Saturday, February 18, 2012

On a good (teaching) day...

Getting it       When teaching presents frightening encounters, I feel that I cannot cower. Nor can I ask my irate student to “step outside” for a well-deserved thrashing. Indeed, in a perfect world, I would push a button that would immediately connect me with an intervention specialist who would appear instantly to diffuse the crisis.

Instead, what happens is usually very positive OR very negative. Recently, a fellow lecturer wrote that a student with an attitude “...gathered her stuff and left slamming the door hard enough to break it.” Because that has happened to me, I knew the feeling that must have prompted.

When I experienced it in one of my classes, I cringed.

Of course, I couldn’t let my students see that I was upset. That may have encouraged more of them to follow a bad example. Transforming such experiences into teachable moments proves to be a better answer.

Especially if I’m dealing with a concept that seems so absolutely simple and so easy to grasp that it can’t be misunderstood. Chances are that, for some, it hasn’t been clear. That was true yesterday when I discussed colonialism as a means of cultural injection. Building on that theme, I was going to give, as an example, America’s transformation from thirteen colonies to thirteen states.

“What effect did that change from colonialism have on the citizens’ cultural identity?”

What followed was NOT a perky discussion of America’s emerging personality. One important question blocked that smooth transition. Indeed, I saw the question on the face of at least one student before anyone asked it.

I stopped, looked at the student, and asked her what she was thinking.

Offended, it seemed, by my assumption that the entire class understood what ‘colonies’ and ‘colonolialism’ were, she said “I don’t know a thing about colonialism.” She spoke with a certainty meant to cast blame on me for not making the meaning of that term clear.

“Then consider this,” I said, as I pointed to one of my Spanish speaking students who sat on the front row. “She speaks Spanish and she lives in Mexico. But Spain is thousands of miles away, more than an entire ocean from Mexico. Why is that?”

I discussed the term indigenous to describe languages and cultures that had been replaced by the Spanish conquerors. “She,” I said, pointing to my student on the front row, “speaks Spanish because her country was colonized. By Spain.”

I looked around at one of my brighter students, a woman who seemed to enjoy being challenged. To the class in general, but to her specifically, I said, “Just imagine what languages and cultures the Spaniards replaced when they colonized Mexico.” Then I looked at her directly and asked, “Wouldn’t that be an interesting study?”

She shook her her yes.

“Think about this,” I continued. “What if people could be colonized without the use of arms, without regard for boundaries? What if cultures could be transplanted and replaced instantly rather than the way the Spanish did when they conquered the Incas at Macchu Picchu?” We had seen a documentary about that the week before.

Blank stares met my words. In answer, I said, “Facebook.”

Their haze lifted. “What if I told you about a friend who was a miracle worker, who could cure people by laying on hands? What if I told you that all you had to do was to believe in my friend and you, regardlless of where you were, would have access to his miracles?” I added this: “Isn’t that a form of colonialism? In place of what you didn’t believe to be possible, you now were filled with a belief that it is!”

“I don’t have a friend who does those things,” I admitted. “But what if someone had a belief system that was made to sound so appealing to you that you wanted to replace all that you had believed with the new system? And what if that new system was spreading to the minds of people all around the world? In fact, what if that system had as its goal the takeover of our country just by colonizing our minds?”

I reminded my class about the words I had asked them to define a week before. “How does that relate to hegemony and to caliphate?”

My student who had complained that I hadn’t explained what colonialsim and colonizing meant was the first to answer.

“It’s a form of colonizing our minds,” she said.

“Exactly!” I stated, then asked the class to applaud her realization.

They did. It was time to leave, but I heard a lot of buzzing and chatter. Ideas were being shared and examined. Even my Spanish speaking student had been shaken, but in a good way.

As for the student who might have walked out of the class, I sensed that she was set to earn an A this semester.

                         B. Koplen   2/18/12

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