Friday, May 9, 2008

Teaching Philosophy

Here is my teaching philosophy from last semester. It hasn't changed much except I have a little about grading that I didn't put in there. I don't think I will ever actually put the grading philosophy in.

I attempt to create a classroom in which my students feel free to try new things and even fail at those new things without consequence. In creating such a classroom I tend to move away from traditional teacher-student lectures and focus more on collaborative class time. I attempt to create student-student and student-teacher paradigms in which the roles are not discernible or often reversed.

I provide my students with many different learning techniques and rely heavily on the use of all Gardner’s multiple intelligences in order to encourage learning. Even my first day introductory lesson, in which students create a duct tape wardrobe and attempt to market the pieces in a fashion show, is a testament to my classroom environment. In this lesson, students must work together to solve a problem, students must use several of the multiple intelligences, and the traditional teacher-student roles are broken as I participate in each group as a peer. Students often comment on this exercise as the most memorable of the semester.

Furthermore, student evaluations and comments are often focused on teacher-student relationships and the class structure. One recent evaluation said, “She cares about her students and is very approachable. She does not embarrass us or degrade us for not knowing an answer. She takes the time to explain it again.” Another evaluation stated, “I like that [you] made us think about punctuation in a different way. Normally its memorize, regurgitate, forget. Not in this class.”

I truly believe that teaching is learning and learning is teaching and I take every opportunity to do both in my class room.

Music and comedy as a way to breaking resistance

I've been fighting resistance this semester, so I decided to try something different in my 110 class.  I brought in some comedians, funny video clips, and some music one day to try to bring my class back from the abyss of resistance.  This is the week when I talk about argument fallacies and different ways to construct and deconstruct arguments.  

I begin the class my passing out printed lyrics to Mim's "This is Why I'm Hot."  I hate this song, but for some reason my students love it.  I actually hadn't heard the song until I hung out with my 19 year old nephew one day.  The song is not my type of music, but I took my chances because it shows a fallacy right of (begging the question: I'm hot 'cause I am, you ain't cause you not), but then proceeds to tell why Mim is hot.  It's actually pretty well argued because it sets up criteria then gives evidence of the criteria.  OK, its as well argued as any rap song can be I guess, but it works for my point.  Plus the chance for my students to hear me say things like "so making ladies 'bounce' is a criterion for hotness?" and "Paying a guap for a car is evidence of his hotness as related to richness, what IS a guap?"  My students laugh at my discomfort with the language (discomfort that I willingly admit and compare to their discomfort with academic writing) and I laugh at their animated definitions of "guap."

Then I show my students Eddie Izzard's (Yeah, yeah, shut up! I can't help my "obsession") "Church of England" Lego Youtube video.  They laugh hysterically and when I ask what is his argument they stare blankly for a moment then explode into guesses and comments.  It is a great way to show that arguments come in many forms and can be fun and funny.  I think if I do this again (teach 110) I'll actually have them all write an Izzardesque rant of an argument just for fun.  When I ask the class, "Why do you think Izzard opposes the church of England?" students give assessments like "It was built by a man who rejected Catholicism because he wanted to marry more than once."  An excellent observation and assessment! 

I also show them a Veggie Tales clip which demonstrates a hasty generalization and the consequences.  I show Larry the Cucumber's "Everybody has a Water Buffalo" in which Larry gets in trouble for making that statement.  

The class when I do this is really fun and the students relax into it and give the best participation and assessments that I have ever seen.  I do this assignment on a Monday and the "afterglow" seems to last until at least Wednesday of the next week.  I know my students get bored with the regularity of the class and this is a great way to break up the monotony.  PLUS my students see fallacies as fun.  OK, maybe not FUN, but at least not the most horrible part of 110.  Music and laughter are said to be the keys to curing illness, just maybe they can cure classroom resistance too.                  

Friday, April 25, 2008

Writing What We Teach

For the Writing What We Teach assignment I turned in a packet of five drafts.  Two drafts were of one article, and three drafts were of another.  I chose to stop the first draft because I was arguing the issue and not looking at the argument in a way that assessed the author's argument style.  So, I switched articles.  However, all is not lost.  I think I will use the first two drafts to show my students what it looks like to argue the issue instead of assess the argument. 

Since I had several students miss the point completely last semester and argue against the article's issue, this semester I think I will SHOW them the difference.  When I switched from the first article to the second article, I actually switched media.  For the second textual analysis I did was a short analysis of Super Size Me.  I have both classes watch this movie each semester, so I needed a little bit of a closer look at the "text" anyway.  Plus, I really don't think Spurlock does a great job of making a convincing argument.  In fact, I see his work as full of fallacies.  I thought that since I do a whole week on argument fallacies, perhaps I can work that in too.

