Jedi Powers

First day of my high-school physics class (sometime in the 90s):
The perky redhead teacher at the front of the room looked at us with shining eyes and a bright smile. On the counter in front of her, she had a stack of strange objects.
“You’ve been divided into groups. In just a minute, you are all going to get one of these objects. Your task is to figure out what the inside looks like without taking the thing apart.” The class stared blankly back at her. “So what do you think you might do to figure it out? What kinds of questions could you ask? What kinds of tests could you run? Remember you can do anything that does not involve destroying the object.” One girl raised her hand and offered a question, “Shake it?”
“Yes, you might shake it.”
“Turn some of the pieces?”
“Yes, there are some movable pieces on the outside. Make notes and sketches in your workbook as you go. Think about size, shape, texture, sounds, weight, and reactions to different movement. I think you get the idea. Now let me give you your object.”

Ours was a square, white card box with a couple seemingly straight sticks running through it. It was small enough to hold in one hand, substantial enough to have some weight, and something inside rattled when it moved. The sticks slid side to side up to a point, but clearly there was a bend somewhere on the inside. As we explored the object, we began to sketch what we thought to be the internal structure. Some of groups got close to reality, but no one had it exactly.

As a student in the class that day, I vividly remember the frustration I felt at not being able to see thing I was trying to understand. I could not get inside the box to look at it or even touch it. I was separated from the inner workings by the outer shell. It was an introduction to the physics of molecules, but …

Here’s the jump:
As a teacher, I often feel a similar frustration. My class of students is like the box, and I am on the outside. They have their own relational dynamics, their own musical preferences, and their own opinion of me – all of which is usually hidden. To add a layer of challenge, students are always changing! Some days they come in energized and sometimes they’re exhausted. One day they might be friends and the next they might not be talking to each other. Sometimes they’re happy with me and sometimes they’re annoyed. They change from class to class and I’m on the outside of the box, trying to figure out how to challenge them, how to encourage them, and how to give them a meaningful musical experience. When they don’t sound great is it because a bunch of them stayed up late studying for an exam? Or because they are tired of the song? Or because it’s hot outside? Or because they’re just being lazy in class and need a kick in the pants? Most likely, there is something I can do to change the situation, but how do I know what that something is if I can’t see the root cause?

THAT is one of the core challenges of teaching: you can’t take your students apart, but you still have to figure out how to meet their education needs – how to get them from point A to point B. You can’t get inside their heads, know their friend circles, see their family interactions or trace their educational path, but you still have to figure out who they are, where they are, and how to give them a meaningful educational experience.

If only I was a Jedi … I’d wave my fingers gently and say “You will make beautiful music today.”

One thought on “Jedi Powers

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  1. Lillis, you are there for your students every day, and you care about and notice their day-to-day changes even if you don't know the cause. That makes you a good teacher. They are lucky to have you! But I must agree…sometimes Jedi powers would be awfully nice. 🙂

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