Posts Tagged ‘ class ’

Teaching After a Natural Disaster – Challenges and Ideas

Gathering storm: This NOAA satellite image taken shows Hurricane Sandy off the Mid Atlantic coast. Combined with an unnamed nor’easter gaining strength as it moves from the West, the massive storm threatens to wreak havoc on the East Coast
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2224629/Hurricane-Sandy-path-2012-How-Frankenstorm-created.html#ixzz2C7Ycnxqv
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Hurricane Sandy hit the New York/New Jersey East Coast region on Monday, October 29, 2012. In its wake, homes were destroyed, businesses ruined, miles and miles of coastline washed away, and lives disrupted, some tragically. Montclair State University closed for the full week, an unprecedented event in the University’s history. The following Wednesday, November 7, 2013, the already battered region was hit by Nor’Easter Athena. While not as devastating as Sandy, it complicated efforts to return people to their homes, to restore power and services to still struggling communities, and to allow people to get back to some semblance of normalcy.

As educators, it is always our job to promote a supportive, professional, calm demeanor in class – storm or no storm.In our Faculty Teaching Circles meeting held on November 12, we discussed concerns and ideas for returning to teaching and supporting students, while maintaining course expectations and curricular goals. As well, we acknowledged that educators in different disciplines will necessarily need to address this situation differently, according to what makes sense for their particular course goals. One of our attendees was able to fold the event into course assignments (a first-year writing course) and to have students analyze how events such as Sandy affect cultural and social behaviors in certain settings — not all educators can be that flexible or adaptive.

The following list poses some thoughts from our discussion, as well as some resources we identified as potentially helpful. Even though we can’t get back the last two weeks, or even the last three months, and anticipate the devastation we would be confronting now, if nothing else this experience teaches us that we need to think about how we can be ready for traumatic or catastrophic disruptions in the future.

Please weigh in with your ideas or stories related to this topic. Post here, on Facebook, or Twitter (#teachingthroughthestorm).

1. Being prepared: build in contingency plans into your syllabus and course design. The following advice is taken from the Santa Barbara City College on building a syllabus (adapted). It is simple in its recommendation: always plan your course expecting that somewhere, for some reason, you will miss a week (illness, bereavement, conferences, or natural disasters). Attendees yesterday confirmed that they have a “throwaway” week built into their course — this material is “what we’d love to cover, but can afford not to if we have to cancel class.” We also affirmed that, when we review our syllabi with students at the beginning of the semester, we should discuss with them the “plan” for emergencies or unanticipated course disruptions. Be sure students understand your commitment to continuing class — being understanding (and realistic) but consistent with your expectations — and that you provide clear lines of communication (see #4 below on forms of communication) for them.

2. Keep on Truckin’: Know how to emotionally and socially support your students when returning after a catastrophic event: the Huffington Post published a blog post by Professor Lori Ungemah, who helpfully parsed a government document (available as a .pdf download here) and adapted its recommendations for university/college educators. Her advice:

  • Step 1: Listen
    Teachers or adult school staff should provide students with an opportunity to share their experiences and express feelings of worry, anxiety, fear or other concerns about their safety.
  • Step 2: Protect
    Adults should try to reestablish students’ feelings of both physical and emotional safety. They can honestly inform students about events surrounding the crisis, such as sharing with them information about what is being done in the community and school to keep everyone safe.
  • Step 3: Connect Help students reestablish their normal social relationships and stay connected to others in order to experience social support. Restoring and building connections promotes stability, recovery and predictability in students’ lives. A student’s classroom and school is a safe place to begin restoring normalcy during a crisis or disaster.
  • Step 4: Model Calm and Optimistic Behavior
    In times of crisis or disaster, children and adolescents [all students, of any age! JD] watch adult reactions and receive cues on how to confront adversity. This step reminds adult staff in schools that they are role models. While teachers and other school personnel might also be affected and may not know exactly how they will navigate recovery, adults can acknowledge their distress but demonstrate a positive and optimistic approach and show students that constructive actions provide hope for the future.
  • Step 5: Teach
    During the coping process, it is important to help students understand the range of normal stress reactions. School counselors, nurses, psychologists or social workers can take on this task [for university students: point them to support services, recovery teams, and articulate your adminstration’s communiques that provide resources – JD]. These professionals can teach students, staff, parents or guardians, and volunteers about common reactions to the specific event or disaster, such as the fact that children and youths may have more difficulty with learning after the specific event.

