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What I learned in 2011: There is always a backstory

January 18, 2012, 7:12 am

Here’s a previous article in an ongoing series of What I Learned in 2011.

While it was still on TV, the show LOST was a favorite of mine. No, that’s not strong enough — it was an obsession. I discovered the show about halfway through its fourth season when I downloaded the series pilot from iTunes on a whim. I was hooked. I proceeded to watch the episodes online at a rate of about one per day — sometimes two or even three — until I caught up. I read the blogs, edited the wiki, listened to the podcasts. I was completely and totally absorbed. And this is coming from a person who otherwise watches TV maybe about an hour a week (modulo football and kids’ shows).

What was it about that show that I found so engaging? For me, the main thing was the deep humanity of the characters. In the first few episodes, it was very easy to pigeonhole them all. Sawyer was the criminal you had to watch out for; Hurley the lovable loser; Kate the fragile beauty. Then, in later episodes, LOST pulled out one of its signature storytelling devices: the flashback, in which the backstory of these characters is revealed piece by piece over the course of several seasons. And you learned that pretty much all of your initial judgments about these characters were totally wrong. The backstory mattered in terms of making sense of the human being before you.

In 2011, I learned that my students and my colleagues — and I, too — are human beings with backstories. It’s almost damning in some ways to say that I “learned” this in 2011. I guess I already had some idea that this was the case. But in 2011, especially upon arriving at my new position and being keenly aware of my own backstory, I started really paying attention. You learn some pretty amazing things when that happens, for example:

  • One student showed up for class intermittently and was almost never engaged with anything. Turns out the student was suffering from chronic walking pneumonia and had no health insurance. I got the student connected with a free church-related clinic, the student got some medicine, and the student proceeded to be OK in the class.
  • Another student missed class quite a bit and almost never turned in homework. Turns out that the student was wrestling with huge personal and family issues, had a child to raise, and was in school in the first place because the student’s former job had gone under. That job involved construction, and it turns out the student was highly proficient in remodeling houses and had a really keen sense of geometry and kinesthetically-oriented ideas.
  • Yet another student approached me after class with a question, and while talking to the student, it turns out that the student had already finished a degree in finance some years before, had spent a year or three in Chicago in a high-powered analytical trading environment helping to write database code, didn’t care for the job situation, quit, and now was back in school — without loans, since the student already had another degree — getting a degree in computer science to do the coding thing full-time.

You’d be crazy to think these backstories don’t matter. It would be nothing to write off the first student as “weak” or “disinterested” or “unprepared” (the euphemism we math teachers often use to dismiss students who don’t meet our expectations), but actually none of those were true — the student was just sick. The second student could be similarly written off, but in fact the student’s backstory not only shows the student was capable of hard work, it also gave me an avenue for teaching the student more effectively (i.e., use lots of kinesthetic examples and references to building things). When I was answering the third student’s question — about conditional statements — the student’s backstory put me in mind to describe conditional statements as database queries, whereupon the student instantly understood what was happening.

So, I learned that every student has a backstory, and part of my job is to learn that backstory — possibly piece by piece over the course of the semester — and put it to use. It helps me not only to teach students but also helps me to remember that students are not objects: They are complex, evolving human beings undertaking an immensely complicated task in pursuing higher education, and they deserve my respect for that.

Don’t write students off! There is always a backstory, and it matters.

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