Monday, June 02, 2008

First Day of School...

I haven't taught college English in a year and a half, but the summer session started today. Gosh it was fun to be back up in front of those bright, shining faces again! And, as usual, I gave "The Sponge Theory of Success" demonstration, showing them what they already know to get them focused for a rip, roarin' 22 class meetings in five weeks.

In honor of today, I thought I would "reprint" this entry I wrote the year I formulated the sponge theory of success. Hope you enjoy!

What’s that spell?
What’s that spell?
What’s that spell?

Doesn’t that word look weird now? Isn’t it funny how looking at a word too much can make it look like gobbledygook—or at least like it’s spelled incorrectly? When that feeling of assurance that the word you are looking at is indeed the word you understand it to be disappears and your mind hesitates and questions—you second guess yourself.

I started back as a face-to-face teacher last week. I make that distinction because I also teach in the highly unsatisfactory online environment. Really though, it isn’t the environment that is so unsatisfying—it has more to do with being caught between the corporate, money-making administration’s minions and the disgruntled students who have been thrust into an online writing course against their will—it’s required. But I digress, and I won’t be talking about the very different issues that those students face. No, instead, I thought I would share my newfangled approach to teaching.

I’ve been asking myself the “difficult” questions lately—What do I want out of life? Why? How can I get more of it now?—and one of those question and answer sessions had to do with teaching. It’s what I have been doing for the past four, going on five, years now, and it hasn’t been an incredible source of inspiration and joy; I needed to know why. What am I drawn to and what repulses me in relation to teaching?

Well, for starters, I love the first day! It’s like giving birth. Shiny new faces, assumed potential, a wellspring of love in the heart for the challenges and the nurturing and the growth to follow. I get to have that “new baby” feeling twice a year. It’s addictive. I have to say that I pastor my flock through my courses. I break down previous mythologies, assuage fears, release past guilt, and lead them to the Promised Land.

The rest is good parenting. I am compassionate and I care and I praise and coach and cheer and sing halleluiahs to move them from point A to point B. I set up clear boundaries of expectation, blow on and bandage boo-boos when they fall, reprimand them when they should know better. I have multiple roles: pastor, shepherd, care-taker, boundary setter, locater of the lost…surrogate mother.

That brings me to what I don’t like. I don’t like wiping noses or changing diapers or spoon-feeding. After all, these are adults—or at least quasi-adults! When they ask for too much, which is often, I balk, and rightly so of course. And sometimes, parenting or shepherding 50+ quasi-adults can get downright exhausting! My “good-naturedness” spills over into enabling. Or their quasi-adult status plummets to infancy. Whatever the case may be…they push, and I fall over.
So I thought I should have better boundaries. More enforceable guidelines. More logical consequences and fewer exceptions to the rules. But what to do? I mean, this is a life theme…not just a teacher theme…and it’s THE BIG ONE.

But still, I thought that teaching would be the place to start experimenting. I had a clear external motivation for change, a captive audience of guinea pigs, and any tangible results might spur me on to a more personal success in the same problem area. Basically, I was looking for insight into this condition, and because I recognized myself in my procrastinating, detached, overwhelmed, and forlorn students, I thought that if I could convert them, then I could do the same for myself. This might be backwards, and it’s definitely a conservative approach, but I thought I would do well to practice “on camera.”

I have to perform as a teacher. It’s my job. It’s what I do. I am accountable to at least 50 other scrutinizing people. Here is where I can prove to myself that it is possible to succeed. So I asked myself what differentiated the successful students from their unsuccessful counterparts. We all know that the answer is never as simple as “intelligence.” In fact, we all know that sometimes, the smartest folks are the ones who just can’t seem to move forward at all. So. I came up with the general stuff...prepared for class, plans (and works) ahead, has drive, is committed…did I mention “doesn’t procrastinate”? Yeah…that’s the big one. Slow and steady wins the race.

All this thinking led to a metaphor or analogy that I “acted” out for them on the first day. These are children of the visual world, so I must be a visual Girl. I set three clear plastic cups on the desk. I produced a bottle of water from my bag and said:

I am this bottle. The water represents everything I know about writing and teaching writing. The cups are your learning environment—the classroom, if you will.

