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The first day of the rest of your semester

ben stein
Ferris Bueller’s economics teacher

The first day in the classroom went well, as far as I can see. I didn’t have much planned. Like all other things in life, I planned to fly it as it came. I didn’t have a lecture prepared. I didn’t have a class plan. Only the syllabus, which is a long, intricate document, lay at the ready. There’s a lot to talk about and a lot of opportunity for a few laughs.

But the classroom computer didn’t work with a new projector the school installed this summer. I quit printing syllabi years ago. Students pay attention to a hard copy as much as they do something that’s computer-ready. The document is online, accessible anytime, and downloadable for students who want to carry a hard copy.

Without the projector, I had to do something. I made some opening comments about how the class is a difficult, college-level class, after all the operative word in Johnson County Community College is the word “college.” I also mentioned that students didn’t need to be smart or cleaver to pass the class. They just needed the ability and perseverance to do the work.

A great fallback in this situation is class introductions. We started with some poor kid just out of high school. He came from a school with an upper-crust repuation. I made a joke about that. The kid took it well and his pain, if there was any, endeared me to the rest of the class, who understood this all-business kind of teacher had a sense of humor.

At least that’s how I think it went. You never know how a class perceives you. You only get clues. Are people coming to class? Are they paying attention or trying to get away with texting under the table? Do they respond to a joke or do they look at you like you’re just another adult trying to tell them what to do?

The rest of the class members introduced themselves, revealing where they went to high school or college. I asked some of them what they wanted to major in and celebrated those who declared themselves undecided. I was undecided for years. I switched majors like changing socks. I’m still undecided, flowing along like a piece of driftwood on the ocean. Who knows where I’ll end up next.

A couple of male students were going into criminal justice. I asked if that meant they wanted to be cops, lawyers, forensic specialists, crime-scene investigators, etc. It turns out that both wanted to be cops. One said his goal was to get into the FBI. I made a remark about him being so focused so early in his life. There was a good laugh at the expense of G-men everywhere.

As people introduced themselves and talked about their high school or their major, I made intelligent statements or asked them serious questions, as well as cracking wise.

There was only one kid who seemed completely out of sorts. I’m pretty sure he didn’t have an idea of what a college classroom is supposed to be. He was a pimply kid, skinny and tall. When I looked at him, he demurred. It came to his turn and he was afraid. He stated his name and where he went to school. I could tell he didn’t want it to go any farther and that’s where we left it.

During all of this, I called the tech-help people and arranged for one of them to come into the classroom while we talked. When a man arrived, students paid him mind for about three seconds. They were more interested in what other people and I were saying.

When the tech guys, there were two by the end, got the computer up and running, we had only a few minutes left in class. I covered some important aspects of the syllabus and reiterated the importance of them understanding what was in it. They had to take on the responsibility of knowing the workings of the class. I reinforced this with a sound truth—students who read and know the syllabus do better than those who don’t. Those who don’t read the syllabus or only glance at it either do poorly in the class or fail the class altogether.

In all, I pulled off a successful first class. It’s my first time in front of a classroom in over a year. I have been teaching online the past semesters. In fact, I can’t remember the last class I taught in the classroom. Four semesters ago, maybe?

Every class is different. I have not taught classes the same way twice. I’m always learning how to shape classes for the student’s benefit. This leads me to change things up every semester.

I still don’t know how I’m going to conduct classes this semester. Ideally, we would work through the textbook and have discussions every class period. But this will be hard to pull off. Students just don’t read unless they absolutely have to. Unless a significant part of their grade derives from class discussion, they just won’t take it seriously.

Right now, the students’ grades come from tests, writing projects, and weekly quizzes. I am loathe to change this. The measures are objective. Pass a test. Write a good paper. Do the quizzes. Regardless, I believe the students teach students better and more effectively than teachers teach students.

So, I am ditching most lectures this semester. In past semesters, I lectured from my own notes and knowledge hard-won from years of study. I find that most students find my lectures interesting. But I can tell that some just won’t be convinced that the stuff is worth their time. Most don’t know how to take notes, and when they do, they still get lost. Even on their best days, much of my lecture comes across as more blah-blah-blah.

So, I’m going to focus this class on getting the grade. Here, we have a set of exercises and standards. They must take those tests and write those papers. This time, however, we will spend our class time concentrated on getting them to think in dynamic and innovative ways. I won’t be teaching to the test, but I will help them build their grades, one paper or test or quiz at a time.

We will work from the textbook, which I hate. But I want these students to walk out of the classroom with the basic knowledge and timeline of American History since Reconstruction. They should know how to write an essay and analyze documents. They should, if I do my job right, be able to navigate the halls of any four-year college or university with confidence.

I think I will try to create an atmosphere of open conversation this semester. Rather than telling students what they should know, I want to show them by having them show themselves. The best way to do this, I think, is to avoid being the only person in the classroom who’s talking. I will distract them with relevant information. Movies, recordings, and other media help students understand the nature of history better than a guy droning on and on about things he thinks are important.

They will have to do the work. Only, unlike classes I’ve taught in the past, I’m making them do more work. I hope to be Tom Sawyer at the picket fence. That’s my goal: Get them involved with their own learning without having them know they are doing all that work.

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