Friday, December 1, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Stumbling Through

I've been blogging my way through this semester of preparing and teaching a course that is new to me. (If you've just joined us, you can see the whole series here.) Getting my hands around a content-driven course in our CORE program has been a fun challenge for me. Most of the courses I teach are pedagogy-oriented courses in our teacher preparation program, so this feels more like what I did when I was teaching in K-12. Teaching Education courses is sort of weird, because the content of the course is also what I'm doing, if that makes sense? So teaching World Regional Geography has been both challenging and joyful for me.

As I've been reflecting on my thinking, teaching, and learning this semester, I realize that I've mostly been sharing stories of successes from class. And it has been largely successful. I'm so grateful to my students for that! They have been willing to play along with each "crazy idea" I've lobbed their way. I keep soliciting their feedback throughout the course as well, and so I'm learning from what worked well from their perspective, and what missed the mark. Thankfully, most of it has worked well.

Yesterday's class felt like a rough patch for me. The content? Central Asia. You know, all the "-stan" countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, and Afghanistan, and Western China, and Mongolia. To be honest, of all the regions of the world we have considered, this is the one I know the least about. There have been other regions I have had to do quite a bit of supplemental reading to prepare to teach, but this one? I felt like I was definitely going to be stumbling through.

So I did a lot of background reading. And you know what? The more I read, the more and more interesting questions began to surface for me...
  • Did the Mongols really conquer most of the world? (And if so, why haven't I learned more about this?)
  • Are 1 in 200 men in the world really descended from Genghis Khan? (Apparently he had a ton of kids...with a bunch of different women...?)
  • Why in the world did China annex Tibet? (I mean, there isn't a lot out there on the Tibetan Plateau!)
  • Why is the Aral Sea disappearing? (Is it?)
  • Is there really a spaceport in Kazakhstan? (I mean, really?)
  • Is opium bad for the average Afghani? (I know, I know...the drugs...but cultivating poppies is a huge part of their economy.)
  • Did the Afghani mujahideen really become the Taliban and Al Qaeda? (Because the CIA was definitely involved in Afghanistan in the 1980s...did we do this to ourselves?)
  • Could democracy actually flourish in this region? (All the governments in this region are dictatorships or one-party states!)
Since I had all these questions, I had a bright idea: "Why not pose these to the students, and let them do a little looking into these during class?" 

So when we met up for class, I got things started as I typically do with some housekeeping issues, a chance to share their questions from the reading, a prompt for them to talk about with a partner to get them thinking about the region for the day. And then I shared with them--in honesty--that I realized that my own content knowledge for today's lesson was weaker than I would like, and that I had done quite a bit of reading in preparation, but this just prompted more questions for me. 

And so, I shared this list of questions with my class. "What do you think? Are you curious about any of these too??" Not a lot of non-verbal feedback for me, unfortunately. So I invited them to grab a device, pop open the browser, and spend some time searching for answers to one or more of these questions that seemed most interesting to them.

I gave them about 15 minutes to do some reading online and see what they discovered. My students dutifully complied. Some were definitely getting into it, and sharing things they discovered with their neighbors. Others were definitely go through the motions, but at least they were participating!

After some time to search, I enthusiastically invited them to share what they had found out.


Now, I've been teaching long enough to know that sometimes you have to extend the wait time after you ask a question...and eventually someone will chime in, if for no other reason than to break the tension. So I waited. I took another slow sip of my coffee and let the silence hang. 

Finally, one student spoke up about Kazakh spaceport. (Whew! Thank you, dear student!) This broke the ice, and soon others were speaking up about the surprising things they found out. We stumbled our way through a discussion of some of the big issues in this region that were uncovered through these questions. We talked about the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde conquering the world, and the War on Terror spearheaded by the U.S. in Afghanistan. I was feeling pretty good about it, actually!

And then, towards the end of class, a student raised the question: "Since this region is surrounded by great world powers, why are they/we so unsuccessful in influencing or converting them to being stable countries?" Yowzers. That's a good question. We had been talking about how various world powers--from the British, to the Soviets, to the Chinese, to the Iranians, to the Americans, to the Russians today have all (and continue to) wanted to influence this area...without really being responsible for this region of the world. hasn't worked out all that well for the world powers. Afghanistan is still pretty much a mess, as far as I can tell, and that's after a century of influence from the British, Soviets, Americans, Pakistanis, and Russians. 

I really didn't know how to answer this question, excellent wondering that it may be. My content knowledge was inadequate, and I wasn't thinking quickly enough. I stumbled through an answer something like, "No one outside of this region is really willing to invest enough into it to make a lasting change." That satisfied my student, I think. But now I'm wondering if that is true? Maybe it's presumptuous to assume that the people of Kyrgyzstan, or the Uyghurs in Western China, or tribal leaders in Afghanistan would want a bunch of outsiders horning in? Maybe I have cultural blinders on, as an American? (Very likely the case...)

At any rate, I left class feeling like it was one of my poorer lessons for the semester. I guess I can't knock them all out of the park, right? Sometimes we do our best, stumble through, and ask for grace the next time we meet up with the students. 

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