Friday, September 21, 2007

Phase One

The school year has its rhythms, and one of the punctuation marks at our school is parents' night. About a month into the school year, just before the first quarter progress reports come out, our school runs a program where parents come in for two and a half hours and go through an abbreviated version of their child's schedule, moving from class to class for ten-minute introductory sessions in which each teacher gives a brief overview of the course.

It always surprises me how fast the first month goes by and how soon parents' night arrives. I've come over the years to enjoy the experience. I like meeting with the parents, however briefly, and getting a chance to try to put the daily events of the semester in a broader context. With my second-semester sophomores, for example—the ones who took the first half of the course in summer school—I think of the trajectory of the semester as a three-part arc. The first month or so consists of a series of shorter readings and exercises designed both to introduce the students to some of the essential questions and process skills that they will be engaged with for the rest of the semester, and to acclimate the students to one another and to the culture of the classroom. I don't do things exactly the way that other teachers do them, and it takes a while for students to get a read on me and vice versa. One of the reasons that first month seems to go by so fast is that there are so many different sets of adjustments that we are making to one another.

Over the last few days, the class feels to me like its starting to come together. Today, the day after parent's night, there was something in the air that hadn't been there before. The students seem to be a little more focussed and a little less guarded. The class is starting to become a community; it feels like more students are looking around and saying "This is going to be okay." And I'm feeling that too.

The middle part of the arc for the sophomores covers the four or five weeks in which we will be reading together The Poisonwood Bible, which is still one of my favorite books and pretty much ideally suited for a course which a primary strategic focus has to do with learning how to shift your point of view, and why it might be important to be able to do that. It's a book which presents an extraordinary richness of opportunity for the aspiring critical thinker. There's food for thought for a reader coming from almost any direction: identity stuff, psychology stuff, political and philosophical and cultural stuff. There's extraordinarily vivid language and a strong narrative line and characters you can learn to love—or hate. And underlying it all there are the questions of how we learn to deal with one another, and how we define ourselves by the choices we make. It's a book you can sink your teeth into, and a book which gets better upon re-reading. Having The Poisonwood Bible in the center of the arc provides a substantive common reading experience that gives a students a chance to test and hone their emerging analytical skills.

During descending arc, which occupies about the last six weeks of the course, students work individually or in groups on projects which a) link to the essential questions they had earlier been asked to identify and reflect upon and b) demonstrate the kind kinds of quality they think they are most capable of achieving.

It's hard for the students to see the logic of the semester at the beginning. Everything they're being asked to do is just a little bit different than what they're used to, and they don't know yet how one thing leads to another, how the work they are doing on their directed assignments or in their commonplace books or on their cycle papers will be useful to them as they move forward. But they're starting to accumulate enough material now, enough work done, that we can start making those connections.

The segment of the arc is just about complete. Now we start reaching higher.

No comments: