Risk Taking in the Classroom

 February is always a challenging month for me in teaching. The semester is well underway, and the students settle into the routine and structure of the course. I also get filled with a bit of dread for not being enough of a risk taker in structuring my course for the semester. And, my birthday falls in February, perhaps an additional source of dread.
My birthday in February has now firmly planted me as old enough to be my students’ parent. I knew this time would come. This milestone also makes me realize how much time has elapsed between my own adolescence and the adolescence of my students. I don’t want to sound like an aging curmudgeon by lamenting Beloit College’s Mindset List http://www.beloit.edu/mindset/2012/. Instead, I think now about what was different about my own adolescence, how different from my own experience was my students’, and the intersection around some commonalities as influencing my teaching.
This leads me back to risk taking in teaching. I have attended many teaching conferences, sessions, webinars, etc. over my career, and because my focus has been on teaching adolescent development, I am always thinking about adapting exercises for this curriculum. But, alas, I am comfortable with my course structure—and students respond to the way the course is constructed—and say they learn quite a bit. However, I know that there may be opportunities for innovation that are passing by.
I thought about this issue with the announcement of Facebook filing for an initial public offering of stock and while receiving warm birthday wishes via Facebook from many people who knew me in high school and earlier. Facebook didn’t exist when I was in high school (Mark Zuckerberg was in diapers when I graduated). But, for my students, many have had Facebook pages since high school. Facebook started in 2004 and given the new timeline feature, students could easily reflect on their own history of status updates.
Alas, I am filled with a little regret (and birthday cake) over the missed opportunities I could have incorporated. Let me list here some of the interesting ones I have thought about, but have been too chicken to try.   I do not remember from where these emerged, so if you, dear reader, deserve credit, please alert us.
1. Facebook timeline. As noted above, I think it would be an interesting exercise for students to compile their posts from high school and analyze their content as it relates to the curriculum. Surely, they may uncover recurrent themes about relationships, insecurity, identity, or related topics.
2. Mortified, the classroom version. There is a stage production called Mortified: Angst Written (http://getmortified.com/about/), where individuals share their adolescent diaries, poems, videos, etc. on stage. I have not seen it but have seen news segments about the production. There is also an adaptation with celebrities on the Sundance Channel. The classroom version might entail having students bring in their old diaries or other works and read them aloud to share with the class in order to augment the recurrent themes in the curriculum. It might be an interesting collaborative opportunity with theater.
3. Room touring. I saw Dr. Jane D. Brown speak a few years ago about teens and media influence, and she discussed the research process of room touring, where a teen provides a tour of his or her room. These are audio recorded and visual images are also recorded. Later, the images and artifacts are analyzed in relationship to some measures in questionnaires the teen completed. I think students might enjoy a modification of the technique (or perhaps learning how to do room touring as a method) to learn about how adolescents represent their identities and activities in their “space.”
4. Spend a day with a teen. At a teaching conference, one attendee relayed how at his small private school he arranged to have his students spend a school day with local teens and observe them. I like the idea of putting university students in the role of participant-observers with adolescents. I know all the potential risks that this could involve but what a potentially rich learning experience.
5. Adolescent Development in Film. This idea is one of my fantasies of teaching adolescent development through movies to illustrate various concepts. I know there are lists of Psychology in Films and people teach all kinds of topics via film. So, why not Adolescent Development? I have shown some films and tons of video clips, but never a whole course. I’d love to hear ideas of your favorites. SRA’s Teacher’s Corner has a list of education documentary films https://www.s-r-a.org/teaching_resources.
6. Write a letter to your parent. At one conference I attended, a faculty member discussed how he had his students write a letter to their parents about what they were learning, and some would actually send the letter. I think this might be an interesting exercise–to have students write their parents a letter addressing issues of their own adolescence that they have now come to understand because of the course.
7. Adolescent panels. I know that some instructors are well connected with local high schools, and I have heard that they invite a panel of adolescents to answer questions from the university students. Again, an opportunity to have university students understand contemporary adolescents experience would be a rich experience. At the same time, reciprocating by having university students answer questions from high school students might be mutually rewarding.
8. Pen pals in other countries. I think it would expand the students’ learning to engage in a pen-pal-like relationship with adolescents in other countries to find out how their adolescent experience differs from the students’ previous experiences and current perceptions. I say pen-pal-like because with today’s technology, it is possible that this could move to videoconferencing (like Skype), which might be more enriching for the student and potentially could be recorded for archiving.
So, at this point, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t implemented any of these ideas. I’d like to say there is some strong pedagogical reason wrapped in highfalutin, academic language, but there isn’t.

by Rob Weisskirch, MSW, Ph.D.
California State University, Monterey Bay

Image by romankosolapov/AdobeStock

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