what happens in the classroom

I have the best job. I seriously do.

At the University of Minnesota, we have very distinct campuses — even within the Twin Cities itself. I’ve been fortunate enough to teach at both the Minneapolis and the Saint Paul campuses. I say this because there are differences between them. When I teach on the Minneapolis campus, I’m surrounded by people who are experiencing college in much the same way I did — immersion in letters and sciences with jobs and/or careers in more urban settings.

At the Saint Paul campus, much to my delight, I find a different set of students. These are often students who come from the more rural areas of Minnesota, who have family farms or who are more non-traditional. In the courses I teach on the Saint Paul campus, I often learn about things I’ve never known.

This semester I’m teaching a scientific and technical presentations course. In my classes, I give a lot of leeway for students to pursue their own interests in what they present, write about, and share. I think it adds to a more dynamic and interesting course. What it also does is teach me more about the students, more about different topics, and more about diversity. And as an educator, I find the process of learning while also teaching to be stimulating.

In the first part of the semester I’ve learned about how happiness has been shown to be a medical miracle, how Minnesota has a blossoming hazelnut industry, how to develop a large-scale dent corn production farm, and how to tie-dye according to the type of fiber and dye.

Then there are those presentations that always stick with you. My first year here, while teaching on the Saint Paul campus, I had a group of students make a wonderful video on how to milk a cow. One semester, I had an entire class engage in volunteer projects that they chronicled in blogs, videos, and photographs — that left us all feeling very inspired and excited about the work being done in the class. And just this week, I learned that origami is much more than beautifully folded cranes and other animals, but is the same process used in such things as making stents for medical procedures.

And then there are the ones that stick in your head just because they seem to come out of nowhere. This week one of the groups in our class was doing a demonstration on how to create a squirrel trap. Why, you may ask, would they be interested in this? Not only did they tell us why squirrel meat is more efficient than cow meat (it uses less joules per pound), but that it can be quite delicious (they gave a brochure to expound on the benefits of squirrel meat). But the part that made it most memorable was the “dispatching” of the squirrel. It was quite vivid — not in images or graphs, but in the language and body language used. We were told how to use different tools to take care of the job — and some of them were more personal than others (think hedge clippers here). And while this may seem a bit graphic, it was done in such a professional manner that it worked seamlessly and impressively.

This is why I like my job. Not because I’m regaled with graphic ways to dispatch of rodents, but because the students think outside the box to bring in information that they find interesting and offer it to the rest of the class in innovative ways (that don’t necessarily have to include technology innovations). I have yet to meet a student who wasn’t smart, funny, and engaged. Give them enough space, and they will give back tenfold.

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