3. (Not so) Wild ideas: Adapted from epidemic or post-9/11 sources: one syllabus I found had a built in plan in the case of an undefined “Epidemic” [it was posted in January 2011 – Swine Flu? Zombie Apocalypse?] . The professor advised that all assignments would still be due, but moved online (Blackboard). Indeed, most of our group had in some way provided digital/virtual ways to submit assignments via Blackboard or by email. Some instructors  simply crunched together assignments after missing the week, without an attempt to skip the material or try and squeeze it in later in the semester.

Another resource I tried when searching for tips on how to return to teaching after a catastrophe was to search for teaching tips that addressed the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I didn’t find much, but this sentence from a course on how to teach student-veterans returning from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan seemed to offer some helpful advice: “Not only are some student-veterans [students after a disaster]  struggling with financial pressures and dealing with physical and mental health [emotional and physical responses to the event] disabilities (including the “signature wounds” of TBI and PTSD), they also share the challenges many nontraditional students face, such as childcare, “relearning” study skills and understanding (often unspoken) academic expectations. Only a well-informed faculty can understand and address such challenges to ensure retention and degree-completion (italics mine).” From this, we can extrapolate some clear guidelines: provide clear guidelines! How have assignments, schedules, course expectations changed? How are you addressing absences, or the continued impact on students’ lives outside class? Communicate your response and any administrative guidelines clearly and as soon as you can.

Soem faculty had uploaded video lectures and/or live-streamed their classes via outlets like Ustream (free) for students who still had transportation issues or could not otherwise make it to class.

4. Communication: obviously, most of us already do this. We clearly state (in class and on our syllabus) the methods available to students for contacting us. Most faculty in our group rely strictly on email or Blackboard, with little or no preference for phone (cell or office) or social media outlets. This may be adequate, though some educators provide their cell numbers for texting purposes, or create a class Twitter (which most students will receive as a notification on their smart phones) for creating lines of communication. Some may create course pages on Facebook, or ask that students post to Blackboard. Really confident and trusting faculty could even set up a study buddy system that maintains a communication chain for all students in a particular course. Not many of us felt this was viable at the university level, but if any of our readers know of or use this method, please tell us your experience.

The point is, be sure students know how to communicate with you, in any situation.

Finally…it must be said…

One of the most frustrating aspects of events like these is balancing the very real predicament students (or you!) may be experiencing: transportation issues, lack of power, cable, Internet access, homelessness, or other effects. But we acknowledged that we also suspect that several of our students have taken advantage of this disaster to avoid work, exploit the missed time to skip class, put off turning in assignments, or otherwise excuse themselves from participating in class. “Of course, we can’t be insensitive to their experience,” said one of our group members, “but…”…But often we intuitively know when a student is BS-ing us. We didn’t have any real advice for this situation, other than to express that we all know it’s happening, and it is just another (minor) effect this storm has left in its wake.

Additional resource (not directly related to teaching, but this discussion imparts important concepts of leadership through difficult situations or conditions):

Ernest Shackleton’s Lesson’s for Leaders in Harsh Climates (NPR Interview with biographer Nancy Keohn): http://blogs.hbr.org/ideacast/2012/11/ernest-shackletons-lessons-for.html

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The Scientific Imagination – Where Do Ideas Come From?

This month the Creative Research Center at Montclair State University filmed a one-hour virtual webcast, The Scientific Imagination – Where Do Ideas Come From?” as part of its Second Annual CRC Symposium.

The video, available here, presents a panel discussion on creativity and imagination, discussed among scientist educators working at MSU, to foster innovation, creative learning, and adaptive expertise in research and in the classroom. The discussion is moderated by Dr. Neil Baldwin, professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance in the College of the Arts and director of the CRC. He interviews Dr. Jennifer Adams Krumins, assistant professor, Department of Biology and Molecular Biology; Dr. Cigdem Talgar, director of Research and Programs and acting director of the Research Academy for University Learning (RAUL); Dr. William Thomas, director, New Jersey School of Conservation; Dr. Ashwin Vaidya, assistant professor of Physics in the Department of Mathematical Sciences; and Dr. Meiyin Wu, associate professor, Biology and Molecular Biology and director of the Passaic River Institute.

For educators, an essential struggle in any discipline lies in exciting our students’ imagination, getting them to think creatively about a problem or concept, and asking them to adapt to new knowledge and variable information in order to think more critically and deeply. This video highlights ways in which this is being done in the classroom, what role models and sources of inspiration have served our educators, how important engaging students in world views and creative thinking is to change, innovation, and adaptability, and much more. The conversation takes us into the specific profiles of each scientist educator, leads us into their world of development and experimentation, and models how they integrate their passion into their research and teaching.

