1st day of class: English 121 MW

The past few semesters, I’ve found myself really looking forward to the start of classes. Not necessarily the first day of class, which is always stressful as I learn to use new classrooms and technology and begin to memorize students’ names. What I look forward to is getting to know each individual student. I look forward to hearing what they have to say in class and seeing what they write about. My students seem to be full of insight and promise, every semester.

Today was the first day of my regular-start 121 section. (I’m also teaching two late-start sections, which begin in two weeks.) I started filming and audiorecording my teaching, for self-study, so I had a lot of stuff to set up before the beginning of class. Unfortunately, there is a class in that room just before mine, and the teacher held the students past their release time, so I didn’t have the full 10 minutes to set up. Still, we got started in good order.

I videoed each student saying her or his name, so I’ll have that to help me remember everyone. There are lots of demonstrative and memorable personalities in this class, though, so I may not need the video for long. Only about six or seven girls this time. That means more than twice as many boys. I think that’s a good thing, and not just for the dating prospects of the heterosexual girls. Often, there are more female than male students in higher ed classes, especially in general education and humanities courses. When guys are outnumbered, they often clam up, and it’s extremely hard to pry open a guy’s mouth when he doesn’t feel like talking. On the other hand, as a fellow female, I am confident that I can connect with the outnumbered girls and help them feel secure and participate.

After recording the students’ names, I clipped the camcorder to a stand at the back of the classroom, facing front, and FORGOT TO START IT RECORDING AGAIN (actually, I think I hit the record button, but the pressure failed to register). I do have audio for the entire session, because I set that up separately. Plus, I have two more “first day” opportunities in two weeks, with the other two 121 sections. So: not a total catastrophe.

We did a getting-to-know-you exercise, where I had the students divide themselves into groups according to characteristics, possessions, and preferences, and introduce themselves to everyone in their group. That got everyone talking, and most people laughing. It’s important to start the course by building a sense of belonging to the group, so that a network of relationships can start growing right away. Those relationships will be the support system for every student in that class, as they negotiate the demands of the assignments and the readings. Building trust in that network will also lay the foundation for later discussions in class, so we can talk about important and dangerous things, argue, disagree, and challenge one another without rupturing the group. Too many of the groups we all belong to in life are easily ruptured through disagreement. One of the things I try to teach my students is that you can love someone and still disagree with him/her. You can disagree and even be angry with each other without betraying each other’s trust.

The group exercise will also lay the groundwork for later discussions about how we make knowledge in groups. I didn’t get to give my “how we make knowledge in groups” spiel today, but there will be time later. I’m trying to give that spiel better this semester than I have before. Every semester, I tweak my messages to be more easily accessible and acceptable to the students. This particular message is often accepted without question, but just as often vigorously rejected by at least one student. We’ll see how it goes.

For the last 45 minutes of class, we went over the syllabus and course policies. I used to intentionally not smile on the first day of class, and even speak in a slightly deeper vocal register, to scare off the less-than-serious students. I still find myself smiling less than usual on the first day, but not to scare people off. It’s because I’m trying to get through a ton of potentially dry and boring material while maintaining the class’s attention, and I’m too busy being intellectually fascinating to worry about being charming. It’s because on the first day, the demonstrative personalities are testing my boundaries in front of the rest of the class, and it’s all too easy for them to read a soft, high voice and a ready smile as the marks of a pushover. There will be time for smiling later on, when we’ve earned each other’s trust and we all know where the boundaries are. (I gave up the slightly-deeper-voice trick a couple of years ago. I don’t need it.)

I have found that my reasons for not cheating and for not respecting others when they cheat make a lot of sense to my students, so I shared those. I also shared the fact that I have an anxiety disorder, some aspects of OCD, and recurring depression, and that I have learned to manage it, and I am confident that if any of them deal with similar challenges, they will learn to manage theirs also. I do this because I have found that, if I don’t, I always get some really lovely students who fail my class and then, when it’s too late, inform me that it’s because they have ADD/ADHD or some such thing. When I am up front about my personal situation, without asking for my students’ acceptance or approbation, my students more often share their own challenges and ask for accommodation. That’s a key thing my students need to learn as well, for their own survival in school and business: how to present their “weaknesses” in a way that wins their peers’, teachers’, and bosses’ respect and establishes proper boundaries.

I outlined the purpose of the course, the inquiry theory of learning, and the organization of coursework. On Wednesday, I will give them a handout with day-by-day activities and assignments for the first two weeks. The two assignments I gave today were to (1) read the first chapter of the Cerulli text for Wednesday; and (2) read the entire text of Graff & Birkenstein (2nd ed.) during the first two weeks of class.

Overall, I’m pleased with how class went, in spite of my failure to visually record it. No one seems frightened of me, so that’s good (sometimes I scare people). I’m looking forward to learning all kinds of new ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling from these students. I’m confident that what I have to teach them is useful and valuable, and that, because of this class, they will become more self-reliant and self-directed. I have a good feeling about this semester.

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