Becoming a Student Again

Fall 2010

By Sara Pozzi

If your student days are lost in the fog of a distant memory, perhaps it's time you stepped back into the classroom again, this time as a student. The lessons I learned this year as I re-committed to my goal of earning a master's degree in Spanish were surprising, but very important revelations to me as I sat once again in the desk of a student. These discoveries have informed and invigorated my teaching and my attitude towards my role of teacher-in-the-classroom during this Internet age. Here are a few thoughts on what it's like to see through the lens of a student in 2010. 

Key Lesson #1

The simple act of trying to understand what the teacher is saying can be bewildering and even overwhelming at times.
We all know that expression "It's Greek to me," and I've often thought this adage could apply to a student trying to decipher anything for the first time, whether that be physics, French, mathematics, or music. As teachers, we get so used to hearing ourselves explain things, that we can fall into the trap of thinking we are very clear in our lessons, whereas in reality, there may be students who stop understanding after our third or fourth sentence. My experience as a student this spring in a Spanish literature survey course drove this lesson home for me. Although I have been teaching second-year Spanish grammar and vocabulary for more than 20 years, the experience of sitting in a classroom for 90 minutes at a stretch listening to a professor from Spain speak at a fast clip left me struggling to understand. At times, my mind would just go into a dead zone after hearing so much Spanish. I was still trying to decipher the professor's third utterance, and he was on to his 10th.

What is the key to helping our students through this phenomenon and what worked for me this spring in my Spanish literature survey course? 

  • The professor wrote key words on the board.
  • Some things were presented visually so that the student could understand in more than one modality.
  • The professor checked for understanding by asking specific students if they understood. As students felt increasingly more comfortable in the class, they responded with honesty as they sought to clarify the confusion they might be feeling. 
  • The instructor let students know that it was OK if they didn't understand everything the first time around. A little frustration as we learn and grow is a sign that we are, in fact, learning and growing.

Key Lesson #2

At first, it feels strange to be in a class where you are very different than everyone else in terms of skin color, ethnic heritage, and language ability.

As I started back to school this year, I enrolled in the City University of New York in one of their numerous college campuses. Virtually all the Spanish majors at this particular college are Latino so as a light-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed person of Scandinavian descent, I was definitely in the minority. What did this mean for me as a student and as a teacher? It meant that I was able to experience in a small way what it feels like to be in the minority. First off, I found myself wondering why I had chosen to attend a class with people who did not look and talk as I did. I was out of my proverbial comfort zone. I questioned my identity, wondered why I really wanted to take this class, and doubted if I could be successful. It was really hard at the beginning. All the other students in the class spoke Spanish since childhood and were able to participate in the class in ways that I could not, especially when the teacher would tell a joke or make a cultural aside, which I just did not "get." 

What is the application of this lesson to my own teaching and to me personally? 

  • I can be more sensitive to students at my school who are different in some way, whether that is a physical, racial, or religious difference. I know that I did not want to be singled out in my journey this spring; I simply wanted to understand better how I fit in. Although I cannot walk in another person's shoes, the experience of being in the minority jolted me into at least thinking about what it is to be a person who is different in some way.
  • Over time, my non-Latino status seemed to make less difference as I began to know the students around me through group and pair work or chatting a bit as we left class together. In this same manner, we can help our students get to know one another better by giving them frequent opportunities to work in pairs and groups. 

Key Lesson #3

There will often be students who try to "bargain" the teacher away from requiring rigorous assessments

I was a little surprised to find that occasionally college and grad students would try to convince the professor that they didn't understand the assignment or that what was asked was too much. I find this to be true again and again in my high school classroom, and at times I have wondered whether I truly am asking too much of my students. They are a generation removed from me, and with all the changes in technology, extra-curricular commitments in sports and music, and the increased pressure to prep for college at an earlier age, it could be possible that my expectations are too much. Although I have tried to remain strong in the face of student complaints about deadlines, it seems that this is a universal phenomenon. 

Knowing that students will almost always ask at some point for less work or less rigorous assessments, what should the teacher do in response? 

  • Stay true to your expectations and your syllabus! We're really short-changing our students if we plan one thing, start down that path, and then backtrack by making the work easier or continually adjust deadlines for our students. A trust is created when a teacher says he will stay the course and then actually does so to the best of his ability. If some students need an extension or adjustment, they can be encouraged to talk to the teacher or professor privately. 
  • Concede to the students that yes, the work can be difficult, but that to accomplish the goal in terms of learning, the work has to be done. 

