The Student and the Spark

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

May 28, 2013

It's been said that education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire. Well, I teach high-content biology courses, so I have filled a lot of buckets. And I am sure my students would be glad to tell you what they think I have filled them with. But every semester I will see it: A student looks up from his notes and makes eye contact. He moves up a few rows. He asks a question, tentatively at first, then more frequently, and soon at a level above that of the lecture. He's gotten the spark.

But that student, diligently taking notes, nodding to show me he's with me, laughing at my hilarious jokes, doesn't see what I see. He doesn't see the student texting through class, or just staring at me like I am the jailer holding the class in bondage. Or the students who simply fold their arms on their desks, put their heads down, and go to sleep.

He doesn't know what it's like to pick up a notebook left behind, and upon opening it to see whom it belonged to, finding in the margin for today's lecture, "20 minutes to go, 15 minutes to go, 10 minutes to go." He can't imagine how it feels when last semester not one but two students got a seven out of 100 in their first human-bio lab test.

Such students depress me. They make me doubt my ability. They throw a wet wool blanket over my very soul.

But then there is the one. Stopping me in the hall to tell me about a show he saw on the Discovery Channel last night, or e-mailing me a YouTube video that links to our latest lecture.

Although so very different, he is like the three nontraditional students in my very first evening lab of "Anatomy and Physiology" 23 years ago. All three were in battering relationships. Although they often came to class in tears, and sometimes with bruises, they embraced the subject. And as their grades rose, so did their confidence. On the last night, they all hugged me as they walked out of my class, into our nursing program, and out of their abusive relationships.

Or like the wunderkind who two years ago, at age 15, took our biology department by storm. She was one of the few students who took me up on my offer that if they turned in their term paper before the due date, I would make comments, and they could edit it for a better grade. She turned in her paper four weeks early. It was excellent. I made a few suggestions about further readings and returned it with a score of 196 out of 200.

The next week she resubmitted the paper with two more pages and three more sources, not for the four points—she didn't need them—but because she said after reading my comments that she realized she could do better.

Or like the anonymous student who a few years ago brought a tear to the eye of a life-hardened old professor by writing in a class evaluation, "Every day I couldn't wait to get to class." My, my. "Every day I couldn't wait to get to class."

This is why I search YouTube for videos to embed in my PowerPoint presentations. You are why I've learned to use clickers to assess student learning on a daily basis; why I walk into class every day with a smile on my face and a sense of anticipation.

When students like these transfer to a four-year college, I hope that they introduce themselves to their professors—and then let them, too, feel the heat from the fire that started as a spark at Northampton.

Charles Rinehimer is a biology professor at Northampton Community College, in Bethlehem, Pa. This essay is adapted from a speech he made at the college's awards convocation, in April.