This week, I took part in a program called ‘Race Around Campus’. It’s an outreach program that UWA puts on to give high schoolers a taste of what they’d be doing at university. I gave the same 20-minute mini-class over and over again for about 18 different school groups.
I got to see the contrast between different groups. Some were great. One group came into the lecture room, and they actually waited at their chairs until I realised what they were waiting for, and I said, “Please take a seat.” Which they did. But these groups weren’t just well-behaved; they were really switched on, they took an interest in the linguistics problems I was presenting, and they grasped them quite readily. Maybe they needed a little ‘entertainment’ in the teaching to keep them interested, but when they got it, they responded.
Other groups were from underpriviledged schools. Some had a teacher/student ratio of about 1 to 4. These groups had real control issues. While some groups were inattentive, some were potentially dangerous. One student started trying to punch a hole in his water bottle with his pen, and ended up injuring himself right there in class. (That was in the first ten minutes.) They had a hard time staying on task. They cracked private jokes at my expense. They talked incessantly, despite the best efforts of their teachers. It was rather dispiriting to be using my best presenting skills, and not magically captivate their interest like I normally do, but eventually I shifted my focus to simply holding their attention, and failing that, maintaining order and getting through the twenty minutes.
I had to reflect about the difference between the ‘good’ groups and the ‘more difficult’ groups. The kids in the good groups were responsive, smart, and able to take an interest in problems and solve them. The kids in the tough groups couldn’t do any of that. They probably weren’t dumb — they just didn’t see the need or take the interest. And why would they? I was presenting material that was utterly remote from their experience. They were never going to do linguistics, and they might not ever see the inside of a university building again. It wasn’t part of any framework they were used to, or one that they had ever succeeded in. It felt like my job was to attract the students that were interested, and let all the rest filter through. Which was the most I could do in twenty minutes.
I felt bad for the kids from the rough schools, and I felt worse for their teachers. But the ones I felt worst about were the students who were actually quite bright, and clearly capable of doing the work, but they were being forced to go to school every day with some unpredictable and rather frightening kids. It reminded me of everything I hated about being that age.