I would give all the drafts to the students as a copied packet and go over the packet essay by essay.  I would have an overhead of each essay, so I can underline and point out certain parts of the essays and have the students follow along.  I feel like this is the most effective way to get the information to the students.   

Also new for this semester, I added leading-up exercises and a list of questions (and LOTS of practice) for my students to think about when reading their articles.  I did several discussion exercises throughout the semester where I asked students to analyze an argument verbally and as a class.  On a few occasions I directly opposed an author or blatantly pointed out downfalls of an author's argument even if it was in the form of a question (So, is a classroom a radio station?  Is the classroom under the rules of the FCC?) in order to show the students how to point out argument flaws.  

With the questions to think about when reading an argument that I added for this semester, I felt that I helped direct my students a little more than last semester.  I think that the textual analysis is the hardest thing we ask out 110 classes to do, so I waited until the end of the semester to assign it.  This way, I could possibly prepare the students more before I "threw them to the lions" and said "OK, here, now analyze this."

I think that in changing the assignment and giving my students a packet of drafts from me to show my process (and that writing isn't always easy or fast for me either) and show where I went wrong and how to redirect my writing I will be giving them a good example of what to do and what not to do.  

I will get my rough drafts on Monday the 28th, so I am excited to see if my plan worked.  I'll post again on Monday or Tuesday to talk about how it all went.         

Monday, March 17, 2008

I went into the woods and chopped down a tree to provide you with today's lesson, so you'll do it and like it!

It is no secret that I have my 100 and 110 students do different (read manipulative) exercises in the classroom.  One that I am most proud of and have the most fun with is the building an essay exercise.  I give my students a stack of multi colored Popsicle sticks and say, "Ok, now, build an essay and be sure to include all the elements that we've discussed this semester that make up a good essay."  The students usually get kind of mad for a minute and ask why.  Then I tell them that writing isn't always just about grammar and punctuation, the structure of an essay is just as important.  I ask them to build a sturdy structure to represent a well-written essay.  

Honestly, the things my students some up with are phenomenal!  They come up with things I never expected and the structures usually come out completely different for each group.  It is pretty amazing to see what the students create.  I highly recommend that you try this some time in your classes, it shows just how much your students do know. 

The part that really makes me happy is that several people; teachers, TAs, and even students have asked me if I personally and single-handedly dyed the popsicle sticks for the exercise.  Yes, I am innovative (not my word, but I'm flattered, so I'll take it!) and creative (again, not my own words), but I am NOT that patient or "craft-able."  When I was asked if I bought the sticks that way or if I made them, one TA responded to the inquirer, "No, she ran out into the forest, chopped down a tree, whittled out each and every stick, and took the time to dye them six different colors!"  Just for reference, I BOUGHT them like that from a Dollar Tree store for a dollar a packet (it takes to packets to complete six sets).  But I thank those of you who allude to the fact that I am just that crafty, even if it is only in joking. 

Besides, even if I did have the time to dye 200 popsicle sticks six different colors, I'm not sure I would do that just for an exercise, but then again I guess I did cut out 6,000 different strips of colored paper for the color poetry exercise and got massive tennis elbow.  That only happened one semester though because I changed the exercise to use (you guessed it!) colored popsicle sticks.  And you thought I was kidding when I said I'd teach my students by any means necessary.  

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I'm a stand up kind of teacher

Really, I stand for every class. We talked about teacher authority in 621 and how it might be relayed in whether the teacher sits or stands and where the teacher sits or stands in the room.

Part of why I think I stand is my undergraduate teacher training. My main mentor and dean of the program, Dr. Wellborn, drilled into us, “A teacher stands! A sitting teacher is a weak teacher. We are not weak.” For a time I thought I had joined the army and not the education college. Wellborn actually used to take points off our grades if he caught us sitting during unannounced visits OR even if we sat and did a presentation in a class that was not his. He used to tell us, “Get used to standing. You’ll keep control of the class.”

I remember thinking at the time that he was crazy. I STILL think he is crazy, but every time I am finished lecturing and want the students to speak in an informal discussion style, I sit. Actually, I hover over the chair for a moment, contemplate my options (sit and discuss or stand and direct). I usually end up sitting down for about ten seconds before I get excited and need to jump up to write on the board.

Again, I hear Wellborn barking at me, “Gardner! Gardner! Include all the intelligences. DESE. You must teach for everyone!” As I write the acronym “NCLB” and then “= No Child Left Behind” on the board I think about the Show-Me standards and Gardner’s multiple intelligences and apply them to what I am doing. I am engaging more intelligences and standing, again. Wellborn would be proud.

