Help! I can’t teach!

The happy (and hard-working) graduate

Graduation weekends are always special, but this one was particularly fulfilling for me, as I got to award my niece’s diploma onstage at the UW-Stevens Point afternoon commencement ceremony.  They’re also bittersweet, because graduation means some of our favorite people will be moving on.  Our niece Ivannia Herrera Gonzalez is one of them, and we couldn’t be prouder — she graduated early and magna cum laude.

But it means she’ll probably be leaving town soon. That’s tough, because it’s been really great to have more family around during her time at UWSP.  I’ll also miss our Pointer graduates and a whole slew of other students in communication and other areas.

Their leaving, regardless of how happy I and other faculty members are for them, is made a little tougher by the fact that we get to stay behind and try to keep things running smoothly when it’s clear that public support for education in Wisconsin is in serious trouble.  I went to a picnic tonight that was attended primarily by folks at the university, and that trouble was a constant theme of discussion.  At the same time — perhaps because it is  the end of the year and so many of the picnic guests were still beaming about our new grads and the prospects of at least a little summer break — there was plenty of optimism that we’d somehow survive next year’s troubles, too.

I’ll write more about commencement-related issues in the next few days. There were some remarkable words spoken about the resolve of students to graduate, of UWSP faculty and staff to help them do so, and about the state of education and U.S. politics in general from former Wisconsin Congressman Dave Obey.  Obey’s speech is worth plenty of discussion in its own right, as it was a challenge for voters that will not be easy to take on.

But I have a more immediate task.  Whatever my contributions were, as a family member or teacher, for any of the folks walking the stage this weekend, I’ve got to forget about them  That’s because I’m preparing for a really tough audience in the morning — a bunch of sixth graders, including my own son.

I first thought it would be a snap to go in and teach a few basics of journalism, as that is, at least nominally, my primary university responsibility.  As I began reviewing his classwork in science for the next week, however, I was reminded of what an awesome task our elementary teachers have in front of them each day.

My son and his classmates don’t have to simply listen to me yammer for a while about the importance of newspapers; they have to write, over the next seven school days, a series of three different kinds of articles (a news story, an editorial, and an obituary), as well as one more article of their choice, over space and the universe and how those relate to life on earth.  They have very specific questions to answer about space science and specific approaches to take for each of the assigned stories.

It’s actually a pretty complex task that they’re undertaking.  Take a look; I’ve linked here to the document that explains it.Space journalism. Haven't done.  Don't know if I can.

Am I ready to teach this to a bunch of sixth graders?  No.  I’ve barely begun to figure out, after a dozen years of full-time teaching of college students, how teaching works.  Once I think I’ve got something figured out, technology changes, or the habits of students change, or the economy changes, or the political climate changes.  It’s a constantly shifting set of circumstances.  Now I’ve got to work with a bunch of young scientist-reporters who are on the cusp of being teenagers, and despite my having one of them in my own house, I feel utterly unequipped to do so.

So I’m taking a deep breath, jotting down some notes and gathering some resources, and reminding myself that in a few short years, these young folks will walk that stage and head out into the real world, where they’ll build our rockets and write our words of inspiration and lead us into the future.  I’ll do what I can to equip them a little bit.  I’ll also rely a great deal on the remarkable resource that is my son’s sixth-grade teacher, and I’ll count on my son and his friends to do the rest, despite the obstacles we all face.

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