I’m well into my second semester of teaching at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura here in Sri Lanka. This semester, I’m teaching the same course – “Academic Reading & Writing” – but am teaching only second year students. (Who, last semester, were first year students. They’ve since had their summer vacation, which is why I wasn’t teaching for a few months – and is of course something I found out about a few weeks before break started. Aiyo, as we say in Lanka Land!)
While this semester is much shorter than my first one, it’s already been more enjoyable. I’ve felt less pressure since I knew I only had a short period of time with my students. (And, while we did need to do very academic things like review MLA this semester, I got those more difficult lessons out of the way last fall/winter!) After doing much reflecting since finishing up the first semester and getting feedback from my students, I decided my two biggest goals for this semester were to: 1) expose my students to as many well-known and diverse American writers as I could, and 2) help bring my students out of their shells as much as possible. These goals meant I spent a lot of time learning about some wacky writers and acting very wacky myself – I learned early on that if I get a little silly in the classroom, my students see that they can be silly, too. And I firmly believe that being silly is part of the learning process. And silly in the classroom can often equal success. If you can get a student to get out of their comfort zone, you can see they’re learning something — and that they’re comfortable enough to share the fact that they’re learning something.
When I came back to work, it was really nice to see that my students from last semester were happy to see me and were eager to have me teach them again. And I was so pleased that in the classroom, the level of discussion was significantly higher than last semester. When my students began reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, they came to class armed with questions. I was just really happy they came with questions, even when I realized that their questions were mostly about South Dakota and Alaska and what it’s like to go hunting and to hitchhike and to not talk to one’s parents for months at a time. I have no personal experience with any of these things, which in their eyes apparently made me not very American or adventurous (you can guess which I was more offended by), but I did my best, and we had what I think were some great discussions about things that make life on the other side of the world unique. I’ll never forget, though, when one student raised his hand while we were discussing the protagonist of Into the Wild in depth and asked, “But, Madam, I just don’t get it. Why would anyone WANT to go to Alaska?”
This short semester means I’m not able to assign and discuss as many books with my students as I’d like. So my shortcut to broadening their horizons of exposure in terms of American authors is having them spend the first twenty minutes of class reflecting on a quote by an American author. As their teacher, it’s a lot of fun to read their responses to quotes (which, yes, are some of my favorite literature/writing quotes that I’ve collected over the years) by writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Barbara Kingsolver, Dr. Seuss, Maya Angelou, and Walt Whitman, to name a few. When they’ve finished writing, I spend a few minutes telling them about the quote’s author, their life, what kind of writing they’re known for, etc. This is basically just a writing practice and name dropping exercise, but they seem to enjoy it, and I’m glad I can share with them some memorable thoughts by some wonderful writers.
My students are currently reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Last week, when I sat down to think about how to introduce the novel and the issues that are addressed in it, I posted the following on Facebook (and thought I’d share it here since it sort of captures that moment for me):
sitting in a colombo cafe, surrounded by papers and books, lesson planning for tomorrow’s classes. creating an activity in which i introduce the civil rights movement to my university-level sri lankan students, who are about to begin reading “the help.” feeling part of more than a few different worlds and pieces of history right now, as i recall historical moments of injustice in my country while living in a country currently struggling to come out of civil unrest and injustices of its own. will my students grasp this? will they appreciate the significance? i don’t know. but we’re gonna have fun with it, and maybe some flashes of comparison and understanding will strike. because this is literature, and life, as summed up by one of my students last week when i asked her her why she loves literature: “because, ms. natalie, it’s just so alive.”
And we did have fun with it. And sparks of understanding did strike. And literature is so alive. As I watched my students sit in small groups and plan skits while flipping through pages of The Help and smiling, I couldn’t help but smile myself – I think I could be a teacher for fifty years and never get tired of seeing students engage with books and demonstrate that they’ve made important connections between the books they’re reading and the lives they’re leading. When, in one skit, a group of students reenacted the story of Rosa Parks on the bus and had the young lady playing Rosa say MLK’s famous line (I had them watch his “I Have a Dream” speech for homework) to her bus mate – “We should be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character” – I got chills. My students were getting it. Maybe not completely, but they were starting to grapple with the Civil Rights Movement, with racism as it played out in the not-so-distant past, with acts of injustice and with the courage required to take a stand. They were taking this piece of literature and struggling with it and enjoying it. They were making connections and asking me about things like ebonics and who says “y’all” in America and telling me about why it’s considered “better” to be a light-skinned Sri Lankan than dark-skinned and what they think about that. My classroom has seen the best discussions it ever has the past few weeks, the kinds that consist of more questions than answers, that bring up tough things and make us all a little uncomfortable for a moment or two. I’m humbled every single day in that classroom, and even though my time teaching here in Sri Lanka is coming to an end, I know I’ll stay humbled by this experience for some time to come.