A New Adventure!
There’s been a bit of a lapse in writing The Blast/Boomerant! because I’ve embarked on a new venture that has consumed quite a bit of time. As of last Thursday I began a part-time teaching assignment (English Composition 101) at The Norwalk Conservatory of the Arts, a newly accredited junior college here in Fairfield County, Connecticut. After ten years of retirement, I’ve returned to the classroom and thought it would be interesting to share the experience. I started keeping a journal last week and hope to continue doing so as the semester progresses, sharing any insights, revelations, and observations that might prove interesting or amusing. Here’s an installment from the first session last week.
January 18, 2024
The last time I was in a classroom as a teacher was in June of 2014 --- almost a full decade ago. I’m about to dive back into the deep end of the pool this afternoon and, while not exactly nervous, I do think I’m apprehensive.
Is it like riding a bike? Will I wobble and fall and maybe scrape a knee (thoughts of Billy Collins Turning Ten)? And if I do . . . ?
In 1955-56 I attended three different schools, moving from Babylon to Bethpage to Bay Shore (some affinity for “B’s”?). I vaguely remember the experience --- and only vividly remember the Bay Shore experience --- and not just because it was the final one. In Babylon and Bethpage, I attended classic “modern” suburban elementary schools --- low slung, lots of windows, spacious playing fields and well-equipped playgrounds. In Bay Shore I had to attend the Fourth Avenue School --- a building that had already been condemned (while there were urinals, the toilets were outhouse-style holes cut into a board with some disgusting receptacle below). No playground, no playing fields. Miss Weiler, unlike my previous teachers who were young and energetic, seemed to have come with the building when it was built. Grey haired (in a bun), quite elderly (at least to a first grader), and stern. I don’t remember much else from that year but the whole idea of being “the new kid” in the school is how I’m presently feeling.
The Norwalk Conservatory of the Arts is a newly (this fall!) accredited junior college (granting an associate degree after two years) here in the town where I live. Its focus is primarily on producing Musical Theater & Dance performers, as well as TV/Film actors. What this means is that the English Composition 101 course that I’ll be teaching is required for graduation but not at all in the wheelhouse of the students --- at least not in their major area of interest, for sure. Maybe there will be an aspiring screenwriter or playwright here and there, but part of my job will be learning what, exactly, their experiences in reading/writing have been.
When I was preparing people to be secondary school teachers at Brown and Yale I often described “the job” as a Tom Sawyer situation. If you remember the scene in Mark Twain’s novel where Aunt Polly tasks Tom with whitewashing the family’s fence, a chore he doesn’t want to do, he cleverly convinces a variety of children from his neighborhood to take over his duties --- even “paying him” (in toys, trinkets, apples) for the honor of whitewashing. That’s what teaching is. Getting people to do things they might not ordinarily want to do --- and enjoy the experience!
And that’s my task today, as I see it. Can I meet this group of students and begin to develop a community of learners who, over time, will genuinely enjoy the reading and writing that is outside their wheelhouse and not necessarily an area where they have experience or “strength?”
I’ll be leaving in about 45 minutes, picking up a Dunkin’ coffee to go, parking at the Yankee Doodle garage, and xeroxing some final materials for the day’s class.
Friday, January 19th
Well, it was, in fact, like riding a bike --- without the falling and scraping that I feared. Twenty-nine students from all over the country (the recruiting for the school has been extensive and impressive!), brimming with new-semester energy. There are three cohorts (Musical Theater Performance, Musical Theater Dance, and TV/Film Performance) and they’ve spent a semester together --- leaving me as the odd man out. Nonetheless, they were honest, forthright, and quite a pleasure. Several freely admitted they had come to the school precisely because there weren’t any “academic” subjects. My response: “Joke’s on you.” They were not only accepting of the idea that they had to have “academics” to get a degree, they were more than willing to hear me out and meet me halfway.
Creating a Learning Community is the first major challenge any good teacher faces when working with a new class. The simplest things --- learning the names of the students as quickly as possible, for example --- are the building blocks, the foundation. Can you be informal yet respectful of each other? Can you ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and that you’ve established a comfortable environment where students are willing to take risks? Anyone who hasn’t been a teacher --- and cared about being a good teacher --- probably hasn’t thought about these things. The art and science of teaching requires planning, reflection, and a dedication to the profession. And now I find myself back in the game, working with a group of bright young people who expect to “get something” from our class, which will require my energy and focus for the next four months.