Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Trusting Students

I was agonizing about class today.

The title of my geography course is, "World Regional Geography: Peace and Justice on the International Stage." And that's really our emphasis: not just knowing places on the map, but rather, "Who cares?" and "What can we do about the issues in the world?"

So on my syllabus today, the topic was "Developing a Biblical Framework." Since I'm teaching at a Christian institution, and I have the freedom to give full voice to my faith commitments, I wanted to frame the way we're thinking about geography--aiming to emphasize peace and justice--in light of a biblical perspective. But my fear was that it would come off as, "So here's the biblical perspective, and once we have talked about this, we can check it off the list and go on to the next topic on the syllabus." Since I'm really striving to teach Christianly--to live out my faith in all aspects of my teaching practice--this is not what I'm about. In terms of the curriculum for this course, I want to challenge my students to own their faith, and not just parrot back what I think.

Agonizing about class: would they actually discuss things?

How to do this? I confess, I think it would be easier for me to just lecture on the topic, tell them what to think, and try to indoctrinate them into a particular way of thinking. But if I really want them to do the authentic intellectual and emotional work, I feel pretty strongly that they can't just listen to me talk. While I definitely have a role to play as a professor ("professing," right?), they also have to be actively involved in making sense of things.

And here's why I was agonizing about class: I had to trust them.

I had to trust that students would actually do the massive reading assignment I gave them to prepare for class today. (It's a rare thing thing that I would ask students to read 100 pages for one class meeting, but I did for today's lesson.)

I had to trust that my students wouldn't tune out during the relatively brief framing lecture I used to set some guidance for how we'd proceed in class today.

I had to trust that my students would actually speak up and engage with the ideas we had read about.

I had to trust that my students would think deeply, share their ideas graciously, and discuss appropriately.

I had to trust that my students would do the work!

The way I structured my lesson:

  • We started by brainstorming a list of HUGE PROBLEMS in the world today. 
  • After this, I presented a relatively brief lecture (I was aiming for 10 minutes; it ended up more like 15) to explain what I see as the ground-rules I'm operating within, and understanding shalom as a way of thinking about responding to the HUGE PROBLEMS.
  • Next, about 30 minutes of small-group and whole class discussion. (This was the part I was agonizing about!)
  • Finally, a brief wrap up for how we can use this (developing) framework as we continue in our study of world regions.
Our brainstorming about huge problems in the world...

You know what? 

I have amazing students.

If I had planned a lecture on a biblical framework for addressing the HUGE PROBLEMS in the world, I don't think I could have done a better job. 

I framed the discussion as:

  • How can/should Christians respond to today’s huge problems? (Seeking shalom.)
Here's what we came up with:
  • Pray! (I love that they started here. The student who mentioned this seemed almost apologetic, as if this is the "good Christian answer," but we agreed that this is a totally appropriate starting point!)
  • Not just Christians worry about these huge problems. How can we influence others? Solidarity with others; majoring in the majors.
  • Educate ourselves. To help, we have to know!
  • Start small. Are there things we can do here and now?
  • Practice loving our neighbor as ourselves.
  • Remember that Christ is the Redeemer, and He is in control. We do not need to despair. He is making all things new!
Pretty impressive list, isn't it? I was encouraged anyway.

My take-away for today's lesson is that I can trust my students to do the hard work of learning. Yes, I have a responsibility to create the conditions where learning will happen. Yes, I have a responsibility to have materials ready to go, and a solid lesson plan. Yes, I have a responsibility to be prepared for class, and facilitate both in-class and out-of-class learning opportunities. 

But I also can--and should--trust my students to be active participants in their own learning. Education is not something I do to my students, after all. It's something that we do together.

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