In my senior year of high school I joined the Drama Club, and was quickly fascinated by the strength, self-possession and worldliness of veterans of many productions. One of our favorite games to play while nonchalantly waiting to put on make-up, was to do lateral thinking puzzles, where someone gives you a seemingly illogical situation (e.g. “She went into the bar and asked for a glass of water. The bartender took out a gun. She thanked him, and left.”) and, by asking yes-no questions, figure out what really happened and why it all makes sense. I knew, and trusted, that sooner or later one of us would latch onto the seed question that would magically crystallize our thinking and make the solution clear.
Some years, I have played lateral thinking puzzles with my advisory group as a way for them to collaborate and build the kind of trust I had felt for my Drama Club friends. One group in particular (I’m thinking of you, sophomore and junior ex-advisees) kept begging for new ones, and finally I let them invent one for me. For the record, I got it in three advisory meetings, and they were impressed with how quickly I got from the seed question to the full solution.
I’ve never done lateral thinking puzzles with a Humanities 7 class before, but if I were to do so, it would be with this year’s group. Their first long discussion of the year, on the second or third “morning reading” of Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue, was an extended riff blending inferences of the present, predictions of the future, and suggestions for a backstory of the past. Nearly all of them jumped in at some point, and as the raised hands multiplied and I went from using my hands to subtly point to people on whom I needed to remember to call, to using my fingers to indicate nearly half the class, there was a growing excitement about the ideas they were sharing that magically stayed on topic. It was one of my first major insights into the gifts and character of this class. That was also the first day I said out loud,
“I’m still just getting to know you and already I love this class.”
That’s one of the things that fascinates me about teaching, that you fall in love with a class before you ever meet them. Of course, receiving and reacting to summer work starts the process, but still, meeting a class on the first day is much like holding your child for the first time. Though it was nearly 18 years ago, I well remember (of course!) holding my newborn son on my 34th birthday, the amazement at how natural it felt to feel this much love for a person I had technically just met, along with a paradoxical certainty that I would be able to take care of him, love him, and help him grow into the person he was meant to be even as I knew I really had no clue at that moment who that person was. It’s like that with this class, as it is with all of them.
At a school that’s all about student voice, it’s imperative to help the new students open up as quickly as possible. People ask me what our secret is, but there it is. As with all human interactions, it’s hard to untangle. But that combination of openness to who they are meant to be, love and a deep respect for their individual and collective strengths may be a start.
-Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean