Oct 212007
Authors: Anne Marie Merline

What would you do if you went to class and your teacher was not up front at the white board? My students experience this on a regular basis.

Early last week I was in class, standing at the side of the room, behind the students when I realized that I am sometimes a superfluous part of the classroom, and I remarked to myself that this is one of the two things that can come from teaching. This semester this has been especially true in one of the Honors Seminars that I teach.

The course I am referring to is a seminar for first-semester students that explores the topic of “community.”

Without exception, at least once a week, the class goes on without me. This does not mean that I am not there, or that I have not started a discussion some way, but I am no longer teaching the course. The students are teaching the course to each other and to me.

It is during times like these that the students are engaged. They are not trying to look interested in the topic when I glance their way, people are not sending texts to friends or wishing that the class was over.

The students become the teachers. They take a topic and run with it. They leave me behind holding the baton.

One Friday, for instance one of my students, Katie, gave her speech on the idea of discrimination and how that is not conducive to the idea of community.

The students started to ask questions and offer up their opinions and experiences with the rest of the class. What happened in the course of the class period is that the students looked to her as the teacher.

Questions and comments that Katie was not prepared for came up. Sometimes she could instruct, sometimes I tried to field questions.

The discussion quickly turned to the issue of immigrant laborers from Mexico. The issue arose as to why we treat people differently because of their citizenship status, and the difference between citizen rights and human rights. I felt compelled to leave the room to get a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to facilitate the conversation.

I literally sat through class while the students did all of the talking and provided the topic du jour with more and more momentum. A good teacher learns to let these moments continue, to let go of her own agenda and to turn over the control of the classroom to the students.

Moments like these are moments I savor.

It is not because I sit back and expend less energy listening to a conversation than facilitating a discussion. It is a rewarding moment because I know that to one extent or another, I have done my job by creating a culture of respectful dialogue and setting forth information that the students are interested enough to take to a higher level of learning.

I am lucky that I teach in higher education in that we have time to both cover the necessary information while discussing it in any way that makes sense at the moment.

The learning is not always sequential, nor do I have to “teach to the test.” I let the learning take the students wherever they want to be taken. It is okay if one detail or another is not covered at all, if it is covered later on,or if we learn it in another way.

This helps the students become “masters of their own domain.” The students create their own learning. They do not follow what I think they have to know right at that time.

This style of teaching is somewhat like raising a child. Although you need to raise a child within a structured environment, you can give them choices that facilitate their own learning and understanding.

Many years ago, I was sitting in the Honors Office with the staff. Noticing that it was time for class, I said I had to leave to “go work my magic in the classroom.”

We all laughed at the statement, but the truth of the matter is that it is the students who are the magic in the classroom, and like a good wizard, it is up to the human at the white board to wave the wand in just the right way.

Anne Marie Merline is a professor 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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