Thursday, March 26, 2015

Class Outside and other Mysteries

It is lovely weather lately. Texas' best season is March and April and I will always stand by this: the bluebonnets are out, the leaves on the trees are fresh and young, the sunlight is swept by the rain. This year, because of the rain we've gotten the past couple of weeks is perhaps even better than usual. The past week, everytime I've been inside I've wanted to be outside. In class the other day, we opened the windows to let the cool breeze in and it was lovely in part, so I wanted it in whole.

So yesterday I told my students to grab their bags and come on outside. There's a courtyard right next to our building with steps and sometimes we hear students rehearsing Shakespeare out there and it seems an ideal way to spend a spring afternoon.  Instead of sitting in a dark room, looking at a screen, I could print off copies of the sample paper I want them to look at and we could sit outside and have an enriching discussion on the grass.

As soon as we get out, the steps look unlikely--they are covered in dry leaves, and even if they weren't the direct sun is hotter than it seemed in class. "Can we go back to the air conditioning?" a student jokes. Kind of. Someone points out a nice cool spot of shade in the grass, so we head over there and sit down. Cross legged, kind of sideways. One of my students is in a skirt. Another sits and and then immediately stands up, "Don't sit there!" she exclaims, "There are lots of prickles there."

Finally everyone gets situated and it goes pretty much as I planned: I take their questions about the forthcoming assignment. I have them read silently the first model (my own writing, in true National Writing Project fashion) and then we identify how it relates to their own projects. Good discussion. Then it's time to read the next model, a student paper of their forthcoming projects. One long-legged student stands up. "Is it okay if I sit over there on the benches to read?" He's been squirming for a few minutes now.

"Sure," I say, because I can't think why not. "We'll take around 10 minutes."

As usual, some students finish early, some later. No one really chats, though; we're all sitting in a circle, so I can look them in their eyes. Also,  it's outside. I say we're going to regroup and the students who sought out a bench come back. We talk about the model. I point out what I think are the strengths of the paper. They identify characteristics that relate to work we've already done in class. I have to shift around too, and, more often than I like, I find myself talking about something supportive and encouraging while tearing some innocent clover or leaf of grass into atomic particles.

We want to listen to a sample student project, a podcast a previous student made, so I play it off my laptop and we all strain to hear. The students on the far edge (near the prickles) cup their ears to hear, but I think they get it. After a discussion of that part, then, I hand out the last handout and describe the homework for next time. The clock tower chimes the quarter hour and we unbend and wander off.

A student sneezes. "I think I'm allergic to Texas," he says, more cheerfully than he sounds. Today, I will learn later, is one of the worst allergy days of the year. Several of my students, it seems, have allergies.

So I don't think I'll go outside again. Class Outside is one of those great forbiddens, more lovely because they are forbidden and like all great mysteries, you find that the actual experience of it includes pluses and minuses. The distance romanticizes it. These mysteries are sometimes well worth it--marriage springs to mind, and traveling the world. Sometimes, though, it's better to open the windows and let yourself be tempted instead.

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