I highly recommend that you watch this video, and share with your colleagues and students. There are numerous ways to approach creative thinking and imaginative learning; here are several of them packaged into an active and informative discussion.

The Scientific Imagination – Where Do Ideas Come From?

 

Getting Students to Complete Reading Assignments – Ideas from Teachers for Teachers

The Research Academy held its first Teaching Circle meeting last Wednesday. I decided to start the semester with a topic that repeatedly comes up in teaching consultations and faculty discussion groups: getting students to do the reading and/or out-of-class work. I observed a class a year ago in which the new young instructor, finishing up the 90 minute class, asked who had done the assigned reading. Not one hand went up. She rather desperately searched her student’s faces: “No one did the reading?” she asked incredulously. No response. I knew this felt awkward for her; she was being observed (at her request) by her colleagues and she didn’t know how to handle the situation. Carry on? Cover the material anyway? Her plan had been to lead a discussion around the concepts in the reading; if no one read it, she would essentially just be teaching the material. She decided to skip the reading altogether and finish up with some group work on a different topic.

This is hardly a singular experience. Nearly every (every?) teacher has faced a class of students who are unprepared. They didn’t read, they didn’t watch the video, or do the review. Luckily, there are definite ways to handle this. First, why don’t students do the reading? Our group, squeezed into a library classroom, brainstormed the following reasons behind the student-didn’t-read phenom:

  1. There is no pay-off. Students are very strategic about their work load. When assigned readings are not tied to any evaluation (grades) or when the teacher covers the material anyway, they know that they can get away with not reading with no penalty.
  2. The reading isn’t connected to course material in an obvious way, or the teacher has not helped them make the connection. When assignments seem to be arbitrary, that is, not tied to course work in an appreciable way, students lose motivation to complete it. They do not see the reading as an extension of the course work or core to disciplinary understanding, so they shrug it off.
  3. Students don’t know how to read academic texts. This, unfortunately, prevents them from contributing to a discussion even if they did TRY to do the reading. They may not have understood what they read, did not know what was important (highlighted EVERYTHING ON THE PAGE), and are afraid to sound “dumb” if they discuss what they read. Students receive very little training on how to read academic texts. They don’t know the jargon, they don’t know how to identify what’s important, they don’t know how to summarize the text. This level of reading can be intimidating.

These are some of the primary reasons that students don’t complete assigned reading. It is important to know why they aren’t reading because this directly informs how you can make some alterations to instruction in order to address these issues.

The participants offered some ideas on what they are doing to counter the no-reading issue:

  1. Mini-quizzes on the reading at the beginning (or before the beginning) of each class. These are conducted online, through Blackboard, and take about 10 minutes. Quiz grades count towards overall course grade.
  2. Guided reading – questions to answer as they read, using Socrative, an online student response system. Socrative allows teachers to set up exercises and questions, multiple choice or open-ended, graded or not graded, that the students can answer from any connected device (phone, laptop, tablet). They can see each others responses if the teacher deems it important, or the answers can be anonymous.
  3. Model good reading strategies, especially for research-oriented or academic level text. One professor has them highlight only the portions of the text where they felt lost or began to lose track of what the text was saying. These points of confusion can guide class discussion, provide fodder for small-group work (students work together to grapple with meaning), and can let the teacher know what students struggle with the most.

As you may have guessed, there is a lot of research and expertise available that supports our group’s ideas of how to get students to read, as well as provides some additional ideas. What the experts say:

From Karl Wirth, Malacaster College (http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/metacognition/activities/27560.html):

Reading Reflection

After completing the reading assignment, write brief responses (i.e., at least several sentences) to 2 out of 3 questions:

  1. What is the main point of this reading?
  2. What information did you find surprising?  Why?
  3. What did you find confusing?  Why?

Too often, when we read the words on a page we do not fully integrate that new information into our existing knowledge structure, and so we fail to gain new understanding of the world around us.  Research in cognitive science and learning tells us that “deep learning” requires that the learner reflect on new knowledge and create personal meaning from it.

To help us reflect more deeply on readings in this course, we will use reading reflections.  These reading reflections are designed to help the reader engage with the material in a deeper way, and to construct new meaning from it.  The reflections also have the advantage of providing the instructor with detailed information about your learning in the course.  This not only helps guide the daily preparation of course activities, but also helps connect us as a community of learners.

