Thursday, November 17, 2011

Challenge 16: Box

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#69. One of Ramapo’s goals is to increase your capacity for learning and to teach you to think “outside the box.” Describe an experience that has had a significant impact on your intellectual development. (Ramapo College)

During my first year at my new school, I was asked to teach drama. The idea scared me, considering I knew nothing about the subject and had never acted in a play; in fact, I suffer from stage fright. Compounding my worries was the idea of directing the drama productions each semester. But I wanted the job, so I agreed.

I bought some books and scoured the internet for ideas on how to teach the subject. I could take an academic approach and have the students read and analyze plays. Or I could try to teach them the way many people learn to swim: by jumping in. I was saved on my first day of class when one of the students asked if he could direct the fall production. "Let me think about it," I said but secretly cheered -- yes, I could learn to direct by watching a student do it!

The play was a success. The student director secured a cast of 30, ranging from squirrely elementary students to surly seniors. He figured out how to make the main characters fly. He had elaborate sets designed, including a pirate ship. He created the lighting and sound effects. And every step of the way, he came to me for advice, thinking that I knew what I was talking about. My advice was, if anything, common sense suggestions and ideas for working patiently with people.

Along the way, when he was especially freaking out about some glitch, my common refrain became: "Don't worry about it. You're doing fine. And anyway, I'm around, so I'll make sure nothing goes completely wrong. Plus, think about it this way: If the play succeeds, all of the credit will go to you. If it fails, well, it'll be my fault because I should've known better."

As I said, things went well. And he got all the credit. And I was happy about it.

The experience taught me more about teaching than any education class could. I realized that, more than any other way, students learn by doing. Give them responsibility and they'll manage. Support them behind the scenes and they'll succeed as leaders.

The second semester, I directed a series of one-act plays. The event was also a success, and the students in the production certainly learned a lot. But what did I prove? That I -- an adult -- could direct. I thought about the first semester and realized that it's so much more fulfilling when a student or group of students prove that they can do something. Schools belong to students, after all, and they should be pushed to take the lead.

I think that a lot of educators talk about creating student leaders, but I wonder if these are just empty words. Having students actually take full responsibility is scary and difficult. There is always the concern that they might screw up. There is always the thought, they're just kids, and adults know best.

Since then, I've pushed for more student-led events. Some have succeeded, some haven't. Each time there has been resistance from other teachers and administrators. But also each time, the students have learned more than they ever would have if they had just followed someone's instructions.

(Here is an interesting side note: Just now, as I was finishing this post, a couple of students walked in to ask me for advice on creating a charity concert. I got excited about the idea, and then they got even more excited, and left saying, "Wow, what if we end up starting a new tradition? That would be so cool." I hope they do.)

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