Sarah Deel gets me, she really gets me.

I’ve been asked what I teach, how I teach it, what my teaching philosophy is, but I’ve never been asked, “What kind of teacher are you?”

I’m “self-reflective,” “passionate,” “dedicated” and “nerd-funny.”

I can’t express the number of ways Sarah Deel’s “Finding My Teaching Voice” resonated with me (Seriously, we’d have so much to talk about). I, too, am from a small liberal arts college. The largest classrooms I’ve ever been in (either as a teacher or a student) was this past fall as a GTA for RLCL Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There were 70 students. This semester, at 40, I am teacher of record for the second largest lass I’ve ever experienced.

When I first started teaching in 2008, like Deel, I looked to the professors that I loved most, but many of those professors were sages on the stage. Their lectures were powerful, interesting and insightful, but I knew that I am atypical in that I learn well listening to a lecturer. I’m happy to curl up and read for hours or listen to a long podcast. Most people don’t learn like that anymore. Fortunately, I started out teaching Freshman Composition, which lends itself to group projects, collaborative writing and discussions. I was cast out to sea and left to figure out what swimming strokes worked before for me.

The challenge I face this semester in HUM 1324 is finding a way to navigate the space. It is a small classroom in McBryde with 40 students crammed into rows with aisles so narrow they have to navigate them sideways. There is no room to circle into groups, no room to make a large circle that I can join in for discussions, and the impact is apparent. This has been one of the hardest classes I’ve had to facilitate discussions. And, honestly, facilitating discussions is my strongest suite as a teacher — asking the right questions, waiting patiently for responses, teasing out a student’s point when they’ve rambled, noticing when a student wants to say something and needs the encouragement of being called on.

The space is also challenging for me when I lecture. There is a giant lectern beside a table where computers are connected to the projects beside a shorter full-sided desk.  When the projector is on, I have a path behind the lectern that is about three feet wide to move in or else I’m blocking the power point. And there is no room for a path between all the furniture and the desks for me to come out and walk in front. It is challenging. Generally, moving around helps me feel stronger and more in control, and it keep my voice upbeat and strong. (*I have a tendency to have a weak voice, more about that later.)

So, most classes I have a short lecture, we might listen to a podcast or watch a short video, maybe there will be a short group assignment (with them working only with those they sit beside, and then some discussion). It is working, but it isn’t working really, really, well. I’ve been considering places I can take my class outside on beautiful days, which I hope will help better facilitate the discussion portion of the class.

*I want to mention vocal health because it is something I find really helpful. I’ve always felt like my voice was really weak, maybe too high to be taken seriously. So, I often speak in a lower-than-natural register when I’m teaching or public speaking. In the past when I was teaching three courses, working a job where I was talking to (interviewing) people, I found that just an additional long phone conversation could make me completely lose my voice. Last summer I talked to my brother about his. He’s the Director of Choral Studies at University of Louisiana and is the vocal health guru. He pointed out that when I drop to a lower register, my sentences often trailed off into vocal fry, which is very stressful and bad for your vocal chords. It was that strain that made me lose my voice so often. (There’s a lot of say about vocal fry and gender i.e. why so many women have it and are hated for it, but that’s an entirely different can of worms.) So, I’d inadvertently trained myself to speak in a way that was harmful to my vocal health. It has become so ingrained that I have to consciously speak in my normal register…and it’s been a journey of accepting my natural voice and asserting authority and confidence in my natural higher, more feminine register. #NoMoreVocalFry #AuthenticVoice

Keep Calm and Dismantle the Grading System?

 

 

 

Last semester a student came up to me after class upset over receiving an 85 on an assignment. She was a senior and didn’t want to end up with an A- or B for the course after three years of a stellar GPA. She was nearly distraught. I wanted to tell her 100 things about how one (still good) grade for one course in undergrad means very little in the grand trajectory of her life. But it wasn’t the time to belittle or minimize her emotions. I told her to rewrite the essay, an offer I extended to the entire class, and she pulled her grade up to an A. But her rewrite wasn’t at all like I’d hoped. I could tell she went through the motions of adding in my suggestions with little growth or depth of thought.

In The Case Against Grades, Alfie Kohn offers an example of how to give feedback and determine a final grade (as require by the institution) without actually assessing and offering letter/number grades on individual assignments. During the semester one professor offers students feedback on what they are doing well and what they need to improve on, making notes in his grade book. At the end of the term, Kohn said this professor meets with each students and asks them what they learned and how they learned. He then asks them what grade they believe reflects their work, and they arrive at that value collectively.

I love this idea, in part because I love working on larger projects with students — longer papers with several peer reviews and revisions or projects with video editing — but students hate having their grade rest on one single assignment, even if I grade multiple drafts or aspects of the assignment throughout the semester. This kind of arrangement would (hopefully) allow students to feel less pressure about meeting the marks and focus on their project by focusing on what they learned/gained through their work on the project.

I want to find out more about this system, like how open the professor was in explaining how the grades would be assigned at the beginning of the course and if any students bucked at the system.

This is absolutely the kind of system I would love to try, BUT what are the implications for a doctoral student or a new professor? How might my department feel about this, especially if a student (after the fact) challenges their final grade? Would I be left defending (instead of the grades I’ve assigned on concrete assignments) an entire teaching philosophy? Is this the kind of grading system that only tenured professors secure in their positions feel comfortable trying? Has this grading system ever been implemented at Virginia Tech?

