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A Visit From Some High School Students: A Lesson Description

Every once in a while the stars align for us as teachers and we are part of an amazing lesson.

Notice I didn't say "we teach an amazing lesson."

For me, part of Becoming Teacherly is being a member of my classes rather than being the leader. Paolo Freire (1970) wrote in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed that everyone learns from each other when they engage in conversation: “Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach” (p. 80).

This is exactly what occurred in my classroom last week.

Many colleges and universities in the Western New York area were overrun by high school students last week--taking advantage of February that many school districts had scheduled, some students took part in campus tours, others met with their future academic advisors, and others had the chance to sit in on a college class.

It was through this last opportunity that I had the chance to meet and learn from some really amazing teenagers. And I wasn't the only one!

Remember what I said about the stars aligning? Well, the visit came at the exact right time. It just worked out that my Ethnic American Literature course (formerly Multicultural Literature) was in the middle of a multi-week conversation about adolescents/adolescence. The week prior my students (made up of English majors, English Ed majors, and a smattering of other non-majors) had the choice of reading either Fun Home by Allison Bechdel, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, or Stuck in the Middle: 17 Comics from an Unpleasant Age by Ariel Schrag.

We discussed the admitted assumptions we had about adolescents and some words or phrases that came to mind when we thought of this group of people. Some items from the list we created:

  • Impulsive

  • Hormonal

  • Irresponsible

  • Moody

  • Too concerned with themselves

  • Still developing

  • Insecure

When asked, none of my students identified as an adolescent, yet when I pushed them, they admitted to identifying with many of the terms we had on the board. The class also tried to decide if the idea of adolescence is a strictly Western or American construct. We described some examples from our book choices and discussed how the adolescents were portrayed. By the time our visitors came into class on Thursday, we all believed we really knew what an adolescent was.

But we didn't. Not really.

As I put together the lesson, I had no idea what kind of high school students would be visiting us. Would they be quiet and timid and too afraid to speak with strange college students? Would they be too cool for school and not interested in what we were doing in class? Would they be a mix of both of those groups?It turned out that the visitors were neither too cool for school nor timid and nervous; our visitors were talkative, smart, and had a lot to say which allowed the students-teachers (Freire, 1970) emerge and grow.

The first thing I asked was for the class to break up into groups. The only requirement was that each group had to have at least one visitor. Originally I was planning on having 8-10 visitors, which meant that there should be about eight groups of four or six groups of five-ish. It turned out that we had many more visitors, so our groups were a bit larger than I planned! I wanted everyone to introduce themselves: name, major or expected major, high school attended or attending... but I really didn't need to ask them to do that--the groups just naturally started asking about each other. I provided a list of interview-type questions for the group members to use to interview each other just in case they were on the more timid side of things, but most of the groups did not need them.

After about ten minutes each group debriefed to the whole class. The first group introduced their visitors to the rest of the class and then the visitors (not to be outdone) introduced the college students to the rest of the class. I did not ask them to debrief in this way (I actually wanted to hear about some of the answers to the interview questions), but as the introductions continued, I could see that my students had learned quite a lot about adolescence and adolescents from our visitors. (This is what I consider Teacher Gold.) As each group followed the model the first group used, more and more information about adolescence was being revealed and every so often I found one of my students scribbling something into their notebook or on their handout...

By the time the last group was finishing, I realized we were not going to get to all of the items I had planned. There was a creative writing activity that I mentally cut from the lesson. There are definitely worse things for a teacher than have too much planned!

The groups were working so well that I asked them to stay together as I passed out copies of four different pieces from the media:

  1. A set of Tweets by Dinesh D'Souza about a group of high schoolers in a Florida statehouse,

  2. A news article about the latest Snapchat update,

  3. An InfoWars article that stated that a few of the students from Parkland, Florida were actually paid actors, and

  4. A set of advertisements (Marlboro and Sharpie) that appeared to be aimed at teenagers

The groups were asked to critique the piece of media using this handout that I created as a guide. The way it worked out, each piece of media was critiqued by two groups. After about five minutes or so I asked each group to determine what they believed the maker of the media thought about teenagers and what they felt was missing or omitted from the message of the media. I gave everyone about five more minutes before we started to discuss the media.

About halfway through this discussion, I decided to cut the short video From PBS's documentary "Merchants of Cool" from the lesson. Our conversation was so exciting and interesting and everyone was participating at such a high level that I didn't want to cut it short just to watch a video about something that in hindsight was a bit dated for our visitors.

I wish I could remember everything everyone talked about.

I wish I could bottle up the energy in that room.

I wish I could have invited those high school students to join our class on a regular basis.

I wish I could properly describe how much my students learned, how much the visitors seemed to learn, and how much I learned.

I wish I could take credit for such a dynamic and powerful lesson.

One thing I know, I hope those future college students are in my classes in the future! While they may also be the moody and hormonal adolescents as we described prior to their visit, we all discovered that adolescence can also be a time of growth and inspiration. They were so articulate, smart, and in command of the things they believed.

A big THANK YOU to Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides, Robert Petrone and Mark A. Lewis and their book Re-thinking the “Adolescent” in Adolescent Literacy for all the amazing ideas and inspiration!

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