I poured some water into the cups. I set another cup off to the side and told them that this cup represented the “real world”—the world out there that they were striving to get to by going to college. I continued:

I create the classroom environment by sharing my knowledge with you. You bring yourselves. There are three basic kinds of students—Student Rock, Student Sand, and Student Sponge.

I showed them the students in representative form and asked them to guess which student was most successful in the classroom environment. They knew! Just like you do. Student Sponge. So I demonstrated to reinforce the point.

Student Rock comes to class and is hard-headed and impenetrable. I don’t need this class. I’ll never have to write once I’m out of here, so I just need to pass and move on. I already know how to do all this anyway. Hmph!

I put Student Rock in one of the cups. Nothing happened. I took Student Rock out, shook it, and said:

You see. You can’t even tell that Student Rock was in the class. Nothing has changed. And when I put Student Rock into the “real world,” it brings nothing to that environment. It is the same rock it was before and has nothing new to offer.

Then I picked up the bag with Student Sand in it, and explained that it was made of the same material as Student Rock, with opposite properties.

Student Sand can’t get it together. It comes to the classroom in scattered pieces that can’t find their way back together in the classroom. Student sand is bewildered, fears failing, believes that it cannot accomplish the goals of the course, for whatever reason. I swirled Student Sand around in the water. Student sand is overwhelmed by the environment—it can’t make use of the environment because it has no form, no discipline, no consistency. It may try haphazardly, but fails because it is constantly at odds with itself.

It rarely makes it out of the classroom into the real world intact. It can’t synthesize and utilize the knowledge it is exposed to.

Student Sponge appears in my hand and everyone is ready to be a sponge. They are imagining sponge-ness. Who wants to be a rock, or sand? (Students may peg themselves, but they may vow to be more sponge-like; after all…most people don’t set out to fail on purpose!) I smile at Student Sponge and hold it up, examining it.

Look! Student Sponge comes to the classroom PREPARED to soak up the learning! It’s READY before it gets there. It’s function…it’s purpose… is to learn.

In goes Student Sponge. It swells with water.

“Look!” I say. It’s taking knowledge out of the classroom! And when I put Student Sponge in the “real world,” it has something to use, to share, to draw on…something to show for its time in the classroom.

I squeeze a little water out of the sponge into the real world cup.

There! It’s contributing to its new environment! It’s obvious that Student Sponge has learned something and taken that knowledge with it into the new environment! So what makes Student Sponge ready?

It is…
Not willing to quit,
Genuine, (and)

I won’t go on about how those qualities translate into the composition classroom exactly…you can pretty much guess…but I will say that I linked those qualities to the expectations inherent in my syllabus so that they could see that I wasn’t just spouting rules at them. Oh no. I was showing them what to do in order to be a successful student.

And now they had this visual in their mind’s eye of a sponge taking water from one cup to the next. And every time I see them, I can say: “I hope you are all feeling like sponges today because we have a lot to learn in the next 80 minutes!” And they will be immediately transported to the visual center of their brains and remember and understand what I mean in a primal, limbic way.

It’s already working for me. I use the sponge mantra on myself. “Are you feeling like a sponge today, Nicole? I hope so! Because you have a lot to learn today! And you need to take it with you in order to get to the next level…to reach those goals of yours!”

How about you?

Of course we’ll all have rock and sand days from time to time…but OH! to be a sponge most often! That is my goal.

Hopefully it is working on my students too. I’ll keep you posted!

© Nicole J. Williams, 2005, all rights reserved


Camellia said...

oh, man, I've been sand way too often. Glad to read this post again.

Joy @ Joy Of Desserts said...

Nicole, that's a great demonstration for your students. Boy, I hope you get lots of sponges. My husband taught college Journalism and he had mostly student rocks.

Joy @ Joy Of Desserts said...

Nicole, that is a great demonstration. I hope you have lots of sponges. My husband taught college journalism and he had mostly student rocks. Wishing you all the best for a great summer class experience.

Anonymous said...

I wish I could have had a teacher like you. I think it would have been fabulous.