I’m interested. I want to do it. But there takes a certain nerve to pull off something like this, and I’m not sure I have it yet.

Can multi-taking be mindfulness-making?

In Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer outlines four myths that hurt education. Of the four myths, the one that most immediately spoke to my own journey to become a better teacher was myth number two — “Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time.”

I’m one of those children of the 1980s who had parents who went to great lengths to raise me away from TV and, later on, the Internet. But practice sitting still and being quiet isn’t a prerequisite for learning. When we worry about our students being distracted in class, it is because we assume they need to focus their attention completely on one thing to be able to learn.

For better or worse — and I think there is room for debate there — that isn’t the background of today’s undergraduates. For the simple reason that the pace of our culture has changed, today’s students are equipped to change topics, mediums and multi-task much better than their parents.

So, breaking this myth helps us to think about teaching in a new way. How can we use our students’ ability to quickly move between mediums and multi-task? I often combine lecture, writing assignment or project, a video/audio piece and discussion in every class. But each of these are done consecutively. I’m left wondering how I could use multiple mediums at one time.

For instance, if students had an essay question that required them to respond to a video, could they record their reactions in real-time and then tidy up the essay afterward?

As a reporter, I live tweeted meetings I’ve attended and use those tweets to help reconstruct my articles. If every student were live-tweeting a lecture, using a hashtag, might they be able to use their collective tweets in lieu of note-taking?

Would having an activity to accomplish during what are typically passive moments in the classroom help them be more mindful learners?

I’m not sure, but I think it would be worth trying. And I think student feedback will be key. I find that students are very honest about what works and doesn’t work when asked. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown summarize this struggle succinctly in “A New Culture of Learning”: “The challenge is to find a way to marry structure and freedom to create something altogether new” (49). But the first step to creating something new is being willing to try.

Prepare, plan and expect (revel in) the unexpected

 

Don’t lecture. Use technology. Technology is distracting. Lecture sometimes. Give students freedom. Be accountable for educational achievement.

The thing about education is that everyone has an opinion on how it should be done, which sometimes leaves those of us in the trenches feeling as if we are wandering the countryside divining for water — we know it’s worked when it has. But just because we know when a project or activity has worked doesn’t mean it will next semester.

One semester I had students imagine they were artistic directors for a theater. They had to present a group of plays to their theater’s board of directors, which means they had to talk about the plays, interpret them, share their inherent value, and explain how they could be staged meaningfully for modern audiences, etc. The first semester I did the projects students were completely involved, adding advertising materials, sketching out stage designs and responding critically to their peers. It was magic. The next semester the students went through the paces and fulfilled the projects, but I hadn’t captured their imagination.

We’ve all been there. We feel responsible, but there are aspects of the class dynamic (interpersonal relationships, exhaustion, hunger, time of day, yadda yadda) that are beyond our control.

Mark Carnes makes a great case for a type of curriculum called Reacting To The Past in his article “Setting Students Minds on Fire.” Students who participate in Reacting To The Past-style seminars assume the identity of characters from history and must understand their lives and the historical context to understand the characters’ motivations as they immerse themselves in the past. It sounds amazing. But does it work every single time? Is there always that magical moment of kismet as students become so involved in the course that they stay up late discussing the lives and times of their characters? In other words, does it always find water?

I imagine not.

Moving forward, I think the best thing educators can do is admit that there can’t ever be one prescription to cure the ails of classroom drudgery. Instead of feeling disempowered as diviners, we need to trust our own instincts and skill. In our search or thirst-quenching moments of fully-involved students, we have to be willing to change course during the semester. If students are responding strongly to one theme or text, we should stay with that topic ‑ ditch the class schedule/calendar or find a way to cover the next prescribed topic by expanding discussion/projects/involvement with what students are enjoying.

In “A New Culture of Learning,” Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown describe giving students freedom within bounds — play with rules — as a way to grow student passion. I’d suggest that we need to enter a classroom without knowing what all those rules are. We need to be freed enough ourselves to set boundaries as they need to be set and do away with others when they begin to constrict. Each semester is a new game and the rules should never be exactly the same. Educators should feel the confidence they need to feel the subtle movements of the diving rod and adjust accordingly using an assortment of tools (including technology and lectures) in the never-ending search for water.

To Blog or not to Blog

In Composition Pedagogy, a pedagogy class I took as part of my M.A. in English here at Virginia Tech, our class often discussed how teachers might develop projects that gave student writing a meaningful, real-world audience.

While teaching writing I often had students write Letters to the Editor. But just changing the genre of an assignment — from persuasive essay to Letter to the Editor — doesn’t automatically give students a real-world audience or experience. I would frequently require students submit their letter to a local newspaper, making the assignment something that existed outside the classroom bubble.

A blog could offer the same kind of opportunity, but unless students can identify a real-world audience the blog would continue to be just another assignment. After all, just because a blog exists on the internet does not mean it will be read.

So how can a class assignment become a real-world blog for undergraduates? Students automatically have an audience of their peers and friends via social media, but I don’t expect students to share a school assignment unless it is something they are both passionate about and proud of. So, my question becomes: How can students become passionate about blogging? I’ve taught 200-level and 300-level literature courses. Generally, students in those courses are already excited about what we are learning. But can teachers help students get excited about introductory or required courses? Within the context of what we cover in the course, there must be enough freedom for students to find something that sparks their interest, and how they are directed to respond to the content must be permissive enough not to restrict their interest.