Back to school

April 3, 2010

This week I had my first class in Learning Through the Arts‘ Artist Educator Foundation Course, which is designed for artists who want to build up their classroom management skills, which is something I sorely need. The scariest part of teaching is facing a group of short young people. I’m confident that I have plenty of good things to teach them, I’m confident that I know how to make lessons fun, I’m just terrified of being outnumbered. And I’ve never, you know, been to teacher’s college, so I’ve got a few things to learn about teaching.

I think my instincts are pretty good, but I could stand to build up some teaching skills and confidence, so I’m really excited to be taking this class. The first class had a lot of typical first class business (man, it’s been awhile since I’ve taken a class!) – learn everyone’s name, pair up, learn things about your partner and share them with the group, randomly get assigned a colour and play some convoluted version of musical chairs, watch a scene from the amazingly overwrought inspirational teacher movie Freedom Writers.

Seriously, though, the class is good. The instructors, Michelle and Andrea, have a calm air of authority – right off the top, Michelle was demonstrating her quiet method of getting a roomful of people to shut up and pay attention, and then she impressed us all by getting 90% of our names right after just one go-round. The intro games were fun because the class is such an interesting mix of people: writers, cartoonists, sculptors, painters, even a breakdancer. The average age is older than I expected, and I think I’m one of the younger people in the class.

The biggest challenge for me was not getting all snarky about Freedom Writers, which was shown to us in order to demonstrate how to create an atmosphere of trust, respect, and empowerment in a classroom of high-risk youth (aka violent gang members whose lives are saved because they start keeping diaries. IT’S ABOUT THE POWER OF WORDS DO YOU GET IT?!?). Hilary Swank is an idealistic young teacher whose students are wild illiterate gang members, except for the one white kid who looks like Zac Efron but isn’t (I looked it up). She wants to teach them about The Diary of Anne Frank and Romeo and Juliet but the snobby bureaucratic librarian Imelda Staunton won’t let her give copies of the books to her students because they are obviously savage gang members who will tear them up or sell them for smack or something. (I hear a good edition of Romeo and Juliet will get you at least a couple of grams if you know where to look.) Anyway, Hilary Swank complains to her boyfriend Patrick Dempsey that she works for racist jerks and then she buys her kids their own journals, wins their trust, and they play her masterpiece symphony at her retirement party and stand on chairs and recite poetry.

Seriously, though, we analysed the scene where she changes up her teaching methods, gently demonstrating to her students that even though they are in rival gangs, they aren’t so different, they’ve all lost people to gang violence, her class is a safe place to grieve, and they can write whatever they feel in the journals she’s giving them, and she won’t read them if they don’t want her to. So we talked about the importance of creating a classroom atmosphere of trust and respect.

The point is, cheesy overwrought inspirational teacher movies are the best, and this class is awesome.

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