The Weirdest Class Ever

July 13, 2012

So tonight I finished my class on Instructional Models and Origins of Learning. Just reading that title in the course catalog was enough to thrill me. In other words, I went in with the expectations of one of Rick Perry’s debate coaches.

During the first hour of class, I learned that my expectations had been way too high. The class was at 4:00. I arrived a little early to find about 5 classmates there. A few minutes later, three more trickled in. Now those who have heard me talk about my M.A. classes know that I have had some less than impressive learning experiences. I’ve had a professor waste 20 minutes of my wizard-loving life on an anti-Harry Potter diatribe. I’ve had teachers who have set the bar so low on quizzes that I have looked around for the limbo soundtrack. I have had a professor dock me for citing sources incorrectly when I used THE EXACT SAME FORMAT that she provided. However, I have never ever had a teacher show up late on the first day of class.

Yet based on my previous experience, it didn’t surprise me that this could happen. So when 5 minutes passed by, I merely raised an eyebrow. When 10 minutes passed, I started commiserating with classmates about possible missing professor theories. When 15 minutes passed, we were starting to get irked and began sharing stories about past problems with our program. At about 20 minutes, one of my classmates decided to go to the education office (we were in the business building) to find out what was happening. At 30 minutes, an apologetic looking administrative assistant came by and told us that there had been some confusion about our class. At this point, one of the students shared an email from the professor that she had received. The student had inquired about whether or not we would have class on July 4. The professor responded that 1) We wouldn’t have class 2) He was in Jamaica and wouldn’t be teaching the class and 3) He shot the sheriff, but he didn’t shoot the deputy.

At this revelation, all the air was sucked out of the room. The assistant responded, “Oh, we weren’t going to tell you that, but I guess now you know.” She then proceeded to calm us with hand gestures and assure us that they were working something out. At this point, I seriously thought about jumping ship and showing up late for another class. Someone less Japanese would have done that.

Yet something kept me in, and it wasn’t only the shame of showing up late to another class, though that was a part of it. About an hour after class was supposed to start, a woman who none of us had ever seen before came into class with handouts and a newly-purchased textbook. She laid it out for us. Her class only had one student. It was cancelled. She volunteered to teach our class. She had never taught the class before. At this point, I was in a state of bewildered frustration and intense curiosity. Would anyone else jump ship? How would this play out?

We began to go over a syllabus that all of us were seeing for the first time. As we went through it, I was struck by the professor’s demeanor. She seemed strangely calm. She was cracking jokes. She gave no indicators that she watched Fox News. Since we couldn’t contact Dr. Jamaica Mon, we had to try and make sense of the syllabus together. We shifted, we combined, we crossed out. We set due dates. We were a team of relative equals.

I went away from that first night thinking that I had been part of a grand social experiment. Aside from curiosity and a decent story to tell, the thing that really kept me in the class was my classmates. When you’re waiting around for an hour, even an introvert like me feels the need to talk. A couple of my classmates went to college with me though I didn’t really know them. One guy had spent time in Hawaii and was unsurprisingly chatty. The teacher next to me gave me a site to find class textbook lists so I wouldn’t have to be gouged by the bookstore in the future. We did a few more get-to-know you strategies that were handily framed as things we could use in our classroom. All of this created a unique social climate. We were bonded by our shared emotional states of confusion, frustration, and semi-relief. We talked on a personal level in that first hour more than many classes talk in an entire two-week period. We built a class with our instructor. By the end of class, everyone must have felt similarly, because nobody bailed. Surprised by how well it turned out, I actually scanned the room for hidden cameras before I left.

Of course, the class was far from perfect. We spent way too much time trying to troubleshoot technology problems. We had some impromptu activities that would have been better with more prep time. Sometimes our professor’s lack of knowledge showed.

However, as the class ended tonight, I came away from it feeling like it was the most enjoyable class I’ve had. And despite my horror stories from earlier, that isn’t something to be taken lightly. I loved my neuroscience class for its academic rigor and my cooperative learning class for its many practical ideas.

So I’ve thought quite a bit about why this class that started so dubiously ended up working so well. I’ve traced it to the following reasons that have implications for my pedagogy:

1) Our Instructor: She was funny, sarcastic, and fairly honest. Also, she never appeared to get rattled. Sometimes I get a little bit arrogant in my mind and think I could do a better job than the teacher. Not this time. I knew that, had I been in that position, I would have been curled up in a ball half the time cursing Dr. Jamaica Mon.

2) Our Homogeneity: Although we covered a wide spectrum of ethnicity and age, all of us were classroom teachers. Most classes are cross-disciplinary, so you get a mix of principals, school counselors, veteran teachers, and newbies. All of us had taught before and all of us were from schools that had more than two classrooms. We were relatively balanced between high school and elementary. This made a huge difference when we did our individual presentations. You could just tell everybody had an idea of time management, knew how to use humor effectively, and wanted to give as practically as they received. When I write my course evaluation, this commonality is something I will emphasize.

3) Our Involvement: Our instructor wisely filled class time by having us frequently present. However, she gave us fairly clear time limits and contributed often with comments. She also set up many cooperative activities based on the models we were learning about. As a result, we got to know each other and became more comfortable asking questions. I tend to be fairly passive as a student and have even been called out by a professor for not speaking up enough. Historically, sharing in class has been fairly terrifying for me. I remember in high school Bible classes when I would completely freeze up and basically just repeat what other people said. As this class went on, I became more and more involved. This was a bit of a breakthrough. Apparently, I’ve really been gypping myself all these years.

4) Our Expectations: Going in, I think all of us had such low expectations that we would have probably accepted a bad class. However, everyone seemed to express surprise that things were going so well. It would be interesting to know how completely different the experience would have been if we had normal expectations. Not sure I can apply the “set low expectations” method to my teaching, but I might if I could.

At the end of this class, I actually felt like I had lost something. Not that I had wasted the two weeks, but that I was no longer a part of a close-knit, clever, and cogent community.

Even though Dr. Jamaica Mon may have been on a beach everyday, we be more irie than he.

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