Back in the saddle again!

Yesterday I debuted my Rites of Passage workshop at New Alternatives for Children (NAC). I expected a lot of awkward silence, but there were so many talkative and knowledgeable people in the room, and many of their questions and comments pushed me in exactly the right direction. I have a lot to process, but I’ll offer some initial observations here:

* Learning and remembering everyone’s names is a good ice breaker: Yesterday I was the only newcomer in a room of fifteen people. As soon as the kids started trickling in I asked the facilitator to tell me their names. I then had everyone do quick introductions. When we’d gone around in a circle, I repeated all their names back in order. This earned me smiles, cheers, and a round of applause. This was the ace up my sleeve at NYU, as well, where Spanish was one of the few small courses that students—especially freshmen—had in their schedule. Learning all your students’ names by the end of the first or second class communicates your dedication to them early on. A lot of NYU students tended to ask their language instructors for reference letters since few of their other professors knew them by name.

* Get a feel of how assertive everyone is during a discussion and keep an eye out for “tells”: There are some people who feel at ease raising their hands to speak, some people who need to be cut off for dominating the conversation too much, and others who (for different reasons) will rarely break their silence. I really dislike the teaching practice that I will refer to as Hollywood law school, where the imperious professor stands at the head of a lecture hall, throws out an intimidating question, peers out at a sea of faces (all with eyes averted), checks her seating chart for a name (Hollywood law professors are certainly too preoccupied to learn everyone’s names), and zeroes in on an unlucky soul. Of the type that doesn’t like to be put on the spot, I shy away from making people speak if they don’t have anything to say. This isn’t to say that I only call on people who eagerly raise their hands. But it takes some effort to look for “tells” or subtle cues that someone has an idea on deck. Sometimes this takes the form of a slight frown, a wry smile, or a subtle glint in the eye. Yesterday this was communicated in a slight nod that I glimpsed peripherally as I was listening to someone on the other side of the room talk. When that person was done speaking, I turned my head to the other student and mentioned that I caught him nodding in agreement. This won me a, “Whoa, you’re good!”

* Learn when and how to push for participation: I was able to catch that nodding student off guard because I’d chatted with him briefly before the workshop started and noted his extroverted and easy manner. Two of the other young men in the room were extraordinarily quiet, however. I had been warned that one of them experiences anxiety in school, especially with tasks involving reading and writing, so we thought it best that he be allowed to work closely with his mentor and let him take everything in without forcing him to participate. The other young man, however, seemed very engaged in the discussion, but was just not the type of jump in at every turn. He made one comment that was helpful, which I hear is his way. He is a person of few words, but when he chooses to speak everyone listens because the few things he does say are always of substance. I think if I get the chance to work repeatedly with this group, I’d like to push him to be more vocal. When I was a student I was often reluctant to speak unless I felt I could articulate my idea coherently. But often ideas gain clarity in conversation, so as a teacher it became important to me to reassure students that it was okay if they only had part of an answer or a vague intuition.

* Be sensitive to different learning styles and difficulties: As I mentioned above, a couple people in the group struggle with reading and writing. In this particular case—a mentoring program—it really helped that each young person sat with a trusted adult. During any exercise that required some writing, some mentors would read the questions aloud to their partners and jot down their answers for them, thereby allowing them to focus on the content rather than on the task of reading and writing. Next week, we are building in flexibility into an exercise where students who are visual learners and/or more artistically inclined can draw out their ideas rather than writing them out. For those who are anxious about standing before the group, we are allowing their mentors to present their projects for them.

* Be prepared to adapt your lesson plan on the spot: I had rehearsed this workshop in private and I was actually surprised that my timing through the different sections was quite accurate. Toward the end of the workshop, however, I noticed the energy in the room change. I was showing video clips that were around four minutes each, and although there continued to be a distinct buzz of reactions (I chose these videos deliberately to provoke that buzz), after the third one I noticed that it was more difficult to “regroup” and focus that energy for a discussion. It had been a long day for everyone: the young people had had a full day of school, and the mentors had all come from work. (One young person was actually instructed not to take his usual afternoon nap in order to get there on time for the workshop.) So instead of slogging through the last two videos, for which we did have time, I decided to cut to the end and give everyone a much-deserved break. We had touched on all the big points I wanted to raise, so it wasn’t a big deal to leave out a couple minor points that I could bring up in the follow-up workshop.

I’ll leave it at here for now. I still have so much to think through from last night and to look forward to when we meet in a couple weeks. Will keep you posted!

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