But like I said earlier, Wellborn is a lunatic. Perhaps I feel the need to move freely about the classroom because I can do so in a way I have never been allowed before. As a student I was restricted to a desk or, when necessary, a short path to the door, but as a teacher I can move around. This movement is a freedom I was most uncomfortable with for the first semester. I stayed right behind the desk and resisted the urge to hide behind the lectern, but I stood, wobbly knees and all (and with Wellborn commanding in the distance). This semester I am more relaxed. I stand, I sit, I lean, I move around, but I do more standing than sitting.

Standing isn’t a way to control my class; I don’t need to control my students. Most of my students know full well they are here because they choose to be here, which is a far cry from Wellborn’s depiction of the “unruly high schoolers of this state.” Yes, they have needed a push from me, but I think there was never any question of my authority.

So, I think the question is why do I stand to lecture and sit to discuss? Do I need “extra” authority when I lecture or is it simply a function of freedom of movement and access to the white board or other technological aids? When I sit, am I trying to make myself like a peer in order to facilitate discussion? And finally, am I reading too much into my sitting and standing habits?

Friday, February 29, 2008

Resistance is Futile! Part 2--the aftermath

Monday came and with it the 621 tutors. I anticipated a few questions from students, but there were none. One student sent his tutor to ask me what the function of the body was within an essay. Clearly, the exercise had had a short term negative effect on him. I wondered, was he afraid to ask me questions now? I asked the student to stay after class and told him what I was trying to do on Friday. He seemed relieved and even laughed a little, then he told me he hadn’t taken it personally and insisted that he just still wasn’t sure. I suspect he was lying.

On Wednesday I began my class normally. Smile, “How is everyone? Let’s get started with the reading quiz.” After the quiz I closed the door and sat down in a student desk. I was silent for a few seconds. The room was heavy with an emotion I can’t quite grasp.

“So,” I asked, “what did you think of last Friday?” A few students said they hadn’t liked the assignment or made other minor complaints, but there was no mention of my attitude. In fact, I think there were great pains taken to avoid talking about it. “Ok, good. What did you think about my attitude, the way I was acting and, yes, I was acting?” I asked. The class exploded, “I thought you were having a REALLY, REALLY bad day!” and other similar comments were offered.

“How did my attitude and the way I was acting affect the classroom? Did you like the way the room felt on Friday?” There was a resounding “No!” Then I asked, “Why do you think I did this?” Silence ensued, but I knew that the point had been made. I then told my students, “I’m on your side! I want to see you succeed. I want to come to graduation with an air horn and shout, ‘That’s my student, I taught him/her,’ because I am just that damn proud of you. Don’t tempt me, ‘cause I will do that. I want you to go on to 110 and blow them away with your mad MLA skills and I want you know that you have, right now, everything you need to be successful. I want you to pass. I want to brag to the other 100 teachers that all my students passed. I want you to make it easier for you. I can’t do that if you won’t let me. I don’t care where you came from, but I do care where you go and I want that to be successful.” I had practiced this speech all weekend.

I then made the students take out a piece of paper and allowed them to do an in-class journal about how the exercise had affected them. Did they understand where I was coming from? Why was their attitude just as important as mine? How could we better connect in the classroom? And most importantly, how might it feel to be me and get that kind of treatment times fifteen during each class? My students wrote furiously. I haven’t looked at the journals yet, but I am hoping for the best.

I also apologized to individuals at whom I had snapped, but made it a point not to apologize to the class as a whole. After I allowed the students to write for a while I moved on to a lecture. I stopped about two minutes in, as usual, and asked a question. Something amazing happened. Students who normally sit at the back of the class with folded arms, straight or disinterested faces, and obvious irreverence for me and the class looked completely different. Arms were uncrossed, faces were softer, and the “wall o’ irreverence” was gone. One of the biggest resisters looked pensive and said, “Slang, would that be one?” “His suggestion was correct. I smiled, acknowledged his answer and thanked him. Others began to chime in. EVERYONE in the class either asked a question or participated in discussion in some way.

Class ended on a higher, but still resonate note. A student raised her hand and asked, “What can we do?” I told her it was up to her, but whatever it was I supported it.

I think it is important in a class such as 100 for the students to know that the teacher truly supports them and that the teacher is not there to simply dash dreams to bits or hold them back for some crazy, sadistic pleasure. More importantly, I think it was necessary, in this case, for my students to see me as human. Before that day, I think I was either an emotionless teacher-drone or a force to be seen as hostile in my student’s eyes.