Key Lesson #4

The process of reviewing in class before an assessment can be incredibly helpful to the student

Over the years, I had forgotten how challenging it is to learn a whole body of new material. I had begun to think that students should be doing all their review on their own and that it really wasn't helpful for me to "teach it all again" in a review session. That changed for me this summer. In my study of El Mío Cid, Don Quijote and other works from early Spanish literature, I put a lot of time into reading and studying. Still, I found the review that the professor conducted the day before the assessment to be exceptionally useful. He would ask a question similar to what might be on the exam and then call on different students in the class to answer. I benefitted from a "walk-through" of the material from the previous classes, both in hearing the highlights of the study presented as questions, as well as being asked to formulate my own answers to share with the class. The professor also provided this sort of review at the end of every three-hour class. 

How can I apply this revelation about the importance of reviewing in the high school classroom?

  • Devote one or two classes to review for major assessments. 
  • Try to make a practice of asking the question "So, what did you learn today?" at the end of most classes, and ask students to respond in the two minutes before class is dismissed. 
  • Be predictable in your review techniques. Students will still have to study. Remember, it's often the first go-around for them in your particular course! 

Key Lesson #5

Writing a term paper or final essay is indeed a major undertaking

Have you ever said about a student "she just didn't plan ahead" or "he really shouldn't have put off writing that until the last minute"? Although I myself am not always the best at planning ahead or finishing things ahead of time, I re-discovered what it is to plan and write a final project. First, you have to keep up with what's going on in the course. Then you have to think about what original ideas or perspectives you could bring to the subject matter. Finally, you have to conduct the research, write a draft, and last of all, polish the final work. When to do that? Usually towards the last third of the course, and often the time to actually write and produce the paper comes after all the hubbub of the day has come and gone, that is to say, in the evening hours, perhaps even past midnight. 

How can a teacher apply this knowledge about projects and term papers his or her classroom?

  • Encourage your students and affirm that this kind of work is definitely challenging. They may feel uncertain in their abilities and in the process itself, but our affirmations will go far in helping them do the work required to the best they are able. 
  • Require them to write out a plan for how they will accomplish the different steps of the project. 
  • Understand that they may be very tired towards the end of the semester trying to complete all their work and adjust your daily expectations accordingly. 

Key Lesson #6

Keep your course fresh and exciting through the use of YouTube and other visuals. 

Upon entering the classroom for my first Spanish course this spring, I was struck by the bare white walls and plain white boards in the room. There was absolutely nothing about the room that invited the students to think or wonder. Used by a variety of teachers throughout the day, the room had no personal or thematic touches anywhere. In contrast to these initially stark surroundings, the classroom came to life over the weeks as our professor consistently used the projector to share colorful PowerPoints that illustrated everything from the history of the Spanish kings to the "Generación del '98" to photos of his own ancestors from the north of Spain, the setting of one of our readings. The poetry of the early 20th century poet Antonio Machado was brought to life in the classroom as we were able to see and hear Spanish singer Joan Manuel Serrat performing a rendition of Machado's poetry on Magically, Machado's poem "Cantares" took on new meaning as we listened and also realized that the song had gotten two and a half million hits on YouTube! This all served as both a backdrop and stimulus for us to latch on to something that would spark our interest and motivate us to read, think, share, and learn. 

How can this work in my high school classroom?

  • In any class a little video clip that's playing as students enter the room can promote discussion and interest or can interest an otherwise disengaged learner. 
  • A very short exposure to an image can make a much more lasting impression than words alone. 
  • The visual image need not be related to the particular lesson for the day; it could be just a quick reference to an event in a student's town or in the world that somehow incorporates the discipline you are teaching. If students can make a personal connection to the material, they are much more likely to be engaged. 

Key Lesson #7

Finally, being a student again means that you can watch other people teach

What is a better way to learn about what's working and what's not working in the classroom? This is professional development at its best. As teachers, we spend most of our time either teaching, preparing lessons, or evaluating student work. Watching another person teach can be inspiring, affirming, and encouraging for us. Techniques that we may have used in the past and perhaps forgotten can be seen "in action" and re-incorporated into our classrooms. We can be inspired by someone who may be on the quieter side but clearly loves their subject. We can be encouraged by seeing how teachers handle challenging situations in the classroom and thus we know that we are not alone in our daily journeys of teaching. We can see firsthand that a teacher does not have to be at the center of every lesson, and that by pushing students to take the reins of their own learning, students can learn not only from the teacher but also from each other and from their own initiatives. 

Becoming a student again is in some ways a luxury. It's taken me 15 years to get back into the halls of academia as a student after devoting myself full time to teaching and raising a family. From the key lessons I've learned thus far, it's been a terrific step on my professional development road.

Sara Pozzi

Sara Pozzi has been teaching French and Spanish at Friends Academy, a Pre-K through 12 Quaker school in Locust Valley, NY, since 1988 where she is currently the head advisor for the sophomore class.