The spin on mentorship

I said earlier that “By acts of mentorship, we use our own experience as curious beings, to show others that inquisitive acts of mind are pleasurable and productive. Maybe we live as though our questions about the world have given us a kind of control over our own learning that they would like to exercise over theirs.” Last night I saw evidence of the mentorship-control in the spinning class which I attend irregularly. First, I noticed a sign posted at the gym entrance announcing the cancellation of that night’s class. having chosen to work out anyway, Once in the locker room several men were discussing the option of using the cycles and the room, normally reserved for formal classes. We joined each other upstairs, and ten minutes later a full contingent of about ten people were riding to the tunes of an iPod volunteered for duty.

It became clear that people desired a kind of leadership, a voice to prod us along into a productive workout. For a few minutes, Larry, from his seat on a cycle in line with the rest of us, would call out or suggest a pace, an adjustment of the resistance on our wheels, or a position that would increase heart rate or muscle strength, or improve our form on the bike. Whatever he said on the left of the room over the music was echoed by a woman behind and to the right of him. She became an assistant director on the set of a western, projecting her voice over our heads, while he more or less confided his instructions to her.
After receiving positive feedback in the form of encouraging voices around him, and full participation from us in response to his instructions, he assumed the role of teacher, issuing commands in a fuller, richer voice, with greater assurance and confidence that he had indeed been granted this role. At the same time, the woman who had contributed her song list for us to ride to cringed each time a new song began. “I’m a B-I-T-C-H” segued smoothly into “I Wanna Be A Victim”, and I was impressed by the number of seductive terms that can be made to rhyme with “disrobe”.
By the end of the night she too had received accolades for her song list, the other participants generously thanking her for her offering, and understanding the personal nature of her sacrifice. Larry began adding background detail to his orders, such as why a particular set of motions would be beneficial. He contributed periodic heart rate checks, (evaluation and self-assessment), and even orchestrated a set of cool-down and stretching actions to finish off our ride.
The resourcefulness of the group, and the willingness of individuals to contribute to the productive use of time, serve as a model of democratic learning and mentorship.

People arrived with a personal and communal goal, encountered problems, determined and enacted solutions, followed an established pattern of procedures, but improvised, used feedback, and synthesized past experiences with spinning classes into a new product. I noticed Larry incorporating a variety of strategies from several spinning instructors we had had, and tailoring his commands to the beat of music previously unheard. There was cooperation, and a sense of direction and audience, such as the technique of telling us what we would be doing in a series of steps before we actually performed them, and how long the intervals would be. Larry demonstrated on his cycle before expecting compliance from the rest of us.
It was clear to me that given the opportunity most of us could step into the role of mentor as we had been mentored, if called upon to do so.

Isn’t this a perfect of example of teaching and learning? Remove the teacher from the visible picture, and you can observe and conclude lot about the teacher by the students.

I am giddy with excitement because for the past couple of weeks my own students have been teaching me about my own instruction. When I step out of the picture by removing myself from the conversations, or by appointing a student teacher for a period, students are empowered to make decisions about their own learning, to take control over how to reach their goals, and to work together to accomplish difficult tasks and solve problems.
Students have carried on excellent discussions about Scarlet Letter or read and rehearsed scenes from Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. They have debated the class purposes and procedures of class wikis and social networking sites, bringing in opinions related to yesterday’s Wikipedia protest blackout.
Most significant of all, my struggling and reluctant readers have made good choices, because I finally offered them some!
Every day for four days we have held a mini-convention on Scarlet Letter.  Students are to attend “sessions” or workshops. My sessions, called “Zoom Ins”, are discussions in which students bring their questions and select the content. My workshops are activity based, and offer students the opportunity to produce interpretations through drawings, soundtracks, drama, and letter writing.

Because I either remove myself entirely (except to take attendance for each group or drop by to offer any help they may ask me for) or merely facilitate their own talk (as a model, the first couple of times), I am able to be a fly on the wall and allow the work they do to have relevance for them, to meet their own interests and needs.

There has been an opportunity to do what Andrew Delbanco in REQUIRED READING says is (was) neglected in school: style analysis. I asked students to choose passes individually for study, but felt the aid of a worksheet would provide structure (just dividing the page into three spaces which amounted to a label and an implied suggestion of length).
My own sample response to the tasks, which I distributed to students, was too adult, my friend and colleague Susan pointed out afterward. Doing it again, I would simplify.

I also asked students to create a MAD LIBs game paragraph, which is a syntactic analysis of Hawthorne’s prose, making the goal both fun and academic. I would not call it rigorous, unless the Mad Libs game were followed through with writing their own original sentences, eventually created with the scaffolding removed. This is an adaptation of Francis Christensen’s sentence modeling and Don Stewart’s great workbook series based on that work.


2 Responses to “The spin on mentorship”

  1. 1 Susan Berrend
    January 20, 2012 at 2:48 am

    Did their Mad-Libs lend themselves to bawdiness? I find all Mad-libs go that direction…or maybe it is only when I play them….

    • January 20, 2012 at 1:36 pm

      When they were clever enought to request “bawdy part” instead of generic “noun”, I waited for wise insertions. Whether fearful or innocent – naive may be a better term – they were cooly innocuous.

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