The past couple of weeks, my energy has been consumed mostly with the two effective written communication classes I’m teaching at the university. That path has taken me through some interesting terrain lately, with a lot of ups and downs.

Discovering plagiarism… DOWN.

Having to create and administer an exam when I’m not convinced exams have value for this kind of learning… DOWN.

Spending nine hours marking that exam… DOWN.

Listening to students make their final presentations about pieces of writing that impacted them… UP.

Witnessing the courage of some of the students when they spoke closer to their hearts than they’re used to speaking in class… UP.

Seeing the looks of disappointment on the faces of international students who struggle in English when their exam marks were lower than they’d hoped… DOWN.

Receiving genuine apologies for the plagiarism… UP.

Hearing several students say “I’m glad you’ll be teaching us another class after Christmas.”… UP.

Yesterday was a particularly interesting day that saw both ups and downs within the span of a few hours.

After lunch (of a full day class), I walked into a classroom full of angry, frustrated students. They’d just received some bad news about their program and the certification many of them hope to apply for after graduation. I’d planned to spend the afternoon playing a lighthearted game that fit with the day’s topic on writing persuasively, but with so much negative energy in the room, I knew there wasn’t much point… DOWN.

I set aside my plans for the afternoon, and offered the students the space and time to work through some of their frustration. Some strong words and a lot of emotion (including some tears) showed up in the room. I let it surface, and then (playing the role of facilitator rather than teacher) I tried to gently guide them in the direction of some positive action. They talked about how they could use the persuasive writing skills we’d talked about just that morning to try to change the situation they were in.

In a little over half an hour, they seemed ready to move on. Knowing it was a risk to move into a game with so much raw emotion in the room, and yet believing that it might be just the right thing to help diffuse the situation, I introduced the game. It was a version of the Dragon’s Den, where teams of 4 were each given a brown paper bag with a random item in it. They had to come up with creative ideas and persuasive language to convince the panel of “dragons” that they should invest in bringing that item to market. (I have my daughter Julie to thank for the idea.)

The game was more successful than I could have imagined. We laughed – a LOT. One group turned a seashell into an all-natural shaver. Another group had a frog business card holder that doubled as a cookie maker. A third group had a bag of incense that could calm your holiday stress and work as an aphrodisiac once the stress was gone. Another group had a small wooden container that worked as a weight loss device called “Fit it and eat it” – whatever you could fit into the container, you could eat. The last group had a toy that worked as a top, a stress reliever, or a hair accessory… UP

By the end of the day, students were leaving the class laughing and full of new resolve and maybe even a little bit of hope. One thanked me publicly for the afternoon, and several thanked me privately as they left the classroom.

It was one of those days that helped me remember what a privilege it is to be in a classroom with people as they learn and grow. I have no doubt that they learned more from the conversation that took place and the game that was played than they could have possibly learned from any lecture I might have done. (And certainly more than any exam they’ll write.) I also have no doubt that the group has become a stronger community than they were before.

The experience helped solidify my core values as a teacher. I value outside-the-box thinking. I value conversation. I value integrity. I value play. I value community. I value wholeheartedness. I value laughter. I value stories. I value transformative learning. I value risk-taking. I value collaboration. I value the unique wisdom and journey of each person in the room.

Though I sometimes resist the program restrictions placed on me, I am grateful that I have the opportunity to create space for the kind of learning and growth I believe in. It is an honour and a privilege to serve as a guide for the students who come to learn in my classroom.

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