I Can’t Believe They Don’t Know That

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photo by ILMO JOE on flickr, made available by Creative Commons license.

“I can’t believe they don’t know that!” I hear that phrase so often.  Is this generation of students as overwhelmed by ignorance as it sometimes seems? Those glaring gaps in student knowledge are  certainly a favorite topic of adult conversation.  As soon as I tell someone what I do for a living, out come the stories.  “My son has classmates who don’t know how to do long division.”  “They (!) don’t even know the name of our vice president / Chief Justice / governor….”  “I can’t believe they have no idea what ‘you can’t see the forest for the trees’ means.”  “They can’t even read a regular clock face.”  And on and on and on.

I used to teach a college reading class using African American literature and most of my students, both black and white, had little knowledge of our bloody shameful history of segregation or Jim Crow laws.  It made the anger and bitterness of the literature hard for them to understand, so I created a slide show of images from a segregated America to help them see from whence our country’s racial tensions arise.  I understand why we don’t want to air that particular dirty linen with our children but, without an understanding of our past, the racial tensions of our present time make no sense.  Students, both black and white, need to know that the struggles of black students on a white campus are not solely their own problem or fault, but rather a reflection of our American history.

When I first began to realize how little the students knew about the realities of segregation I did feel surprise.  I couldn’t believe they didn’t know that.  But I had to move quickly to accept and remediate that particular gap – my expressions of surprise clearly made the students feel defensive and upset. We so easily make assumptions about what someone else should know, or what they should have learned, or what they should  be able to do.  Yet that assumption rarely serves us well as teachers.  When we feel (and inevitably express, whether verbally or non-) shock at an unexpected gap in a student’s knowledge, we put that student in a position of defense and opprobrium, not a happy place from which to learn.

Our students were born into their own time, not ours.  No matter how much we believe that our cultural references should be theirs, they won’t be.  No matter how much we bemoan the celebrity-driven “news” and the parochial perspective of the world, we need to move away from judgment and toward teaching.

One excellent tool to help us internalize the reality of the world our students live in is The Mindset List published annually by Beloit College.  In 1998 Beloit College created a list of incoming freshmen’s cultural realities to help faculty adjust their references to better match students’ understanding.  For example, on the list for 2012, Jay Leno has always been the host of the Tonight Show and GPS satellite navigation has always been available.

Our director has shared that list every year during our fall kick-off staff meeting, and it never fails to make me feel oh so very old.  But it also helps me grasp the reality of the “brand new world” that my students occupy.  Their experience, their world, is not mine, and I am a much better teacher when I remember that.

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com

What A Difference A Smile Makes

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photo by seanbjack on flickr

First day of class. Looking around the room full of new student faces, I see front and center a stern unsmiling young black woman.   Oh dear, hostility already?  As the days passed and I tried to work my reassuring charm, nothing changed.  She refused to smile and consistently challenged almost everything I said.  I began to feel that all my energy was going toward finding ways to graciously respond to her ongoing contempt.  It seemed that no matter what I did or said, I was wrong and I was seriously pissing her off!

I took my concerns to a friend, a black professor (I am white) who also has this young woman in a freshman orientation class.  He was shocked, as in his class she is very quiet and hasn’t made her presence known at all.  Okay, so what did that tell me?  That I just somehow have a pissing-her-off  personality?  Not much help in moving through this stuck place.

My friend and I talked about defense and survival mechanisms, about how issues of race and socio-economic status are often lurking in our black and white interactions, about how so many of our students come from segregated (both white and black) high schools and don’t know how to deal with mixed classrooms (it truly breaks my heart to write that sentence!)  Black students from our neighboring urban areas in particular develop defense and survival mechanisms that don’t necessarily serve them well on this predominantly white campus.

I began to speculate that her demeanor was designed to protect her from the slings and arrows of being a young black woman on a predominantly white campus.  It shifted my perception, and I started noticing that she was one of my strongest students, always on time, homework always done, willing to answer my questions in class.  huh.  Not the student I had created in my head at all (see another post on this same issue here).  Still stern, still unsmiling, but present in the class.

The real breakthrough came when we did a role-playing activity in class.  She was outstanding (though still unsmiling) and I complimented her acting skills.  She grinned (I cannot tell you what a joy that was to see!) and said she had always thought about being an actress but had never done anything about it.  She came by my office later that day to ask a question and I once again shared my enthusiasm for her talent.

She still doesn’t smile, but I have changed.  I smile inside every time I look at her, and we have found a working respect for each other that does not depend on her smile.  I don’t feel that I have the right to advise her to smile more –  there are so many bad echoes in that advice.  Also, see my previous blog about the stunning lack of success I had the last time I offered unsolicited advice to a student!

I haven’t let go of my concern entirely, for the lack of a softening smile can definitely be an issue in how we relate to each other.  I saw that clearly one day as I watched her interact with a young man in our class.  He needed a pencil, and she tossed him one which he didn’t catch.  She teased him with “Nice catch” but no smile, and he looked unsure as to whether she was kidding or criticizing.  I know she was trying to tease him, but he didn’t.  The cue he was familiar with to identify friendly teasing – the smile – wasn’t there and its absence made him unsure of her intent and the appropriate response.

We all moved on with no lasting problems, and I will remain alert to any possible teaching opportunities to share with the class what a difference a smile makes.  But for now, I am pleased to say that I am learning to look for the student behind the protective curtain.  Thank you, oh great and powerful wizard of Oz, for that!

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com