Resistance is Futile! Part1--the experiment

The following is a dramatic re-enactment of actual classroom proceedings. No students or teachers were harmed during the making of this blog.

Like many of my colleagues, I have been increasingly aware of the small things my students do which bug me. Most strikingly, my ENG 100 students seem to have an attitude problem that even Freud would be hard pressed to describe and define. Sure, they come to class, but they are unprepared, they refuse to participate in discussions, they complain that they are tired (the class is at 11am), they outright ask me if they can go home early, the text while I lecture, they talk to one another, and every time I give an assignment I get an immediate barrage of heated “whys” and grumbles reminiscent of May thundershowers. This is not a good learning environment.

I made my plan very carefully. On Friday of last week I actually put that plan into action. I went into class and without my usual smile. I usually ask how everyone is and take a few moments to listen to complaints and comments, but on this day I just set my stuff down and looked at my students. Without my prompting, a few offered up some suggestions like; “Can we go home, it’s Friday” and “I’m tired.” To which I shortly responded “No and get more sleep.” The students looked confused and a little hurt. The tired student said, “Well, I would if work didn’t keep me so late.” My reply? “Not my problem. Now, get into your groups from Wednesday and get started on your projects.” The students began to grumble and nobody moved. I looked up again and said, “That includes movement. We don’t have all day. Hop to it.” The class slowly and grudgingly began to move.

As the class began to work on the project I had assigned, I took out my papers for ENG 110 and started grading! Of course these were fake papers and I wasn’t really grading, but listening to EVERYTHING the students said. As the class progressed I began to make more comments. “Guys, I hear what you did this weekend when I need to hear about your projects.” When a student asked if spelling counted I looked at him blankly for a moment, took out my cell phone and pretended to text, snapped the phone closed and said, “What did you want?” He again repeated his inquiry. I paused and then said, “Of course, when did you think it wouldn’t?”

Another student came up and asked me what I wanted him to write as the function of the body in an essay and I said, “We had this conversation, you and me, the exact same one on Wednesday, did you not write it down?” The student went back to his group and a small murmur arose. The entire class had heard me and a few people started to jump to this student’s defense. I cut them off frankly, “How about you do your stuff and do it quietly so we can get it done and go home? Then we can all be happy.” I was pretty sure I was going to experience a coup, but nothing happened, just a few whispered “what’s her problem?”

The students had had enough. One looked at me for a moment and then pointedly drew a smiley face on the board. I looked up, straight faced, and then turned away to begin grading again. Another student tried to get a response from me by touching the coat in the chair beside me and saying, “That’s a pretty coat…” My only reply was, “Projects are what you need to be doing and don’t touch my stuff, please.” The class began to do more things to get me involved and laughing or at the very least responding. Some made jokes about the class or other classes, others tried to compliment my hair, blazer, jeans, handwriting, shoes and even glasses in order to elicit any kind of response. They were working extra hard to get me just to say something, but the harder they worked the more resistant I became.

Class ended and I felt horrible. I spent all weekend worrying about losing students and fretting that I had just made them afraid of me. I wanted to take it all back and tell them right then and there that it was all an act and that there was a point to what I was doing, but I decided against it. I just let my students leave without saying anything.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A Day Of Teacher Bliss

On Monday I had what I can only describe as a "Teacher Bliss" day. You know, those days where the academic cosmos align, I have good attendance, students are interested and engaged, discussion and lectures flow freely, and I go home with the affirmation of why I REALLY do this.

It seemed simple enough. Talk to the 621 tutors for my 100 class and discuss with individual tutors the problems that have arisen, then decide a plan of action to bridge the gap between the classroom and the tutoring sessions. It went well, I am pleased to say. Then my actual 100 class time was nigh and I got to see the tutors in action. I had pretty good attendance with a few stragglers and I only had one absent student. The tutoring session went fantastically well. As I looked around the room, all my students seemed engaged and both the tutors and students seemed to be comfortable and conversing easily. I also saw some students actively engaged in re-writes and brainstorming. All was at peace in the ENG 100 universe.

Then it was time for 110. I was antsy because the students were turning in the annotated bibliography today and I feared the usual excess of excuses. There were none. I decided to ease the class into the I-Search and critical thinking unit by having them look at an article from my hometown newspaper. The article focused on a school board meeting in which banning a book from a dual credit class was discussed.

