The Act of Letting Go

I was that teacher.  I knew the material.  I had to tell my students how it was.  Daily.  For forty-three straight minutes. Outlining and vocabulary were very important skills, DAILY!  Review on Thursday. Test on Friday.  No retakes!  The first several years of my career I taught exactly as my favorite history teacher had done.  I was one of the ten percent of students that actually liked to listen to lectures about history. I liked to read my history textbook. So years later I taught history like I liked to learn it. My favorite time period to teach about was the Vietnam War.  My first year of teaching, it took me eight weeks to cover the time period between the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to the Fall of Saigon. I loved learning about this era because when I was in school it was taboo to teach about a part of history that most people wanted to try to forget.  My mentor teacher that first year pleaded with me to move on to other parts of the curriculum.  I marshaled on. The rookie teacher had no idea that he had bored his students to tears.  Several years later I decided to try something different.  I was mesmerized by this new thing called the Internet.  Students had limited experience with it.  We had a brand new computer lab and WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) software for Internet publishing had just become available.  I made in important decision. I was going to have the students make web pages documenting what they found out about the Vietnam War and put them on the Internet for the world to see.  I told the principal what I was going to have the students do.  She was very supportive.  Modeling how to make web pages was the only direct instruction I did for the unit.  Groups of students did research in the library and on the Internet about specific events that occurred during the war and wrote their findings in question and answer form–it was their idea.  It was a change of pace for my classes.  They worked hard trying to make their pages informative and appealing. They were writing for an unknown audience.  Students began to show me things I never thought would happen.  One student in particular began showing other students how to put fancy flourishes on their webpages by editing the HTML.  I had no idea how he knew this stuff.  He was the type of student that if he did anything he was causing a problem.  He became a valuable instructor during those two weeks.  Another student found a way to connect the pages to a search engine and soon had people from all over the country sending emails to the classes with suggestions or thanking them for putting their research on the Internet.  They received messages from veterans with information to add to their research.  Primary sources! The student who was the trouble maker but knew HTML, he went on to be a very successful computer technician.  The student who connected our pages to a search engine (AltaVista by the way) went on to be a writer for a webzine. (They were going to do those things despite my class, but they got to do what they wanted to do while learning about Vietnam.) I was called into the superintendent’s office.  While I sat there wondering how I was going to be disciplined for breaking a yet to be written user policy, Mr. Superintendent was clicking through the student created webpages.  He looked at me and said, this is really cool!  How did you get the kids to do this?  I just said, “It was an act of letting go.  I showed the kids how to make a webpage and they did the rest.”

Photo borrowed from the Tempered Radical’s (Bill Ferriter) Flickr photostream