Your response need not be long, but must clearly indicate careful reading and thoughtful reflection.  You must respond to two of the questions.

What is the Main Point?
Reading assignments often contain a lot of information.  What is the main concept that the author is trying to get across?  This may, or may not, have been explicitly stated in the reading.  Why did the author choose to emphasize this point, and not some other?  Your response is not a summary of the chapter, but an analysis of it in a way that creates new meaning for you.

What is Surprising?
Your response to this question should be reflective.  Did you learn something that is in conflict with your previous notions of the world?  Did you learn something that fascinates you in a way that you didn’t expect?  How does this new knowledge connect with material in other courses, or with other parts of your life?  Responses must also clearly explain “why.”

What is Confusing?
Responses to this question require careful reading and reflection; it is only though the process of reconciling new information with our existing knowledge structure that we become aware of inconsistencies, or “gaps” in our understanding.  Responses to this question should be specific and actionable – that is they should outline a clear path to understanding.  Responses must also clearly explain “why.”

Rubric for Evaluation
10 points         Responses to both questions are labeled and clearly indicate careful reading and deep reflection.  Responses submitted before class meeting.

5 points           Responses are not specific, do not clearly indicate reflection, or are submitted soon after deadline.

0 points           No response, or response submitted more than one class period late.

From the IDEA Center, Idea Paper #40 – Getting Students to Read: 14 Tips, by Eric H. Hobson, Georgia State University (http://www.theideacenter.org/research-and-papers/idea-papers/idea-paper-no-40)

1)   Using appropriate texts:

  • Why am I using this particular text?
  • How does it help me meet my course goals/educational outcomes?
  • What do I mean by “required”? How does it contribute to students’ success in the course? “Nist and Kirby (1989) wrote that documented reading assignment compliance rates among college students (20 to 30%) “could be partly due to the fact that students quickly discovered that they did not need to read and study their texts in order to do well in the class. Perhaps attending class and studying lecture notes were sufficient for acceptable performance” (p. 327).”

2)   Rate your reading material: (e.g. absolutely essential, good supporting material, exotic, appealing to experts, or idiosyncratic choice). Only material that is essential should be labeled “required” and students will be held accountable for reading (such as graded reading assignments or readiness quizzes). Consider not using a text if no text can be categorized as essential; instead, build a course reading packet that supplements and complements the course. Any additional texts can fall under Recommended Reading.

3)   Course readings should show up as part of in-class presentations (yours or the students), factor into course projects, or appear on exams. Connections between the course and the reading should be obvious.

4)   Scaffold your reading assignments. Aim most assignments at “marginally skilled” readers, slowly build up the difficulty level of the readings, have students identify concepts or terms they struggled with for group/class discussion. Develop necessary reading skills and interpretative/inter-relational analysis skills. Preview the readings; relate them to course activities; practice reading skills in class (marking text and understanding why certain things are marked, summarizing concepts, identifying confusing or unclear ideas, forming questions).

5)   Use the syllabus as a teaching tool: “Effective syllabi do more than identify required reading materials; they provide background about the materials so that students understand why the reading assignments contribute to learning and how they relate to other course content and course activities (Grunert, 1997; Maleki & Heerman, 1992).”

Source: Turn to Your Neighbor (Peer Instruction Blog): http://blog.peerinstruction.net/2012/09/04/how-one-professor-motivated-students-to-read-before-a-flipped-class-and-measured-their-effort/

Peer Instruction (at least concerning homework and reading assignments) emphasizes effort over getting it right. So, in class, students would compare answers and work together towards a correct answer.

1)   Questions associated with the reading.

  • What did you find difficult or confusing in the reading? What attracted your attention, or you found most interesting? What questions do you have?
  • Content-specific questions where students must justify their answers.

2)   Students will be prepared to be called on to lead discussions on the reading. Assignment is random (cold-calling). Set up communication climate to establish trust and openness for ideas in the classroom.

3)   Make the reading MEAN something. Reading should ALWAYS be separate but related to the class material, else what’s the motivation to read it?

4)   Credit (grade) for Reading Assignments.

Works Cited

Grunert, Judith. The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach. Bolton, MA: Anker, 1997. Print.

Hobson, Eric H. “Getting Students to Do the Reading: 14 Tips.” IDEA Center, Idea Paper #40, (2004), 1-10. Print.

