Thursday, March 9, 2017

THE GREAT GATSBY = A Study in Undergraduate Adaptation

Two weeks ago I have a paper via Skype to a conference in Croatia, an experience that gave me the chance to practice what I preach in pedagogical terms.  I talked about my classes in adaptation studies, their purpose and their stated outcomes designed to benefit learners and educators alike.
Four days later I resumed my teaching duties at Ba┼čkent.  I have been only one course to teach to allow me time to recover from the series of illnesses I’ve experienced this winter, including a lung infection, a third recurrence of my thyroid cancer, two detached retinas and the removal of two rotten teeth. After that lot, I have to admit that I was apprehensive of entering the classroom once more.  My voice has improved, but I now have to wear eyeglasses, both for reading and seeing in the distance.  This is the first time I have ever worn them in my life.  I also walk a little slower to build up muscles in my legs that were wasted during hospitalization.  For the first time ever I now realize that I’m aging; in two years I will reach my seventh decade.
As I went into the class for the first time, I was genuinely scared.  I was no longer the loud-voiced, charismatic figure of old, but someone who needed the learners’ support to make the class work.  When I talked about collaboration in my Croatia talk, I never realized just how important this would be in the future.  Now I could not see the learners’ faces without my distance glasses, and I must have looked a little wizened to them.
An adaptational process had taken place, but one that was not of my own or the learners’ making, especially as I no longer possessed the vocal strength to teach without a portable microphone.  For the first ten minutes of the first lesson, myself and the learners regarded one another with a kind of benevolent suspicion; I had taught them before when they were freshmen and women, but I wasn’t the same person any more.  Then the atmosphere changed: I asked the learners to do a warm-up activity prior to their studying Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, and they set about constructing a role-play with relish.  Dividing themselves into small groups of four – without my asking them to – they found copies of the text on their smartphones and began to discuss what to do.
I was quite simply blown away.  I had taught this group for their entire first year, and they had been noticeably reluctant to do any role-play or dramatic activities, or to engage in independent work through group interaction.  Now they were happily chattering away amongst one another, apparently oblivious to my presence.  I could circulate round the classroom and speak to them in a quiet voice (I can’t speak any other way without a microphone), offering suggestions when called for.  It was as if they had understood my physical limitations while trying to provide spaces for me to communicate.  The preparation for the role-play went on and on – for thirty minutes at least – before they all announced that they were ready to perform.
I watched as they improvised various situations, using their coats, books and bags for various dramatic purposes.  This was truly theater based on the “two planks and a passion” principle, where no props are required except the most basic elements, and enthusiasm helps us forget the performance’s shortcomings.  To say they were enthusiastic is an understatement; they went about their tasks with relish, while the learners in the audience offered moral support through laughter and by taking photographs and/or films on their smartphones.  The class-time sped by, and by the end the learners were filing out of the room chattering eagerly amongst themselves, while I was left in a state of euphoria, wondering what on earth I had just experienced.
My language might be slightly hyperbolic, but the experience was quite unlike anything I had known before in a lengthy teaching career.  The learners had quite literally looked after me, by making sure I was sufficiently entertained by their role-plays while ensuring that I did not have to talk too much.  We talk blithely of “learner-centered” teaching, but for me this class had been a classic example of “flipping” – turning the lesson over to the leaners = with minimum educator input.  I realized just how much learners could construct classes on their own, and in the process acquire an enhanced understanding of the power of negotiation and collaboration.
The same phenomenon has resurfaced in the last two classes with the same group.  Today they decided to draw pictures of scenes from Gatsby, and use the experience to construct their own dramas depicting the brittle relationship between Tom and Daisy Buchanan, which for them had distinct echoes of the soap-operas that dominate local television.
How can we assess this kind of learning?  I constantly read articles about the standardization of education, with assessment procedures dominated by figures and league tables.  I make no apologies for being quixotic, but I believe what we have done in class promotes the kind of engagement, learning, and adaptation that no exam-based program could provide.  So there.
                                                                                                          Laurence Raw

                                                                                                          9 Mar. 2017

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