Saturday, November 9, 2013

Being Human

It is amusing for me to watch the student office aides when they walk into my classroom with a note for one of the kids in my class, simply because most of the time it's difficult for them to find me.  It's clear from the look on their faces that they don't expect to me to be seated around the table with my students.  Most often they look toward the board first, then toward my desk, and finally toward the lectern, at which point I raise my hand, waving it back and forth to get their attention and inform them of my location.  The same thing happens when another teacher unfamiliar with Harkness comes to my room.  The administrators, however, are not only used to the fact that they won't be able to immediately locate me in my classroom, but they will sit down at one of the tables with the kids when they come in to my classroom for one of their monthly walk-through observations.  

While I never would have expected to be saying this a couple years ago, there's no place I'd rather be in the classroom than seaeted with the students.  When I used to lecture, I tried as much as possible to be a real person. When we went through the homework, I didn't rely on prepared notes or the work I had done in going through the exercises ahead of time.  Instead, I worked through the problem, talking through my thought process, and, yes, occasionally making mistakes.  I didn't try to hide the fact that I make the same sorts of mistakes the kids do...mistakes along the lines of 1x1=2 (which, for the record, is a mistake I made on one of my Ph.D. preliminary exams).  In short, I didn't hide the fact that I am human.  There are some teachers who feel threatened by even the possibility that they might make a mistake in front of their students, and even when they do they try to cover it up rather than simply admitting it and moving on.  They don't make a move at the board without first consulting their notes or the textbook.  They promote an air of invincibility and absolute control that, quite honestly, I have never understood.  In my opinion, this is one of the reasons some teachers are hesitant to implement, or are even hostile to the idea of trying, a discussion-based method of instruction in their classroom.  They cannot bear the thought of not being the infallible master of the domain that is their classroom.  They cannot bear the thought that their students just might figure out that they are human.  

For me, building a solid rapport with my students has always involved making sure the students understand it's not me against them, but rather us working together to help them learn the material.  And one of the things I love most about Harkness is that I get to sit at the table with the students and just by the physical arrangement of the room emphasize that we are in this together.  I love the fact that I get to hang out with the kids a learn some math.  And yes, I've learned plenty of math from the kids over the years, most especially during the last year and a half.  I love the fact that they know I'm not perfect, and that one of the things they learn in my classroom is that it's ok to make mistakes so long as you admit them, learn from them, and try to avoid them in the future.  In the course of the discussions, I find out more about the kids than just their math ability.  I find out about their other classes and the parts of their lives outside the classroom they are willing to share.  I get to hear about marching band rehearsal, soccer practice, youth  group, Catcher in the Rye, and family holiday traditions.  In turn, they get to find out that I'm very sarcastic, that I root for the Buckeyes, that some of the novels they have to read for English class I like but others I don't, that church is important to me, and so on.  In other words, without crossing any inappropriate lines, we get to be real with one another.  We get to be human.  And against the backdrop of being human, we learn some math for 70 minutes a day.  I honestly can't imagine my classroom being any other way.

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