Pep In Her Step

One of our former MATCH Corps is teaching via Peace Corps in Rwanda, after teaching last year in Mauritania (before political unrest shut down her program). I love her blog. Here Julie captures a pretty important teaching concept. When do I gamble with an out-of-the-box class?

I'm really impressed with the kids. I feel like we run a pretty tight ship at our school, so there aren't discipline issues. The biggest struggle for me, I think, will be working with such a multi-level classroom. I have some students who grew up in anglophone Uganda and are absolutely fluent in English. One doesn't even speak Kinyarwanda! So of course these kids are bored out of their minds when I am speaking painstakingly deliberately in my "Special English."

But overall, teaching has put a pep back in my step. The general skill level here is enabling me to do so much more than I could in Mauritania.

This past Thursday I'd wanted to do a lesson on Nelson Mandela, since February 11 was the 20th anniversary of his release from prison (a fact I knew only from the relentless coverage on BBC and Voice of America). Completely coincidentally, when visiting Mark I had just gotten a copy of the movie Invictus, which so happens to be all about Mandela. I haven't even watched it yet, but I thought I'd flip through it just to see if there might be anything to jump out at me. And what do you know, the very opening scene reads: "South Africa: February 11, 1990" -- followed by real footage of Mandela (due respect to Morgan Freeman).

How perfect, I thought! Am I brave enough to show this clip in class? I wouldn't have dared in Mauritania, with 75 wild kids in a single classroom. But here, the classes are a relatively much more manageable size, 30-40, and they're so good.

Well, I dared. And it was GREAT!

After watching the clip, kids that hadn't spoken all class were suddenly raising their hands. I loved it. They picked up on the white and black boys playing football separately, visual evidence of apartheid. And when I asked what it means for a country to be democratic, one girl told me, haltingly with crisp enunciation, "It means a government of the people." "Yes!" I replied, impressed with the answer. But she wasn't done: " the people, for the people." Are you kidding me?! Seriously, where am I?

I think Julie has the right basic formula for considering gambles, classic risk v reward.

1. What's the downside risk? In her last school, it sounded high; in this school, with a class size half as big, it sounds lower. Plus she's no longer a rookie teacher, so can probably recover better if needed.

2. What's the upside? Psychologist Dan Willingham makes the case that the "wow" moment should set the table for the teacher's larger goals. But another wrinkle, which we rarely consider, is how a "wow" lesson activates the teacher, or crushes her if it flops.

Pep in her step. That's gotta figure into the learning formula somehow.