsibility: one coming up with a motto, another with the name, a third with the design, all of them modifying and adjusting their suggestions. I saw teamwork as students listened to each other and respected each other. Followers became leaders; leaders were told to lay off and, as one student forcefully told another in her triad, "trust us and give us a chance to show off what we can do."
After two days of working on this project, to cheers, applause, and whistles each triad presented their "heraldry" before the class. No list of their names or mottos, no verbal description of their crests, can do justice to their creations, but take my word that they were something else. I can say that from the reactions in class and comments written in journals, that the class experienced a growth in comradery, respect, a sense of closeness, community, family, a sense of mutual responsibility. Few thought in terms of less creative, or more artistic, or more this or more that; few thought in terms of competition. They were surprised that they had put so much effort into something that was not graded. The students themselves felt that the class took a great leap forward, and the subsequent discussions and openness seemed to indicate they were right. At least, for the moment.
It has been a powerful two weeks in class. I think seeking the acquisition of information is important, but "book history," as one of my students called it, is not ultimately the most important thing. At least, not for me. I'm not sure I know why what happens when whatever happens. I do know things happen, and I stand back amazed that they do. I wonder about it constantly. I'm not sure I want to analyze it, break it down into charts and statistics, rip it apart into its components. Dissecting any living entity merely gives you access to the structure, but it destroys the living spirit in the process. I much prefer the excitement of the unexpected, wondering what will or might happen on any given day. I think the spirit would be dampened by a predictability. Maybe it's that unknown that gives me a sense of adventure. I think that these events occur only as the students become aware of or feel the appearance of a sense of community, a "learning community" as it is called, in the class that is both mutually supporting and larger than themselves. As the class evolves, students begin to share their fears, their weaknesses, the murky part of them, their strengths, their light, who they are. Certainly, this is not true for all the students. As for me, I have to constantly be reminded by the serenity prayer of the struggle to change the things that I can, accept what I cannot change, and to know the difference. Nevertheless, a few, or some, or many, it varies from class to class, from quarter to quarter, seize the opportunity to start becoming whole. That's a healing experience for them. Except for those occasional visits from students and unsolicited letters, except for their journals, except for the personal and confidential conversations, I can't prove it; it's something I feel and experience. I can only share what that experience has been and what that feeling is.
I do, however, work hard to create whatever it is that is created. We are each a gift to each other. As my son was to me, I am hopefully to them, they to me, and they to each other. We are human beings, and to separate and isolate the students in the traditional asocial atmosphere and setting of the class, I think, is unnatural. Because of them, I have a much greater sense of the value of life and of what life can be, and the role an education as I understand it plays. I only hope that whatever it is I am doing for them and whatever they are doing for each other is as deep and lasting as what they are doing for me.
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" -\____