Maleki, R.B. & Heerman, C.E. “Improving student reading.” IDEA Paper No. 26, Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University, Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development, 1992.

Nist, S.L. & Kirby, K. The text marking patterns of college students. Reading Psychology: An International Quarterly, 10 (1989), 321-338.

Schell, Julie. “How One Professor Motivated to Read Before a Flipped Class, and Measured Their Effort.” Turn to Your Neighbor, Peer Instruction Blog. 4 Sept 2012. Web. 2 Oct 2012. <http://blog.peerinstruction.net/2012/09/04/how-one-professor-motivated-students-to-read-before-a-flipped-class-and-measured-their-effort/&gt;

Wirth, Karl. “Reading Reflections.” Carlton College, Science Education Resource Center. 29 May 2012. Web. 2 Oct 2012. <http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/metacognition/activities/27560.html&gt;

Managing your online persona as an educator

There seems to be a lingering question of how and if we present ourselves to students via social media. This post offers some good guidelines for managing your online presence, with a very useful collection of further resources at the bottom of the post. As always, please share your thoughts about interacting online with students and establishing an online persona as an educator.

Communicating With Students – Creating a Comfortable, Open Environment

Sending EmailTwo recent documents crossed my desk, one a study concerning sending welcoming emails to students one-week prior to the beginning of class (I know, this is a bit late for that, but still doable). The other discussed how to set boundaries on email communication, limiting digital clutter and establishing the rules and expectations on digital communication – which is probably especially important for those teaching hybrid/online courses. I thought I’d do a “welcome back!” post combining the strategies of these two studies, as a tip for setting the tone of out-of-class communication with your students, managing expectations and possibly limiting stereotypes and prejudices.

The study was conducted by Angela Legg and Janie Wilson in 2009. They found that sending a welcoming email to students one-week prior to class increased student’s motivation, fostered a positive attitude among students towards the instructor and the course, and increased student retention. Their study builds on existing research that indicates that building a rapport with students and keeping an open line of communication can increase motivation, participation, attendance, and learning (cf. Buskist & Saville, 2004; Christensen & Menzel, 1998; Frymier, 1994). Their research operates as an extension of theories of immediacy behaviors, and was expected to be most effective along gender lines, especially appreciated by female students more than male. To read about these theories more fully, I recommend you read the full study (available via the link below), it’s not long and it’s informative about student behaviors and how we can anticipate and forestall negative attitudes and perceptions.

First impressions can set the tone – good or bad – for the rest of the semester (Nilson, 2003; Wolcowitz, 1984). Traditionally, first impressions are made on the first day of class, but a welcoming email (the authors also suggest first contact can take other forms as well, such as using a social networking platform) can build a relationship before you ever meet your students. Tips for sending a welcoming email:

  • Personalize the message, rather than send a mass, blind cc email to all your students.
  • Provide your full contact information, office hours, and preferred method of contact (we’ll return to this item below).
  • Use a professional but approachable tone in your email, avoid excessive familiarity, attempts to be overly humorous, crude, or “hip”, stay on task by sticking to the connecting factor, your course. Striking just the right tone of friendly, open availability balanced with a professional, professorial air will carry over into your classroom environment.
  • Provide pre-reading opportunities (if applicable), list of texts, where they can be found (and publisher you prefer if applicable) and any other resources that may be helpful for students to get a jump on course work and/or come prepared to class.
  • Finally, invite questions! But, be sure you have the time and inclination to answer every email students may send your way. Let’s explore this question more now.

Courtesy of National Geographic, 2003

How much communication is too much? We have to be aware that, if we open the door to digital communication and invite a relationship via email or any digital platform, there may be other expectations set. The second piece I read was called “The Low-Information Diet: How to Eliminate E-Mail Overload & Triple Productivity in 24 Hours” by entrepreneur Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week (Crown, 2009). Though geared for a business audience, I found that many of the themes and suggestions of the article seemed particularly useful in relation to the study on welcoming emails and digital communication with students. It’s one thing to say, “I want my students to feel welcome to email me and ask questions”, but what limits do you set on your time, willingness to answer every minor email from students, and willingness to be available and expected to reply quickly? In an age where instant access and instant response are the standards, it is a wise move to set some boundaries and let students know what they can expect in their digital communications with you. By sending a welcoming email, you can influence attitudes, motivation, and even control some preconceived stereotypes or prejudices, but it’s worth limiting these communications – not at the expense of the student or relationship, but to strengthen them.

