Dowling: Reflections on learning

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(HOST)  It’s graduation time, and commentator Leora Dowling has been thinking more of the students she’s taught over the years than of her own years as a student.

(DOWLING) One of my favorite memories is of teaching a course called "Dimensions of Learning." My adult students didn’t come to me; I went to them.  Once a week I’d go to their workplace, sign in at the front desk, put on a badge, and be escorted to the room where we met – all four of us.

They were a disparate group, united mostly by their unpleasant memories of high school English and the fear that they would fail their first college class.

Two had worked all day, and one would work all night; yet they were prepared to spend three hours reading, writing, thinking, and putting their intellects on the line to improve their lives.  (In such a small class there is no place to hide.)  It was my job to convince them that they were more capable of succeeding than they believed they were, and that learning could be fun.

One way to do this is to have some common ground — a book or film we know well enough to use as a reference point.  I asked if they’d all read Huck Finn or Harry Potter, seen Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz.  They hadn’t.

"What about Shakespeare," I asked, "are you familiar with Romeo and Juliet?" All three knew the basic plot, but none had ever read the play or seen a production of it.  They admitted that they’d never read ANY Shakespeare and were intimidated by both his language and reputation.

So, of course, our shared text had to be Romeo and Juliet. Franco Zefferelli’s film version had thrilled me when I was young, and I’d used it in the classroom a dozen times since.  It would be perfect.

But the class was apprehensive.  They thought they would be bored and feel stupid.  Our lone male student, a former marine, seemed quite sure that a movie set in medieval Verona about teenagers in love would be a complete waste of his time.

I started the film anyway and sat back to watch my students.

I saw their bodies begin to relax as the sound and cadence of Shakespeare’s poetry became more familiar to them.  They were focused and listened intently as pride turned to violence, and as the beautiful and emotional young couples’ joy turned to despair. In the Capulet’s tomb, with death drawing ever closer, the class leaned forward as one, perhaps hoping that this time things would turn out differently for "Juliet and her Romeo."  At the end, with the prince’s admonishment still echoing through the ancient courtyard and in their ears, they sat completely still.

There was no need to turn on the lights to see that the class had been transformed.  They had understood Shakespeare.  They had connected. They had remembered.  They were once again part of the wondrous continuum that is learning.

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