Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pay me attention but don't single me out; a lesson from working with Middle School

Inga Puffer is one brave teacher. She teachers Seventh Grade Language Arts at Tanglewood Middle School in Greenville, SC. Yesterday, she let her father become part of her classes for a day. She made like I was doing her a favor to join her classes as they begin working on a speech about their hero. Her reaching out and letting me join her was the favor and it will be one of the memorable sabbatical moments from this Spring of 2011.

The assignment that she and a fellow teacher have given their students is to research a person they have identified as their hero. One major stipulation -- the person had to or has to be real. Superman, Supergirl, batman and robin were not working for this assignment. And, hours later I am still not certain if the guy who asked me if Superman is real was serious or messing around. Now, honestly, it is not that easy to tell with Middle Schoolers. They are not far from the age when they were asked to believe in Santa, the tooth fairy, the total triumph of good over evil. They really are working those things out in their mind. They may believe that a type of superman does exist to balance out some of the super bad they see and read about. This is an age that sort of eludes adult understanding as they are beginning to develop some sense of their own what it might be to think in "adult" terms. Cognitively, they are in a major life transition. I am glad there are people -- Middle School Teachers -- who do take the time to understand, who reach out to share and care and most importantly continue to prepare these students for what comes after this childhood. So, Middle School Teachers -- you are my heroes.

A couple of quick observations from my perspective as a college teacher:
-- It was fun being able to observe future college students in the making. As I talked with these four classes I began to compare these boys and girls with some of those I know at Coker.

-- Public speaking is one class I teach a lot and I believe you can become an excellent public speaker. These four classes showed me also that a couple of people might be born to it. We were talking mostly about how to construct an effective speech introduction. After the writing part of the class one girl volunteered. I think Eartha Kitt was her hero. She stood, then began to sing the opening lines of one of Kitt's songs. That quieted her classmates and GRABBED their attention -- exactly as I had been talking about. She is going to be good.

-- As we went around to the tables where the students were working, many would ask a question or ask me to read what they were doing. They were looking for that attention. Sometimes I would say -- Great, I am going to call on you. Quickly, they would make it known they did not want that MUCH attention -- they will single themselves out with some behaviors but they are not really wanting others to single them out.

-- The teachers are doing a great job of preparing the foundations. Even the guy who was not going to write anything (too cool for that) was able to provide me with a great reason there was nothing on his paper - "I need to do more research," is what he told me.

-- The techniques of effective introductions work. For one class, I improvised an introduction of one of the heroes -- Rosa Parks. I knew just enough to get the intro down and as I ended one boy to my right says -- "Where is the rest, I want to hear more." That could not have been a better reaction for the point that introductions are supposed to make you audience want to hear more.

So, I am not sure how much those Tanglewood Middle School seventh graders are going to remember about the four functions of an effective speech introduction but I am sure this experience is going to be one of the strong, positive memories of my sabbatical semester from Coker College.

So, Inga, and Phillip, thank you for letting your classes share with me.

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