Ferriss calls email “the single biggest time waster in modern life” (4). He provides the following tips for setting boundaries for your email communications:

  • “Batching” Check email only once or twice a day, at set times. Turn off auto-alerts when you get a new email; it distracts you and interrupts productivity. Establish this rule of access in a template that is replicated (like a signature line) in each email – set up as an autoresponder or as an automatic amendment to each outgoing email. Here is a template [modified for educators]:

Greetings,

Due to a high courseload and pending deadlines [or research/teaching obligations], I am currently responding to email twice daily at 12pm EST [be sure to indicate your time zone] and 4pm EST.

If you require help with something that can’t wait until either 12pm or 4pm, please call me on my [cell/office phone] at 555-555-5555.

Thank you for understanding. I look forward to working with you this semester.

  • Either in your course syllabus or in your welcoming email, set expectations of what you will or will not respond to.
    • This means letting students know that if there isn’t a question to be answered, you won’t respond to email. This can be helpful for colleagues as well. It cuts down on the back-and-forth correspondence that plagues us all.
    • Here is a template [language modified for educators, particularly those that supervise others]:

Thank you so much for your message. I make every attempt to personally respond to each person who contacts me, but due to the high volume of e-mail I receive, this is sometimes impossible. Please be assured that I have received and have read your email. If your email requires a response, I will reply between the hours of [your email schedule]. Thank you for understanding and have a wonderful day!

Ferriss addresses several other tactics for limiting or eliminating digital clutter and the consequent demands on our time that accompany digital correspondence. The full report is available via the link listed below.

By first establishing a relationship through a welcoming email, and making sure to define the expectations and parameters of that relationship, you could increase positive student attitudes about you and your course, increase retention rates, and increase student motivation. As well, you are making sure that you can maintain that digital relationship by setting communication expectations, so you aren’t disappointing or failing to respond to a student, which we all know, can sour the attitude of many a frantic student. It’s equally important to follow through on what you say. If you establish a schedule, stick to it.

I hope this proves helpful for your course and your relationship with students. I’m eager to hear your experience, so please comment or write and tell me what works for you. Have a wonderful semester!

References:

Legg, A. M. & Wilson, J.H. (2009). E-Mail From Professor Enhances Student Motivation and Attitudes. Teaching of Psychology, 36(3), 205-211. Available online at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00986280902960034

Buskist, W., & Saville, B. K. (2004). Rapport-building: Creating positive emotional contexts for enhancing teaching and learning. In B. Perlman, L. I. McCann, & S. H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology, 2, 149–155. Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.

Ferriss, T. (2007). The Low-Information Diet: How to Eliminate E-Mail Overload & Triple Productivity in 24 Hours. ChangeThis, 34(4). Retrieved from http://changethis.com/manifesto/show/34.04.LowInfo.

Our Best Teaching Moments – Writing our Teaching Philosophy

Courtesy of DiscoverySchool.com. Copyright © 1998 Mark A. Hicks. Originally published by Mark A. Hicks. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Our Best Teaching Moments

by Julie Dalley

Our last Teaching Circles meeting of the semester was April 24, a Tuesday. There were only four of us present physically, one virtually, through email. The discussion began with our “best” teaching moment, when we knew we had kicked ass and taken names when delivering our lesson – that one (or more) class where everything just “clicked. I think we can all remember a day where the students talked, where our lesson was BOSS and our delivery was award-worthy, where students “got it” and time ran over but no one cared (or something along those lines), and I choose to close out our meetings this semester with some positive stories and experiences because, of course we want to end on a good note, and because, good – and bad – experiences are what form us as educators and turn us into teachers.

Surprisingly, it was much harder to think of a “best” moment – that is, a moment that stood out. I can remember feeling great about a class, remember wonderful conversations, but it was harder to fill in the details than when I thought of my worst moments as a teacher. Classes gone amok were much clearer, which makes me part of a 2.6% who find positive memories harder to recall, or I could be mildly depressed? Perhaps I was more emotional, and stressed, by the bad classes, which is most likely. Either way, remembering these classes became important to my development as a teacher, and is a crucial way to build our teaching philosophy. My goal was to share these stories, tap into our memories – good and bad – and use this material as fodder for crafting our teaching philosophies.

As my post, Our Worst Teaching Moments, detailed, we have all failed spectacularly in front of a classroom of judgmental and amused students. Mostly though, after the judging and laughter wore off, students felt sympathetic to our struggles, and this show of humanity – we all fail sometimes – helped to ultimately create stronger bonds with our students. We became better because we fell on our faces.

