Sunday, March 3, 2013

Hiram's Big Saturday.

Not really; my only graphic.
So, after a dismal first half of the semester, with more students than usual in my KiteBuilding I and KiteBuilding II classes failing to meet the expectations of the class, I announced I was holding an extra meeting on Saturday at 3 pm.

I teach three classes a semester, the two first year ones I mention above and an Advanced KiteBuilding made up of mostly majors, juniors and seniors.

My unhappiness and anger had dissipated by Saturday afternoon, and when two students emailed me around 2 pm asking if they could bring some pizzas to the session, I said - knowing full well our tech-heavy classroom has numerous no drinking and eating signs - "Sure. Make sure you make one really meaty for me!"

At 3 pm I walked in to find 19 of my 38 first year students, and 5 of my 15 advanced students.

I thought I was dreaming. They were smiling. Some had their books! One student had turned on the giant projection screen and had loaded the most recent freshman assignment from our class.

There was a weird energy. I mean, there WAS energy. I went right to a stack of pizzas and ripped off a gigantic 2-slice chunk. I pulled a Gatorade out of my bag and sat among them in the chairs.

We just gabbed and ate for a while, the 25 of us. The seniors told stories about taking my class as freshmen, how they were sure they were going to flunk at midterm, but the two of them who I now advised revealed they'd gotten As. "Nah," I said. "I never give freshmen As!"

And they laughed. This group of students, especially the freshmen, who seemed comatose for 7 1/2 weeks, laughed at something. (Not that I don't try normally.)

After most of the pizza was gone they started to ask questions. One of the first was pretty brave.

"You were pretty mad last week. I didn't think college was going to be so much work, and my grades have sucked so far. What should I be doing instead?"

And I told him, and all of them, the stuff I felt I'd been up front with from the beginning.

Do the reading ahead of time. Spend some time thinking about the concepts in the chapter, and then - unthinkably - write about it all on your own, for yourself. Practice getting some thoughts together so when we meet in class you'll have something to add.

And then when in class, be a part of it. Ask questions, dumb ones, smart ones, anything they need to know. If you don't understand an assignment, don't walk out and go back to the dorm confused. Stay until you get an answer you understand.

"I've been teaching this class since before some of you were born. I have more than one way to explain things."

We talked about some of the recent assignments, why they were bad, or - better yet - incomplete, poorly thought out. Lazy.

One of the seniors said, "Yeah, you think you can coast, but if you don't really give yourself time you'll never do any more than just spit back what you've been told. He doesn't want that. He wants to know your opinion. He wants you to teach, too."

I would have kissed him, but my mouth was so greasy from the pizza. (By the way, at my advancing age, pizza just kills my gut. Oh well.)

An hour passed like 15 minutes. I took some more really smart questions about the stuff that was up for next week. I pulled my textbook out and showed them my markings, stuff in the margin, highlights, notes to myself, questions.

"If you're book doesn't look like this, then you're not doing something right." (A girl right next to me not so clandestinely closed her book and smiled.)

"Gotcha," I said.

We stood up after 90 minutes and a couple shook my hands - which never happens.

My head was buzzing. We talked about our next "extra" class, this coming Wednesday. Someone said they worked at Chipotle and could bring in some stuff. Someone else's mom worked at the Albertson's bakery and he was going to score some muffins.

I don't know how it will all work out, obviously. But I felt terrific as I walked to my car. One of the seniors sidled up to me as he headed across campus and said something that stunned me.

"You scared the shit out of them."

"What?" I said.

"You did the same thing to us when I was a freshman."

"Scared you."

"Yeah, that and gave us some extra classes. We met in the basement of the old gym. Don't you remember?"

I had not remembered at all. It was just three years ago. There's my memory as healthy as my gut.

"That's the semester I became a KiteBuilding major," the senior said, and he waved and was off.


  1. Thank you, Hiram, this made my day.

    I have a 'made my week' story. A kid showed up for office hours on Friday to discuss his paper topic. He's spent all term slouching in the back row, silent, apparently asleep. I don't pitch the class to him - you know how you pick a couple of students that look awake, and talk to them? The ones whose faces occasionally move, thought is obviously going on in there? He isn't one of those.

