I asked. They answered.
In my first class this week, after some introductory material, I asked each student to share with the class two things: first, one thing they did over break, and second, one thing they had set as a goal to improve over the next semester.
While I was very glad to know that my students had taken time off for fun and rejuvenation (and most had), it was the second thing that was most interesting to hear. Nearly everyone had set goals related to either health, or performance in school. Among the healthful goals were: cooking more, improved sleep, exercise, more walks with the dog, building a meditation practice, and less time on social media. Other students had set goals to take better notes in class, to use software packages to organize their notes better, to participate less in extra-curricular activities, and interact more with peers.
One of the most important things we do as teachers is to recognize that our students are whole people. They are not just in our class. That is one small - and temporary - dimension of their lives, and we would do well to remember that. How can we do better at this?
Well to ask them questions like that, perhaps. Yes, there is the risk that it will take too much class time, and that it might go off the rails. But despite those risks it is worth it anyway, for several reasons. First, it acknowledges them as whole people outside of the class. Second, particularly at this difficult time, it helps them to know that we care about them as whole people. Third, because they - invariably - give each other good ideas. And at that point it becomes a completely legitimate learning experience even if it was not before (and I suggest it was anyway).
Another exercise I do early in the semester is to ask them to actually offer advice to their classmates. I usually have them do this with index cards they place in a “suggestion box” that I made years ago out of an old Kleenex box. We couldn’t do that this year because we were online… so we used the Chat. The idea came from an art installation some 15 years ago. It was created by Illegal Art, a collective of artists in New York, in which they placed suggestion boxes in New York and San Francisco and invited passers-by to offer a word or two of guidance. The New York Times published some of the suggestions provided. Here are a few of them:
Be the Moon
Arm all the gingerbread men
Date Older Women
Relish the Moment (before we kiss)
ADD MORE COLOR
Love each other or perish
So - I show these to my students, and ask them to provide suggestions in this spirit to their classmates at the beginning of the spring semester. It is one of my favorite exercises of the year. Because the sly (and funny) wisdom just comes pouring forth, every year. Here is a small sampling:
Take a 15 min nap during lunch
Raise your hand every chance you get
Sleep more, eat better, cut out the alcohol
ASK FOR HELP
Always seek opportunities for magic
Be with those you care about
Don’t be a dick
Pet lots of doggos
Eat more Chocolate
So here at the beginning of the new year and new semester, I hope you can… be with those you care about, sleep more, raise your hand to ask for help, and pet more doggos.
And I’ll bet you have similar advice for your fellow readers of this newsletter, so please share it here as a comment!
Letters of Recommendation
My daughter gave me a fascinating book for Christmas. It was a podcast first, called The 99% Invisible City. It is about the hidden details of the cities we walk around and never notice, now in book form: The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to The Hidden World of Everyday Design, by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt. Having grown up in New York City, I have been enjoying the book very much. If you are similarly interested in cities, you will love it too.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote, from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., about one of his favorite topics. Love.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Love is the greatest force in the universe. It is the heartbeat of the moral cosmos.