I wasn't sure that my students would react as strongly as I did to the article (I know and have argued against the man who was advocating the banning), but the results were astounding. I began by asking, "Is this censorship?" There was a resounding no. Then I asked, "Are the arguments that Mr. Hitchcock makes sound in their reasoning?" The first answers were yes, but a few students began to see the fallacies in the argument. We haven't even gone over fallacies in class yet!!! The arguments got deeper and more heated between the opposing sides and the analysis of the argument got better and better. One student even pointed out the irony that the argument against the book was mostly because of the ending and that by banning the book, Mr. Hitchcock was actually repeating the ending. Students who have never said a word in class spoke up with their opinions. I was so proud of my students. They actually stayed LATE to finish up the argument! The universe of ENG 110 was in my favor.

I'm not sure if there was actually much pedagogy in here, but I really needed to brag about my students and say thanks to the tutors. Days like this function as a true reminder of just why I want to stay in the field. It is the times when students exceed all expectations and out perform themselves from even my wildest dewy-eyed teaching dreams that I know I am truly lucky to do what I do.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Discussion, Discussion, Discussion

One of the most resounding things a teacher ever said to me, actually asked me, was, "In light of Columbine, do you feel safe at school?"  I was a senior in high school the year of the Columbine shooting (1999) and I remember looking around the room at the solemn and terrified faces of my classmates.  We had been through this in 1997, our sophomore year, with the shootings in Kentucky and it seemed impossible that it would be happening again.   Glassy eyed, tight lipped, slump-bodied head shakes were the only answer the teacher received.  She stood in front of the class in silence for exactly three and a half seconds before turning to the chalkboard and saying in a chipper voice, "Well, on to polynomials!"  It was a math class.

On, Friday my classes seemed antsy and attendance was down, but I didn't think anything of it until now.  Were my students afraid to come to class in light of what happened at NIU?  Did my students feel the same despair, shock and perhaps fear that I felt in high school and more recently, during the Virginia Tech shootings?  I know that many of my students (98%) are first years and most are between the ages of 18 and 20 (99%) and since so many of them were not in college last year, they have not had a chance to be "so close" to it.  What I do think they need is an open forum in which to talk about what has happened.

I'm not sure how many of them will remember Columbine (since most went into kindergarten in 1995!) or if the Virginia Tech shooting were as close to home for them as the NIU shootings may be this year, but I do think that I should not just go on in a chipper voice and talk about polynomials, or in my case conclusions and the Toulmin schema.  What I do know is that I might just need to take a moment to ask, "Do you feel safe?" and to listen to the answers even if they are just body language.  

I think I will throw out my planned discussion about what it means to annotate and why a naysayer is important in an argument essay, in favor of talking, just talking, to my students about what this all means for them, for the university, for the U.S., and for the world.  I suspect that I will get a lot of discussion.  Except this time there will be one thing very different about our discussion.

No poking, no prodding, no interrogation, no asking for more information, no devil's advocate, no challenges to defend statements with specific passages form the text, no restating the question if silence of more than 20 seconds passes.  No, Wednesday will be different, I will ask my students what they have to say and then I will listen, even if they aren't sure they want to talk about it yet or is the resounding opinion is stunned silence.   

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Authority of an Author

It is hard for freshman and/or beginning writers to view themselves as anything other than novice. During the textual analysis essay last semester, I told students that they had the authority over the text and emphasized that they had the skills necessary to evaluate an argument. So many students said, “But, I’m not a writer or a critic? I have no qualifications!” For the memoir assignment, students often lamented, “I have nothing IMPORTANT to say!” believing that their experiences were far less valuable than those of “Authors.” How then, do teachers get these beginning students to realize that they, in fact, have valuable contributions to make within the writing and academic world?

I tried this activity with both my 100 and 110 students to see if I could get them to believe that even as novices, beginners, freshmen, or less experienced writers, they really did have something IMPORTANT to say. I wanted them to understand that what they had to say was just as important as any other human’s story.

I began by writing the word “Author” on the board. I asked students to define the word. In both classes there were answers like: published, good at telling stories, a person who writes. Then I asked students what other words include “author” in them. The first answer in each class was, “authority!” (this is what I wanted them to say). I then related to them the idea that an Author has the Authority over the story they are telling. Each Author creates something (in this case a memoir) and they are the sole authority over that creation.

I then had students describe the physical and mental characteristics of a Writer. In both classes physical descriptions were similar: male, older, khakis, glasses, beard, and British (interesting!). The mental descriptions included: homebody, has several vices, crazy, sloppy, and single. In each class at least one student connected the Author/Authority lesson to the definition of a Writer and voiced this realization to the class. “Hey, if I have authority over my writing, then I am an Author and an Author is a Writer. I am both!”
As soon as students began to realize that they were an Author because they had authority over their writing and an Author writes, they were therefore and Author and a Writer! It was absolutely amazing to watch they student’s faces change from insecurity, fear and frustration to confidence and maybe even a little excitement.