Thursday, March 18, 2010

Games and Activities vs an Academic Classroom

As a science major, I learned facts and how to solve problems on a piece of paper using a calculator. It wasn't until I was a couple of years into my graduate studies that I could start having conversations debating scientific theories and forming my own theories about my results, giving my own opinion backing it up with whatever knowledge I had gained over the past years. I never got the opportunity to explore life issues, philosophical ideas, human behavior, ethics, gender, and all those other topics where one's own life experiences influence one's opinion about such questions.

I remember a few key learning moments in my high school and undergraduate life where I was given the opportunity to learn about a subject and try to form my own opinion about it. Some examples are reading Catcher in the Rye and personally relating to Holden, doing a term paper on Ellison's Invisible Man and realizing how skin color influences personal identity, in history class being asked to write about Louis Farrakhan, going to lectures about ebonics, racism, and African American pride, listening to classroom philosophical debates about sacrificing for the greater good, in writing class doing research on international adoption, and in Shakespeare class trying to determine whether or not Shylock was evil. Those learning moments that interested me personally were key in my growth as a thinking human being with opinions.

This is why I wanted to teach my English Short Story class in a very academic way: have a short lecture on the background, read a story, then write and discuss the issues and themes in the stories as they relate to you personally. I wanted the students to connect to the universal and cultural themes about human behavior in these stories and to start growing as human beings as they ponder hard questions that don't have right or wrong answers.

But I have gotten discouraged as class attendance is poor, as students are too shy to talk, and as students don't do the in class writing assignments. I have started debating whether or not to change my teaching methods into games and activities where the focus of learning would be speaking and listening skills using the stories to get the students to do role plays, interviews, posters, etc... The focus would be shifted from trying to hear students opinions about the stories' themes to seeing if the students understood what was happening in the story.

Today though there were a few rays of sunshine in the gloom.

First Ray of Sunshine

Because of a job fair in Lanzhou only 5 students showed up to class. My lesson plan that would cover two days went out the window. With most of the class missing, it seemed impossible to have five students spend a class reading the lengthy story and preparing their interviews with characters in the story which would be presented on the second day. Instead we spent an hour writing and sharing our essays about the quote, "We can never judge the lives of others because each person knows only their own pain and sacrifice."

The ray of sunshine came when some of the students' essays were fantastic thinking about the topic in a way I hadn't considered.

One student wrote about how nature will judge human beings. When we break the rules of nature, humankind will suffer. I didn't understand what she meant at first. My first assumption was that she was talking about fate, how fate will punish those who do wrong. Instead she was talking about the rules of the environment. Ruin the environment and we will suffer.

Another student wrote about the freedom of choice, how everyone should have the freedom to go their own ways without being judged. People shouldn't make decisions for other people.

Since the class was so small, I asked them, "Do you want an academic class like what we have been having or do you want games and activities?"

They replied, "We want a mix. Tuesdays write essays. Thursdays play games." Cool....

Second Ray of Sunshine

This afternoon I ran into some of my senior students and asked for their opinion about the class, academic or games and activities? They said, "We are seniors and want to read more stories and learn more. We like writing the essays because you don't care about grammar or organization. We feel free to just write whatever we are thinking." I was like wow. Thanks for the encouragement.

Third Ray of Sunshine

The short story class has been teaching me a lot, has been forcing me to write essays, and has given me topics that I can bring up during free talk at the Tree House making the two hours fly by.

Lesson Learned

Don't let feelings of discouragement stop you from trying.

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