When it comes to our best moments, often they are connected to true engagement with you, the instructor. Yes, you! Not just the material, the content, but how you deliver it, how you invite them to challenge, explore, experiment, or even be shocked by, the lesson is what made that day, that class, special. Our first story came from a professor in Classics & General Humanities. He talked about how he asked students to compare the United States Constitution with the ancient Greek Athenian constitution. Their surprise on how similar the two documents were resulted in a lively debate about the roots of our country’s ideas about democracy borrowed from the ideals perpetuated in ancient societies.

Our next speaker talked about her experience teaching Music Theory. This topic – rich in dense vocabulary and foundational knowledge – became personally viable to her students when she invited them to bring in their own music which they then connected to the theory or practices they were learning at the time. This made the class more engaged and personally connected to what was otherwise dry instruction.

Our computer science faculty member shared that his best classes came when students could engage in hands-on application of knowledge. Once past the point of introduction or theory, applying what they knew and trying out concepts, building programs, really became the nexus of pedagogy and student engagement.

My best moment teaching came during a discussion about the roots of racial inequality in the United States. I was teaching an American History junior high school class, and we were role playing the Civil War. When the conversation turned from then to now, a student made the statement that race “wasn’t a big deal anymore” because “I have lots of black friends who I don’t view in any different way.” She was shocked when several of my black students spoke up and quickly rebutted her statement with “just because we hang out with you, doesn’t mean we’re friends or equal.” I let the conversation roll, despite my internal fear that it may get out of hand and it was a topic I wasn’t sure I was capable of moderating with poise, but it turned out to be one of the best learning moments I’d ever had in my classroom – for me and my students. We really talked, without anger or recriminations, and we discussed perspective – personal, biographical, historical perspective. Everyone was respectful while connecting the issue at hand – racial inequality in the United States and its historical roots – with their own personal experience.

The four stories above share a common element: engagement with the personal. We surprised our students with knowledge they didn’t expect (finding similarities between the old and the new, always a shocker to the young, who invented everything!), we went off plan in our lessons, and we invited them to engage personally and emotionally (sharing their personal taste in music).

This post is related to my post of Worst Teaching Moments because these are rich stories that make for a wonderfully personal orientation when developing our teaching philosophy. For faculty hoping for tenure or re-appointment, or for new graduates looking for a full-time appointment, teaching philosophies are critically important in articulating our experience, our goals, and our understanding of what it means to teach and learn in our disciplines. By reflecting on our experience with both success and failure in the classroom we are conveying that we paid attention to what worked, what didn’t, and what we learned from it. It needn’t only be limited to our teaching experience either; new graduates may have limited teaching experience, but as this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, we’ve all been students. We know what we liked as students, what we didn’t, and why we chose to become educators.

These two meetings were meant to be exercises to help us frame our teaching philosophies. In the Fall, we will hold a formal workshop with hands-on writing exercises to polish and get feedback on writing our teaching philosophies. I hope these ideas of reflecting on what worked and what didn’t were helpful in at least getting you thinking about your teaching experiences, and to perhaps write a few sentences on what you considered a success, and what you thought failed, and what you learned from each. Every stand-out teaching philosophy has, at minimum, those three elements. For more resources on writing your teaching philosophy, please check out the following resources. Have a wonderful summer!

“How to Write a Statement of Teaching Philosophy” by Gabriela Montell, retrieved from the Chronicle of Higher Education, May 11, 2012: http://chronicle.com/article/How-to-Write-a-Statement-of/45133/

“Writing the Teaching Statement” by Rachel Narehood Austin, retrieved from Science Careers, from the Journal of Science, May 11, 2012: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2006_04_14/noDOI.14633728089694563528

University of Minnesota, Background and Contexts for Teaching Philosophies: http://www1.umn.edu/ohr/teachlearn/tutorials/philosophy/background/index.html

The Ohio State University, University Center for the Advancement of Teaching. Writing a Philosophy of Teaching Statement: http://ucat.osu.edu/teaching_portfolio/philosophy/philosophy2.html

 

Our Worst Teaching Moment

Siddhartha Bautama by Suta Sila Dham. Courtesy of Fotopedia.

Our last Teaching Circle meeting, I decided to try a more guided discussion, and asked guests to bring their worst teaching moment to share with the group. I have to admit, I think we probably had worse ones than the ones we actually shared, but that’s okay, because the point was two-fold:

  • Build community through stories;
  • Identify our weaknesses as teachers and how they’ve made (or can make us) better.

