The Old College Try: When Doors Open


I’m in the middle of grading and writing lesson plans as the middle of the 3rd week of classes gets under way.  And while I’m busy, I really, really dig the beginning of a semester!  You can almost “see” the students’ feeling of possibility and excitement–all of which usually gets tarnished a bit by midterms and is certainly drained significantly as finals loom in the distance.  But now?  Now is a time of new beginnings for many of my students who are either hoping to pass the class on their second time around or are brand-new college students looking to their teachers to help guide them along.

If you’re an idealist of any shade or variety, this is your equivalent to heaven!

One of my favorite assignments to give on the first day is the letter of self-reflection.  You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been–to steal an old cliche.  But it’s true nonetheless: They need to begin thinking about who they are as students and what they want to see changed by the time the semester ends.  And  frankly, I need to know a little bit about them if I’m going to help them get there.  I mention all of this because I want to share a little snippet from one of my student’s letters (who shall remain anonymous).

“One thing you have to know about me to understand and help me is when I say “What?” I am not trying to be rude.  It means I don’t get what is said or written on the board.  Also know that I am shy and I hate to say it when I need help.  So if I look frustrated to you, know why.  Please ask me occasionally how I am doing and how the class is going.”

This made me sit back, take my glasses off, and say aloud: “Whoa.”

How often do we overlook and take for granted those little things we see in the classroom?  How many times have we mistaken a scrunched up face for a student giving us attitude when really, they physically looking up to us for help?  How many times have we misinterpreted a student’s tone of voice as being that of a smart ass, when they were really trying to ask us for help without risking the appearance of stupidity in front of their classmates?  How many students have we forgotten to address by name and failed to simply ask “How are you?”

I read this letter, set it down, and spent some time reflecting on myself and feeling simply blown away by a student exposing themselves to their teacher right away.  And I can’t help but feel that while the assignment has been collected and is now behind them, the lesson is one that will stick with me for a very, very long time.

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About fhelvie

I live in CT with my wife and two sons. I am also writing my doctoral dissertation, which is focused on the relationship between American literature and comic book superheroes. I have served as a panelist at a number of conferences discussing my research in comics, medieval literature, and pedagogy. Most recently, I had the good fortune to present at the New York Comic Con. In addition to my work in comics scholarship, I'm also a full-time professor of developmental English.
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