Finding Ways to Help Students

A while back I wrote about a student named Travis.  He wasn’t interested in school, had teachers give up on him because they never thought to consider what his motivations were.  It made me think of another student.  We’ll call this other student Nick (using pseudonyms is always better so that any of my former students or colleagues reading this won’t necessarily know who I’m talking about).

Nick transferred in to where I was teaching.  He was rumored to be violent as a student and that he hated all teachers, especially women.  Ahh, rumors.  Well, that was enough for him to be put into my classroom for multiple hours of the school day.  Male teacher, check.  Taller than the student, check.  Hey–don’t mind I’d been in a high school classroom 20+ fewer years than those other teachers.  Whatever–if you’re going to teach, you teach and *every* student deserves your best effort.

Nick’s first day he was last to arrive–because he didn’t know where my classroom was and the guidance counselor hadn’t told him/offered to help.  He wound up in the one empty seat available–front row, second from the left, directly in front of where I sat to teach with my notes and a Coke.  Nick immediately opened a novel and started reading, no intent of paying attention to me or the class.

“Nick, put the book away.  Time for class.”  I’m polite about these sorts of things.

“It’s okay.  I won’t bother anybody.”

“Yeah, but this is History, not Literature.  I like AUTHOR X, but we’re not to the 20th century yet.”

I get this skeptical look.  “You actually know AUTHOR X?”

The classroom is pretty quiet.  Everyone else is ready, but this is new–always interesting to see how teachers interact with new students and I know they’d been told about the new kid; they knew the rumors.

“Yes, I like AUTHOR X.  I like “W” who inspired him and Y and Z who he inspired.  My favorite of his is his novella “ABC123”.

Nick looked at me, put the book away.  I started class.  About 5 minutes later, he took out a notebook and started taking notes.  I never had a problem with him, not once in the two years I had him as a student.  Not once.

Instead, he started coming in to my room with books he was reading, “Hey Dietz, check this out.  I think you’d like this.”  Indeed.  That’s how I came to start reading authors like James Ellroy.  With 20th century US History, I let him stretch the research paper assignment a bit.  It was on some aspect of Vietnam.  It was supposed to be under 10 pages…anything more and I dock the grade (because there’s skill in concise writing, not just suffering diarrhea of the keyboard).  Nick turned in *21* pages.  21. 2. 1.  It was on Vietnam, but not a way I expected.  It was effectively a literature review of the evolution of Vietnam in movies from The Green Berets to The Deer Hunter through the Rambos on up to the start of the 21st Century.  I didn’t dock him–it was too thorough, too well written.

There’s a teaching lesson there–rules are great, but they are there as guidelines.  The spirit of the rules is far more important than the letter.  No, what he wrote wasn’t about something specific from Vietnam, but it WAS something that, for him to write it well, forced him to use critical thinking skills, do fact-checking, and show he’d mastered the basic chronology and history of Vietnam.

Really though it goes back to the Travis recollection–as a teacher, you have to take the time to find what makes a student tick, what inspires them, then work with that and encourage them to take that passion, their interest further.  It may lead them in a different direction than where they think life will take them or may confirm their desires.

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This made me think about teachers I’ve had who encouraged me to enjoy learning, who taught me to think, so a brief shout-out here to them:

My Mom – Yes, my mom.  The woman who always bought me books to read, who kept me entertained by writing out math problems for me to do (yes, I was an exciting child), who would ask me ‘why’ just as often as I asked her that question.  I appreciate even now that she permitted me to argue with her–respectfully–it taught me how to discuss and disagree without making it personal.

Mrs. Miller – my 3rd grade teacher who actually found a ‘real’ boardgame about the 1976 election for me to learn, who permitted me to write reports on books that weren’t on the class list–I suspect she had little interest in my 8-yr old mind’s ‘wisdom’ regarding the Second World War, but…she encouraged my reading of all things and that mattered.

Mrs. Loula – my 6th grade teacher who found ways for me to do extra math homework and sit in on the 8th grade math class (along with Steve Pedersen)

Bob Boston – My Intro to Creative Writing instructor at Iowa State.  I didn’t start writing stuff at that point, but it was a seed that’s eventually sprouted into a couple of coaching textbooks and novels (published and unpublished) as well as this blog and my other one.

Richard Kottman – The toughest professor I ever had for class.  He pushed students hard and I learned a ton because of that–and became a great teacher because of it.  …of course, I also learned that many students don’t want to be challenged, resent having to work (some things are no different in 2019 than they were in 1987).

Jurgen Rasmussen – Dr. Rasmussen taught a class on the use of simulations and games in the classroom.  Again, I didn’t do anything with it initially.  It only confirmed my love of boardgames and card games.  Still, the seed of Poli Sci 306 became a couple of retail hobby stores that then became a game publisher and now the Dietz Foundation (not to mention the simulations I used when I was teaching high school).  No Dr. Rasmussen, no blog here, no Foundation.

Robert Johannsen – Dr. Johannsen was the one history professor at Illinois I thought understood the proper role of professor–that teaching was critical, it wasn’t just about your latest publication   Johannsen was the greatest Stephen Douglas scholar of the 20th century.  He was a stickler for using words appropriately, intolerant of wrong words like flammable or irregardless or words used improperly–the one I got caught on was ‘infamous’.  I learned from that.  I’ve used words by their proper definition ever since.  Words can do the work of scalpels or Exacto knives if you wield them with skill.

Jim Stone – Jim didn’t teach in a classroom.  He was the head coach at Ohio State and then when he retired, coached the USA Volleyball National 18-under team.  When I was working for him, I knew the basics of volleyball, the groundwork.  Jim encouraged me to ask questions–he made a conscious effort to let me work through things–I think it gave him a different perspective…I wasn’t the normal person new to the sport…I was 24, not 12.  His patience helped me learn, to not be afraid of questioning dogma.  It’s led me to a pretty successful career as a head coach over the past 23 years.