    So he showed up, we discussed his paper topic and maybe a couple other paper topics and then he said "this is a great class. Before I took it I couldn't figure out why anyone would ever bother to study Early Hamster Drama. But now everything I watch on TV or read, I'm thinking, huh, I wonder why they did it that way. It's like a whole new filter on the way I see things."

    So I said, "that is the nicest thing anyone has said to me this term. Because that's EXACTLY why I'm teaching this class: to give you a new filter."

    There are days when I feel like this job has a function and I'm actually fulfilling it.

  2. Great result, Hiram, and liking the new graphic.

  3. Well done, Hiram! Good for you and good for your students.

  4. Wonderful post. Thank you for the non-misery.

  5. You made my morning as well, Hiram. Thanks for the update.

  6. Wow Hiram! There is a ray of hope after all! I am so glad that it all worked out successfully for you. :)

  7. Fan-damn-tastic. Thank you for sharing. Makes me want to offer a pre-midterm study session...perhaps I will.

  8. Oops! I almost fed the troll.

    Go Hiram! Thanks for the uplift. And on a Sunday, no less.

    1. I saw the troll post, but it's gone now. WHere'd it go?

    2. Earlier there was a comment that violated blog rules. It was deleted.

  9. Hiram, you're entitled to have your 25th Hour. Keep the dream alive. Good on you, mate.

  10. OMG, I am so happy for you to have supportive senior students who helped to set the stage and expectations! And YAY! I hope it was a productive session and that people were prepared to learn. Can't say I've ever had any student offer to bring pizza where I've taught. Ever. They have asked ME to bring pizza...

    Every time I've done this (once every other year or so), only three or four students who were already getting A's showed up and one or two who were flunking sullenly crept in, sat down, and acted like they were doing me a favor to show up. Clealry, you have the personality and force of will to be Robin Williams! Since I don't have whatever magic you have, I'm going to have to start bringing pizza to these events. :)

  11. Yay, to you Hiram.

    I have a similar sense after I attend residency sessions for my online classes.
    (Yes, Dorothy, particularly in graduate programs, the work is not ALL online.)

    No, not every student is a scholar ... not ever question is stunning.

    But we all are there for four days, from dawn to dusk, delving into the content of the profession. It is grueling -- which is why I will not travel more than one time zone away to participate in one -- but for those few days, you remember why you signed up for all this in the first place!

  12. Twenty-four undergraduates showing up on a Saturday afternoon? That's remarkable, Hiram. I doubt I'll ever pull that off.

    I wonder what you said to them to get a positive reaction (as opposed to despair, or shrugging it off.)

    Clearly giving it a social component by including several classes is a good idea. And pizza (all our UG events include free pizza).

    1. Here's what I said:

      "We're behind," I said. "And it's partly my fault, partly your fault, and partly your school district's fault. We need to work harder if we're going get anything out of this semester. You aren't reading. You aren't participating. You aren't coming to class ready to do the work. And it's hurting your chances of passing. Now, everyone passes here at regional mediocre university But dammit, we're going to pass for real."

  13. Way to go, Hiram! Clearly, all is not lost...and having the seniors back you up is a sweet reward for your past efforts.

  14. This really made me smile. What a great Saturday you had! YAY!

  15. Hurrah! I'm very glad it went well.

    And I have to admit this leaves me feeling a bit guilty, wondering if perhaps, if I did more, tried more, cared more, my students would, too. On the other hand, there are some differences between your situation and mine (including the facts that Saturday afternoon would be a non-starter, because many of them work for money then, and that I have no opportunity to stay in touch with students in my classes and watch them grow into seniors, even those few who are in my department, since the course I teach is part of the core curriculum, not the major). So I think I'll settle for commenting the heck out of these project proposals I'm reading (and answering email. I opened up a browser to check email, didn't I?).

    1. Well said, Cassandra. And note that Hiram doesn't do it very often! It seems he reached a breaking point, and maybe that will help him avoid such malaise in future semesters.

      I applaud his effort. I've done something like this previously but have never had quite the early success as reported here. It does make me wonder though, which it probably was designed to, what more I could try when the class vexes me so much.

  16. Hiram, a great story, and it shows how it only takes a little bit of give from students for us to recharge our batteries back to full charge, to be willing to give our all for teaching.

  17. Now that's the kind of story that warms the cockles of my heart. Hiram, I am so glad your extra class turned out well and that it was worth your time to do it.