The end of a long academic year is probably the time when we are most open to the idea of a rejuvenating instructional experience. In a recent workshop, I heard two teachers describe just such an experience. They team-taught an introductory English lit course with content that explored veteran experiences. Before the workshop started, it was clear they were an unlikely team. She was the rather typical English prof, a tad disorganized, fussing with the technology, comfortably relaxed before the group. He was a former Marine, standing off to the side, trying to look relaxed but actually more at attention than at ease.
She had gotten interested in veteran literature, reporting being amazed at the diversity of books, essays, short stories, poems, blogs, and websites. She shot him an email. As he was director of Veteran Affairs at the college and with their growing veteran population, she wondered if he might be interested in doing a course that focused on this literature. He shot back an answer, yes. And so their collaboration began. They spent the summer reading potential material and talking about experiences they might include in the course. Planning the course was fun and so was teaching it.
As they described teaching it, the differences in their styles were hard to miss. She ambled along, talking about what they had the students read, how they wrote about it, the discussions they had in class. He chimed in, keeping the details straight and briefly describing how things looked from his perspective. They'd had some wonderful experiences, including a field trip to an exhibit of combat photographs from World War I on. She happened to attend a reading by Sparta author Roxanna Robinson, and in her low-key, comfortable manner she asked the author if she might like to come to class and speak with the students. To her surprise, Robinson agreed, and the class had a wonderful session with her.
They shared feedback from students who reported on how meaningful the course had been to them, how much their thinking about veterans and their service had changed, how they'd come to a different understanding of the warrior-hero dichotomy. Clearly it had been an unusual learning experience for the students. They also commented on how effectively the two teachers had worked together—how their perspectives complemented and balanced each other's.
But what was most compelling about the workshop was how valuable this experience was for these two teachers. Their excitement about what they'd accomplished, the pleasure that accompanied it, what they had gained personally and professionally, and their plans for continuing—it had been a rejuvenating experience that had given them renewed appreciation for how truly extraordinary teaching experiences can be, and how unlikely collaborations with new content can create synergistic learning experiences for teachers and students.
Of course, this all more or less happened by accident. The English teacher got the idea. She got a willing collaborator, who, by the way, was not paid, but volunteered his time. They did get some money from a Title III grant, but the rest all happened pretty serendipitously.
Can you plan a rejuvenating teaching experience, if you need or want one? Probably not, but there are some actions and mind-sets that seem to be conducive to their happening. Teachers need to be open to new learning. There is still much more content for all of us to learn. Teachers also need to be open to new experiences, willing to take risks, and able to engage in projects that probably mean more work (at least at the outset). Part of what made this project successful was the interest in what was happening on campus, seeing some changes in the student population and wanting to respond with relevant, meaningful learning experiences. That goal was accomplished, and along with it two teachers had an experience that inspired them, their students, and all of us who listened. I can't think of anybody's teaching that wouldn't benefit from a rejuvenating experience like this.