01/02/2013 06:11 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

Teachable Moments

I always hesitate before I push the "submit grades" button at the end of a semester of teaching. Part of that has to do with the notion of grades and grading, some has to do with my anticipation of the flurry of emails I'll receive in a manner of minutes from some disgruntled students, and the rest has to do with the fact that the semester is over, the class is done, a special experience has ended, and that I'll likely not see any of these young people ever again!

Every class is different and every year the distance between the students and the war in Vietnam grows and grows. That's probably why I'm always astonished at just how much the students connect with the issues and the politics and the hardships and the turmoil of that time. Using music of the 1960s and 1970s as a gateway into the experience helps immensely, I'm sure, as do the voices of the Vietnam veterans we bring into the classroom via literature, poetry, film, journalism, song, and in person. Many of our students have never met a soldier or a veteran, so it is always heartening to see how respectful they are -- and how willing they are to listen and to learn.

And, of course, the students "instruct" me and my teaching team colleagues in many ways every day. While no generation of Americans has ever been further removed from military service and shared sacrifice, these young people are curious to find ways to apply what they learn about the Vietnam era to their own lives and to today's wars. In turn, they teach me lessons about tolerance and patience and compassion. They work their way into my life, into my heart, in ways I never thought possible. Little do they know that it is I who is grateful to them for this unique experience.

There is magic in classrooms like this one at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where students and teachers and auditors and guests can listen to, and learn from, one another. That's why pushing a button at the end of the semester doesn't do this justice.

But maybe that's just another lesson I've learned from my students?