One of the pedagogical approaches I’ve been using in my comp classes is projecting student writing up on the wall during peer review so that we can all learn from each others’ mistakes and successes.
This is, at times, extremely risky, and I try to keep in mind when I project an essay that there is a vast difference in the ability of my students.
But that vast difference can be a huge benefit as well.
Last week, I posted an essay from a student who had written a comparison essay comparing cats and dogs.
I go out of my way to discourage these types of topics for comparisons, after all, what are you going to write that would seem interesting to someone else about cats and dogs?
But this student wrote such a comparison anyway.
One point of comparison was that both cats and dogs are “clean, human, amphibians.” (Yes, you read that correctly.)
This is where it gets risky.
First, there was significant laughter from the class. That was, until I pointed out to them that their essays would also be posted up on the wall soon. They tended to grow significantly quieter then, but in many ways the damage was already done. I saw it in her eyes.
And so, I walked her though her thought process, right there in the open. And when the class saw that I was taking her seriously, they did as well.
Every moment instructs, and every object; for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence until after long time. –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Looking at her comparison, I asked her, and the rest of the class, to think of their stories with their pets. As we talked, the class began to see that their thoughts and understanding of their pets weren’t all that different from the writer’s.
There were stories of playing with toys, of giving baths, of taking long walks, of running in the rain, and as always, of picking up poo off of someone’s pillow who had had the temerity to “Bad Dog” the pup after she was caught eating the couch. Their stories, in their similarity, brought the class together in laughter and shared commiseration.
And what we realized is that yes, our pets are human to us as well.
While there wasn’t much that I could do with the amphibian claim, it did offer an opportunity, in an English class, to stop and examine what an amphibian actually is.
And to the surprise of several students who laughed, they learned what an amphibian was as well.
What could have been a terrible moment turned into a moment for everyone to learn from one another. (There was, of course, one student who chose not to participate in the discussion. Some people choose to exclude themselves when community forms. Always have; always will. And that’s instructive, too.)
But for the majority of the class, by sharing our stories, we found that we had far more in common than separating us.
That’s the power of our stories. That’s the power of authentic education. This is why our country needs our classrooms, and while I’m anything but an expert teacher, this is why we need experienced teachers in our classrooms.
And this is why I really want to go swimming with that amphibian dog.