Yesterday I was a first-year teacher again.
I really had no idea where my social studies lesson plan was heading and the bewildered looks on student faces was a flashback to my rookie year. Trying something new in my classroom was the best way for me to recognize how far I have to go in terms of my own improvement.
Our high school class was attempting to unpack the topics of addiction and the decriminalization of drugs in the US legal system. We used the documentary, Chasing Heroin from PBS as a digital text and students developed meaningful questions for a Socratic seminar following our viewing. My intent was to create an environment where students would dig deeper as writers and thinkers. I was hopeful we could get past the generic talking points related to addiction and make it relevant on a personal level.
I wasn't sure how to meet my lofty objectives so I ran my ideas by a couple of all-star English teachers. They coached me through the "Socratic Seminar" process and they addressed some of the challenges of completely turning the direction of the conversation over to students. Meaningful dialogue without me leading might be tough they warned. I was determined that the class should make their own path so I relied on their expert advice to let it go wherever it needed to go.
Falling flat on my podium and crawling back to a last-minute victory with an audience of high school seniors was humbling and necessary for my growth. I have a fresh experience to draw from as I work to improve as a teacher. This very real and clumsy teaching experience is a gift.
Learning can be messyWith eyes wide open, I took the plunge insisting every class member contribute to a natural "Socratic-style" dialogue with no hand raising. After some valuable writing time and a review of their excellent questions, it was time to start.
My students expected me to take over.
I did not do much to help and we spent a thirty minute eternity in this awkwardness. Inevitably, it broke down when a single student raised an issue about the demeaning body language of a classmate and an alleged comment he made under his breath about "stupid people." Others were frustrated and admitted not wanting to share ideas for fear of being viewed unfavorably.
With that, all sorts of ground rules and expectations were established by the class - not me - and the silence was broken. Student expressions of frustration mixed with some laughter helped everyone re-calibrate.
The blow-up was cut short by a student who rarely speaks in class. He shared a very personal story dealing with heroin addiction and death. Our raucous classroom turned back to silence - the best kind of silence - and everyone listened intently. Naturally, a very authentic and serious conversation about rehabilitation and the legal process filled up our remaining 25 minutes of class. Students left wanting more.
It was a phenomenal moment as we eventually managed to stumble our way into some really valuable learning. I wished we didn't have to stop at the bell. My students helped me gain an honest assessment of how I can raise my game as a teacher and why my growth is critical for student learning.