I've been teaching mythology for a few years now. I am no expert, and working with the students in this fall's class has proven that to be true beyond an overcast stormfront of a doubt. The kids know more. than they let on. It's up to us to find out.
What do I mean by that?
Do the students come into the class knowing more than I can teach them? No. Well, maybe a couple have in the past.
But they do know what gets them interested.
For much of the first semester, I introduced students to myths from Greek, Roman, Norse, Native American, Asian and other global cultures. Many were fascinated by the stories of Zeus, Medusa, Aphrodite, Perseus, Psyche, Loki, Ragnarok, and more. And the benefit of teaching these stories was learning about them myself. I put hours and hours of research and study into preparing myself for a course that I felt fraudulent to teach. An imposter. In the teaching business, that's how it goes. The school has a list of courses that the students can sign up for. Once the students sign up, someone has to teach the course. Like I said, I'm no expert in mythology. So, I learned. My goal was to know enough to come across as an authority on the topic, at least to my students. I worried about every class - was I prepared enough? What if they ask follow up questions about related gods or parallel myths? Will I be able to answer them?
I prepared engaging presentations and lectures. I introduced concepts and characters. We looked at myth theory. We read. We discussed. No, actually we didn't discuss much. The students were not the discussing sort. What they wanted to do was learn the way they had been learning the last few years through pandemic zoom teaching (also known as talking into the silence). These kids wanted enough lead to go and learn the rest themselves. They wanted to discover. They wanted to research. Some just wanted to be left alone to do as much or as little as they needed to get away with passing grade. The kids who took myth were looking for something interesting. No one takes mythology as a blow off course, unless you know everything there is to know about mythology. but the kid who knows everything there is to know about mythology is a kid who likes to read and learn. Those who didn't already know were actually eager to find out. Still, what I was doing was 'presenting'. The students were intrigued. but they left the class as if they left a movie theatre, quietly thinking about the stories and the info. There was little discussion. I wanted discussion. I wanted dialogue. Questions. Action!
What I got instead was a maddening quiet.
Then... some hesitant comments. Some agreements. Some insights. They came in spurts, bubbling up as if from a slow-boiling pot. Blips of insight. Then stares. Then, a return to silence again.
That's when one of the students ( who DEFINITELY knows more than me) quietly suggested that I put the learning in their hands. Instead of giving them topics to learn about, offer a broad topic and let the kids choose their path.
Now, what's strange here is this: my tendency is to let kids learn on their own. I prefer to present learning goals and coach students as they wrestle through research and information on their way to being able to answer the big question. I like to guide. I prefer to encourage and facilitate learning. I do not lecture. I hate lecturing. I don't like to talk that much. I am not a fan of hearing my own voice. But here I was, leading too much, talking too much, and not letting go. As a result, I was worried about preparing for class when I could never prepare enough. What's more, I didn't have to.
How do you teach if you don't know more than your students? Good question.
I followed my students advice. I put the lead in his hands. He offered to write up the idea, which became a research project filled with choice and options. The class loved it. They dove in.
They did the discovery. They shared their ideas with each other. We all learned more as a result.
The success of letting the students run the show prompted another student to suggest a different unit idea which she drew up. Once again, the idea was placed in the hands of the class and they all dove in on it.
Notice I am not referring to the students as MY students. They are not mine. We learn together, and in many ways I learn more from them. That is the beauty of teaching.
There is enormous power in letting go. The students know how they want to learn. And if you build a trusting relationship with students, they will tell you. If you're lucky.
I am lucky.
Hi. My name is Stephen Tesher. I am a novelist, screenwriter, educator, and father. I've authored three books, staged numerous plays and optioned screenplays, articles, and this blog.