End of Semester Lessons: What My Students Taught Me

It’s another finals week here at Penn State, which means the campus is slowing its pace, faculty are storing away their lectures and exams, and the air is vibrating with the excitement of seniors heading off into the next stage of their lives. The end of each semester brings with it a bittersweet taste–satisfaction looking back on another semester completed, but also loss as the tethers uniting each of my classes come unmoored and we go our separate ways.

IMG_2663
I had the pleasure of starting each Tues/Thurs with this incredible group #HDFS429

If there is ever a constant in teaching, it is change itself.

This semester was particularly powerful for me, as it coalesced with shifts in my own private life. I’ve been writing more nonfiction along with fiction, and with this emergence my own thinking has shifted into territories I’ve failed to explore before, much to my own detriment.

Growing up as a white woman in the privileged middle class amidst an essentially homogeneous white community, my cultural experiences were limited. Likewise, my abilities to comprehend what it means to be a person of color in our country or a person in economic disadvantage were similarly limited.

This is one of the reasons I so greatly treasure my role as a university lecturer–every semester I interact with 400+ new students from a variety of backgrounds, each bringing their own experiences and uniqueness to the classroom. It is such a gift to have a profession where I am guaranteed the opportunity to interact with individuals different from myself and to explore these cultural distinctions within the supporting framework of developmental science.

IMG_2665
Next up came my HDFS 497A: Autism course–do I look excited to see them? That’s how I felt every day coming to class 🙂

This semester, the main lesson I’ve taken away from my students is the value of authenticity and honesty.  Heading into my classroom in anticipation of tackling topics such as the intersection of race and poverty in the US, or the impact of media stereotypes on children’s ethnic and sexual identities, I remained unsure of myself, semester after semester. How could I, a privileged hetero white woman, speak to the challenges, prejudices, and violence directed at people of color in our country or to the confounding of race and financial opportunity in the US?  How could I speak to the experience of being a religious or sexual minority or as a parent of a child with special needs?

The answer, of course, is simple. I cannot speak to these experiences with any element of truth, because I have not lived them. Although I can provide evidence from the scientific inquiry into these topics, the essential components of human experience that embody each of these life paths is out of my grasp.

And this semester, I finally owned this fact. I did not avoid the subject or bury it under statistics and references to various studies. I admitted my limitations, and I asked my students to help me. This was the most relevant in my HDFS 429: Advanced Child Development course, where we specifically discuss risk and resilience and examine media and race, although all of my courses collide with these social justice issues in some way.

At the beginning of these specific discussions in HDFS 429, I stated outright that I’ve benefited my entire life from white privilege and that I have no way of knowing what it is to be a person of color in this country. I don’t know what it means to be poor, either. And I absolutely don’t understand what it is to be both.  In my other courses, I made similar efforts to disclose my authentic self, in order to provide it as a contrast to the breadth of the human experience.

IMG_2667
And then my day ended with my largest class–HDFS 229 #LovedEveryMinute

In this disclosure–in owning my white privilege rather than pretending it did not exist–something wonderful happened. The atmosphere of my classrooms opened up, and my students began to incorporate their own authentic experiences in our discussions of developmental science, whether those experiences mimicked my own or provided a new perspective I could not provide. I felt a freedom in the classroom that I hadn’t felt before, and I can look back and realize that this freedom emerged from me acknowledging what I did not know to my students, thus giving my students room to teach me.

The greatest joy this semester came when my students accepted who I am and am not, and then offered to educate me in part by sharing their reflections on their own journeys in life thus far. In every class meeting, my students took me by the hand and pulled me forward, closer to understanding, empathy, and wisdom.

And this is where I find myself at the end of this Spring semester–wholly myself and wholly listening.

What My Students Taught Me: Spring Semester Edition

It’s the end of another semester here at Penn State and, as my mother (who is a high school science educator herself) reminds me, nothing ever stays the same when you are an educator. Classes end, students graduate, and time marches on. It’s one of the blessings and drawbacks of this profession–you are ever continuously in motion.

As we head into our finals week on campus and my Human Development and Family Studies students (HDFS-ers for short) prep for exams, I’m struck looking back on the past 15 weeks by what my students have accomplished. Not just objectively, from exam packets completed or written projects handed in, but also more intangibly through their comments, actions, and affirmations. It’s been a good semester for growth, and I feel empowered and strengthened by the gift of having worked with my students this semester. Below are three highlights.

Book and Woman.png

  1. When discussing links between pornography consumption in men and viewing women as objects, I posed the question of what it means to be objectified, especially since that phrase has been overused to the point of becoming meaningless. My students responded to the question, with swift emphasis, that:
  • An object has no desires.
  • An object has no discomfort.
  • An object does not need to give consent.

After this discussion, I sat quietly at my desk after class, thankful these young people are heading out into the world soon. Change will come.

2. At the end of the semester, I asked my students for their final in-class assignment to write about which activity or topic I should definitely include next semester. Almost half of the course emphasized the importance of viewing The Hunting Ground and our discussion of sexual assault on campus, including the Bystander Training Prevention program we participated in as a class through Penn State’s Student Affairs.  It reminded me, once again, of the importance of giving our students access to a safe educational environment. Given that I’ve received 4 ‘timely warnings’ of reported sexual assaults on campus in the past week, we still have a long way to go, but I am confident that many of our students will continue to fight until we get there.  @endrapeoncampus

Timely Warning

3. My sophomore-level course is a survey of infancy and childhood, so we cover a variety of topics, much to my delight since I love learning and teaching about this period of development. Each semester, I try to squeeze in a presentation on the Children’s Village of Grasi, which is a children’s home/orphanage in Cesvaine, Latvia. I volunteered there many summers ago and my husband and I have since traveled back to Latvia several times as part of our adoption of our three children. I partly share the Children’s Village with my students because their program of caring for children whose families are unable to do it themselves, due to illness, maltreatment, or a variety of other causes, reflects what developmental research has shown again and again to promote resiliency, including family-style homes, family meals, longevity in their staff, and support for children even after they ready the ‘age of majority’. It’s an incredible program, to say the least.

Another a reason I talk about this with my students is to encourage them to consider how families form, and that families grow from a variety of circumstances. Grasi creates a family by linking the children who stay with them with the staff who have worked there for years. My husband and I created our family by adopting our children, who are all siblings, when they were school-age (our son was 11yrs, and our daughters 8 and 7yrs). This semester, luckily like so many others, my presentation on Grasi led to a flurry of e-mails from students wanting to know more about Grasi, about volunteering at children’s homes, about foster care here in the States, and also about adopting older children. Although I feel all of these topics are important for my students to explore, I am always especially gratified to hear students considering alternative ways to form their future families.

E-mail

With so many stories in the news focusing on adoption in a negative light, whether with exposés on reactive attachment disorder or discussions of the ills of children who are adopted later in their lives, it is even more important to communicate to my students that these stories are the exception, not the norm. When I hear students tell me they are now thinking about adopting as part of their future family plan, and even perhaps adopting older children, it makes my heart swell.

If you worry about Millenials and their impending impact on the world when they come of age, I’m here to tell you: Don’t sweat it! As my students have taught me again and again these last fifteen weeks:

The future is in good hands.

Library