Where-ever You Please

I teach community-education classes on gardening. Unlike typical college credit classes where the instructor can generally assume some base level of knowledge and even some demographic homogeneity, these attendees are a real mixed group.

I get complete novices, and seasoned gardeners who just want to pick up some new ideas. I get dysgraphic students who are relieved to see extensive handouts. I get enthused teenagers and first time home-owners, and old people who haven’t gardened since they were children helping feed the family during times of economic scarcity. I get students in wheelchairs who are glad to see tables instead of combined desk-chair units. I get students who have not finished high school and need science concepts explained, and students who have advanced degrees in other fields and want to know how the basic science gets applied in the practical side of horticulture. I get dyslexic students who request being able to audio-record the lecture or get a printout of the powerpoint pictures. I get students who have lived in the area for years, and others who have just moved from a completely different part of the continent and are unfamiliar with the climate and local flora. I get students who are shadowed by sign-language interpreters for whom I fetch seating and make sure that the lighting is set to illuminate them. In other words, I get ordinary students who are a sample group that reflects the population at large. (Well, a horticulturally-interested subset of that population at large.)

I get adults who will come in and meekly ask where they are “supposed to” sit. Oft times these are older adults, who I am assuming are defaulting to some childhood paradigm of Being The Good Student. It’s interesting to see if they find being told, “You may sit where-ever you want!” to be a liberating or momentarily disconcerting. (The side-to-side ranks of tables do not easily lend themselves to a someone who is mentally defaulting to traditional school desks lined up in front-to-back rows.)

I like to set out the handouts on the tables before class starts. This helps prevent me from forgetting some of the parts, and also helps prevent that confused flurry that results from handing out stacks of paper to the people at front and letting each person in the crowd try to figure out how things should be passed back. (The students in my classes never sit together in a solid cluster, so the paper-passing is not the simple conveyer-belt effect one might expect to see.)

Having the handouts out ahead of time also serves another utility for me in that it gives me some measure of control over the attendee scatter. Generally I don’t care where people sit, but sometimes I am given large lecture rooms that seat 120 when I only have 10 students. If the students follow the diffusion typical of dining areas and libraries, they would be all over the place, which is a strain on my vocal cords when I am going to be talking for two hours. So when someone comes in and doesn’t sit at a place that already has handouts, I tell them, “You’ll need some handouts. You can sit where-ever you want, but it’s easier if I don’t have to holler to the back of the room, as I don’t have a microphone.” Once in a while I will have someone who feels the need for more personal space and sits a few rows back from the last person. That’s okay with me; we don’t need to be in a huddle.

I also tell my students, “If you need to get up and move around during that class because of a back problem or if you’re just hyperactive, that’s okay. I shouldn’t get to be the only one who’s pacing around!”

I also get distressed students. I get young moms who are desperately hoping they can get through large chunks of the class without having to take a fussy baby or rambunctious toddler out into the hallway. I get doctors and the relatives of patients who have to suddenly depart at a pager call. I get students who arrive nearly half an hour late because they may have ADD and almost forgot that they had a class today, or who may have some level of geographic agnosia and had to ask half a dozen people on campus how to get to the building, hallway, and classroom. I get students who come defensively clutching notepads and multiples of pens because they are worried about having to take notes and then being tested, even though this is an ungraded class without exams. All these students need reassuring that I am not going to be upset at them, and that I am not grading or judging them, but rather that I am here to help them.

Although the individual class topics are about specific kinds of gardens, describing suitable plants and methods for the category is only my proximate goal. My ultimate goal is to answer the specific questions that each student has brought with them. I want my students to feel that they have received whatever it was that they came to my class to get. This is tricky when they are not even consciously aware of what that is! But it is important that they be able to identify their needs, and then to have those addressed. That way they will feel that they have spent the two hours in a satisfying manner, and I will be able to both adjust and keep the focus of my classes on what the students need and want. I am not making my classes to follow what I think they “should” need.

Because I am supposed to take roll, I ask everyone to tell me their name (I run on the theory that no one mispronounces their own name!), and to share with the class what in particular they are needing to know that day. This question gets easier for the students to answer after the first few replies gets people thinking. As the students list topics, I mention if they are already addressed in what I’ve prepared or I will write myself a word or two on the board to jog my ADHD brain and make sure that I answer them in the appropriate context. All the while, I am mentally adjusting my delivery according to this feedback.

This exercise works well on several fronts. It’s a bit of an ice-breaker, and makes people feel more relaxed about asking questions. The newbies are relieved to hear that other people have the same problems and questions they do, and are less reluctant to speak up. Sometimes the students already know what they want to do and just want someone to affirm that Yes, it’s your yard, and it’s okay to rip up a shrub you don’t like! This exercise is also especially good for those subdued Good Students who are not used to being “allowed” to have their own opinions about what they want or need to learn, and then advocating to have those needs met.

My job description is officially about teaching horticulture, yet in that there is a surprising amount of passing-along of acceptance and self-advocacy.