The reason for sharing our worst stories first is so we can – right out of the gate – admit that we are all human and that every educator has moments, or days, possibly a full week, when they don’t, exactly…shine.

Sharing our stories was cool, and I mean that in the sense of Chester Cheetos-like cool, because we laughed at ourselves without feeling our stories diminished us at all as educators. How we handle these moments became the take-away from this meeting, and how they can form, and inform, us as educators became teaching philosophy fodder. Because this is the point: none of us is perfect and it’s important for us, and our students, to know that. Don’t lose your cool! Students love it when they can bond with you over a little SNAFU in class, come to your assistance, or otherwise pull together as a group to solve a problem (I’m quite surprised technology implosions didn’t feature much more largely in our discussion – we did have one instructor discuss her experience with full system failure though). Though some students may view it as an opportunity to dismiss you as an authority with knowledge to share, most students will rally around you if you show a sense of humor and some humility about life’s little jokes.

Here is a brief rundown of the funny and humble stories featuring times we felt less than great about our teaching or inter-action with students, with each of us presenting different moments revealing our unique yet 0h-so-common teaching bonds. No matter how long you’ve been teaching, how well you know your topic, how utterly fabulous you are as an instructor, you will at some time have the teaching gods frown upon you. I began by owning up to a particular lesson in a high-school economics class, where my students ended up schooling me on a simple math equation. Don’t remember the context, the exact lesson, or the math I couldn’t do that day, but I distinctly remember the embarrassment. We then talked about how to handle these situations; I handled it badly by NOT addressing it with my students and pretending I wasn’t a complete math ignoramus, but it was okay, because eventually I could look back and recognize how I should have handled it, and how I would be better prepared for these moments in the future. Something to write about in my teaching statement, which I have done. Nothing says, “I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned from them” than an honest story that reveals what we don’t know about teaching and what we want to learn, yes?

Next came stories of language barriers – especially relevant for our international scholars and professors who struggle with accents and pronunciations in front of American students ( and for the record, I myself have practiced pronouncing many words that I don’t speak regularly but are difficult for any English speaker; for example, homogeneous is often mispronounced, still can’t confidently say the names of Tacitus or Aeschylus; just about any word with a lot of vowels…); “things students say in class” that catch us unawares -forcing some quick thinking and instant ability to react wisely! (“Oh, prof, I won’t be here for that class; I’m going to Coachella.”; “Oh, okay. <long pause> Have fun.” = awkward!); lapses in basic knowledge (see my math freeze above), inability to answer a student’s question coherently, razing by jerky students who know you are “fresh” – this WILL happen to you as a new or younger teacher. We heard a story about a mathematician of renown, possibly still teaching, but the story is of old, who simply shrugged off his calculation errors in front of students, and put the onus of knowledge on the students (that is, he let them figure out the problem; he already knew how to do it, why should he do it for the students?). Would that we all had that confidence and aloofness, yes? We discussed our frustration when students don’t “get it” and how we struggle to make meaning for them – is it us? them? How can we make it clearer? It seems so OBVIOUS!  We decided that we – yes, us teachers – are of the homo sapiens species after all, thus prone to error. We were able to turn these mini-crises into really pivotal and critical teaching and learning moments, ones that we ALL share as educators.

We also talked about the Flipped Classroom, Google+ versus Facebook, whether or not we should interact with students on social media sites (that was a resounding NO as I recall, but we did agree that setting up professional “teacher/colleague” profiles were a good idea when you did want to create a space online with your students). We ran out of time before we got to some writing exercises for tying all of this into our teaching philosophies, but I hope we can get to that next time.

For our next meeting, I plan to guide us to the flip side of the teaching coin-  our best teaching moment – that one (or more) class where everything just “clicked. I think we can all remember a day where the students talked, where our lesson was BOSS and our delivery was award-worthy, where students “got it” and time ran over but no one cared (or something along those lines), and we pictured Cate Blanchett playing us in the Oscar-winning movie of 2026 on inspiring teaching stories that bring a tear to the eye (dream sequence)…so, I thought, let’s end our semester with some positive stories and experiences, and what they can tell us about our teaching, about our students, and how these experiences (good and bad), are integral parts of being awesome educators.

We’d love to hear from you out there: what was your best or worst teaching moment? What did it teach you about yourself as an educator? Join us!

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