Our World Studies teacher was out on paternity leave for 2 weeks (shocked readers who are neither US residents nor obsessed with your jobs: I know, it’s stupid). Like any responsible teacher, he prepared the students for his absence and expected them to continue working. He made flipped videos, scheduled quizzes, and advised them on how to study. But several of them bombed without him–over and over again. The substitute and all the other teachers knew they weren’t studying, that they were using their World Studies class time to play games or watch Netflix instead of learning, but the kids still didn’t get it and I started getting questions from kids and counselors on what was going wrong.
So last week, I challenged the kids. There was one more quiz left, and I was going to go through all the resources and take it with them. They seemed to be convinced that the quiz was impossible, that the resources were flawed and that it was impossible to study. I wanted to experience it myself. The quiz was on Southwest Asia and North Africa, a region whose geography and politics I should know intimately, but of which I am mostly ignorant. The intricacies of current events and the vastness of history overwhelm me sometimes. On top of that, I had several assignments that I needed to grade. In terms of ignorance and workload, I matched or surpassed my students. The challenge seemed reasonable. If they, scholars who had passed an entire semester of World Studies, could beat me, a mere English teacher who has lived in the world of literature so long that she is ignorant of current events, they got bragging rights and a button to pin on their lanyards to declare their victory over me.
In school, I was an excellent student, so I started off pretty confident. I bragged of my intellectual prowess like Apollo Creed before a match. But the second I saw the resource page, I felt the same anxiety they felt. I needed to watch 5 YouTube videos, each between 15 to 30 minutes long, read 4 articles, and know the countries on a map. Plus, the kids had two weeks to go through all their resources–I only had one, and I legitimately had a lot of other shit to do! I kept talking up a big game when I saw my students, but as the test date got closer, I’d pull a few aside and ask for tips. I took diligent notes, writing everything down because I can’t process information well otherwise. The night before the quiz, I crammed in the last of the videos while folding my laundry. On Quiz Day, I was nearly late to school because I was going through a Quizlet that a student was kind enough to share with me.
When I sat in on his class to take the quiz, I was sweating. I didn’t want to look stupid in front of my kids. I like feeling smart. But at the same time, I wanted them to win the challenge. Either way, I would feel bad. During the 30 minutes allotted to studying before the quiz, I walked around, sharing my anxiety with the kids and listening to them quiz each other. And then it was quiz time.
And even though I was mostly ignorant about this region a week ago, the quiz proved that the resources that my colleague provided the kids were good. It was actually pretty easy if you studied. There were two that I left blank, partly because I didn’t know the answer right away and I didn’t really want to think too hard and stress about them, and partly because I was OK with admitting that I didn’t know two questions. I considered flubbing a couple more questions to give a few more kids a chance to “win,” but I figured staying honest would be a better lesson to the kids.
Thirteen kids beat me and got buttons. For the rest, I was able to commiserate and share some study tips.
Last week, I learned about the Balfour Declaration, the names of most of the countries in North Africa, the difference between Yemen and Oman on a map, and the basics of 20th century Iranian, Iraqi, and Afghan history. I also learned that, although it makes me really really really uncomfortable because I am such a guarded person, making myself vulnerable in front of my students is not always bad. I got to help out my colleague by motivating kids to study a little more, and by reassuring him that his quizzes and resources are good. The thirteen that beat me don’t think I’m stupid; they just loved the chance to get a button and brag. I got to have fun conversations with most everyone else, and reconnect with some kids that I haven’t talked with in a while. I still hate feeling stupid and vulnerable, so while I may not make a habit of this, I’ll try to let my guard down a little more often. It’s for the kids.