Saturday, September 18, 2004


The last two classes I taught today were of mathematics majors and law majors. I used the same lesson plan I'd used for all my classes today, which are for the same required English course all first-year undergraduates have to take at this university. Because it was the first class of the semester, I included at the end a language game adapted to use some of the grammar forms they'd learned last semester, to remind them, after the long vacation.

This game was a variation on the 'Concentration' card game, where you have the cards face down and pick up two at a time, and try to remember where they are so you can match them up. In this case, though, I write a number grid on the board, from 1 to 42, and each number represents a question or answer. Students, in groups, choose two numbers, and I 'turn them over' by reading out the corresponding questions/answers. (Of course sometimes they get question/question or answer/answer. That's all part of the fun, figuring out which ones match.) They aren't allowed to write anything.

I enjoyed the game every time I played it, four times in a row. This was because of the way it was received so differently by the different classes. The mathematics and law majors, particularly, were a fascinating study in contrasts.

The mathematics students created a more-or-less continuous riot for the thirty minutes or so it took to finish the game. They shouted. They cackled. They roared with laughter when a rival team chose wrongly. They teased each other terribly. They applauded themselves wildly. They groaned spectacularly when they made a mistake. They made mad jokes about the spaghetti questions. (I had two. Food is always a popular topic - and they kept forgetting which they were and choosing those numbers again and again, and making inappropriate matches.) They were wildly uninhibited and funny, and my face ached from laughing when I came out of the classroom.

The law students, on the other hand, were profoundly silent between guesses. I would have thought they weren't enjoying it, but I kept going because they were totally focused, all leaning forwards slightly and staring at the numbers unwaveringly. I reasoned that even if they weren't having as much fun they were still learning something, or at least remembering something. I'll abandon any activity I think is going very badly, and this wasn't going badly. It was going differently. There was no teasing or yelling or standing on seats and cheering wildly. The students were subdued and concentrated.

But as the game progressed, and as I was wondering whether they were really enjoying this or not, a feeling of tension started to creep over me, and I realised, slowly, that it was coming from them, and that they were having a ball. I started to watch them more closely, and noticed that when the group before had chosen the wrong numbers but set them up for getting a point, the students in the lucky group would get a look of intense satisfaction, and sometimes minuscule little grins would leak over their faces after they'd stated the numbers firmly and got them right. And when the class finished, the feeling of release was quite remarkable. It was like they all breathed out and relaxed at once. Whoosh!

As they were leaving one student paused as he was passing me. He looked as though he wanted to say something but wasn't quite sure what. I asked him if he'd enjoyed the game. He nodded seriously and vigorously. "It was metcha funny," he told me. "See you next week."

Then he left.

I'd thought they were a serious lot, too serious for games, and had wondered whether to even bother trying this game with them. But I understood today that they just have a different way of showing their enjoyment.

Last year it was my law students who were the rowdy ones. It's funny how groups can have such different dynamics, depending on the personalities and how they combine. It's one of those things you can never predict. You just have to feel your way through.