Apr 192009
Authors: Anne Marie Merline

For the past few weeks, I have been thinking about leadership in the classroom from my perspective, but I have been so enamored by the students in my second-semester seminar that I want to again write about their leadership.

It is a fact that my students have been exhibiting leadership in the classroom all semester long.

I keep on thinking back on the movie “Mona Lisa Smile.” This movie, set in 1954, at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, chronicles that academic year through the teaching experiences of first-year art history instructor Catherine Watson.

Ms. Watson’s high-achieving female students start the semester by reciting the textbook answers to her queries about the names, dates and the significance of pieces of fine art. It is the memorization of facts that most people in academia understand as educational success.

After failing to anticipate her students’ readiness, Watson displays educational leadership by challenging them in another arena of learning. She comes to class the next meeting time and asks for the students’ original thought and interpretation about “art.”

The students are perplexed by her query, but Watson changes the focus of the course from “name this piece of art” to “what is art?” This allows the students to express their own point of view within the larger social context of human expression through art.

By the end of the semester, Catherine Watson’s students have grown and are indeed using their own creative minds and interpreting art with the cognitive abilities that Catherine has inspired them to use.

My classes all semester have followed this latter model. Often, I barely have time to carry out my lesson plan because my students are taking the lead with the material.

Some might characterize this scenario as a lack of leadership on my part, but it is in my “professional opinion” that leadership also means knowing when to let go and let others take the lead. If the students take the lead with the material and the students are learning from each other, I consider this effective learning.

Don’t think that this teaching gig is all about sitting back and letting the students do all of the work. My job in the classroom is effective leadership to keep the course going in a forward direction.

I let individual students know when their writing does not meet the criteria of the rubrics that are a part of their syllabi. I have to re-direct conversation back to the core — perhaps after some fun digression. I have to make sure we are on track with the reading schedule as well as with the smaller details of their final papers. I have to meet with each student after they have finished their extemporaneous speeches. And of course, there is the conservative estimate of the collective 600 assignments that I have to read and comment on over the semester.

I chronicle this not to complain but to explain the fact that I love when my students do lead and make the administrative duties of being a teacher worth all of the details that I have to plan during the semester.

No matter how tired I am, or how plagued by life off campus that I am, my students energize me on a daily basis and make me think that I have the best job in the world.

I love one of the final scenes of “Mona Lisa Smile,” in which Watson’s students are gathered around her as they all sit together in the lecture hall, talking with each other about a picture of a painting as Catherine sits, listens and smiles. This is miles away from the first scene where students are reciting memorized facts for the teacher with military-like precision.

I know what some of you are thinking — that this movie scenario is just as glossed over as the make-up and costumes for the film. This semester has taught me otherwise. Thank you to my students for making us all leaders in the educational process.

Anne Marie Merline is an instructor for the University Honors Program. Her column appears biweekly Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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