Thursday, September 21, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Leading Them to Water

As I continue to reflect on my experience teaching a brand new course, I have come to realize how much pressure I put on myself to be excellent.

This isn't entirely surprising to me. I have high expectations for myself as a teacher. I take my work very seriously--even though I don't take my self too seriously. I count it simultaneously a blessing and a burden to be tasked with ensuring that students learn. Yes, I use the word "ensure." This is dangerous, I know--can I really ensure that students will learn? It would be safer to say I "provide them with opportunities to learn," wouldn't it? But that's not how I see it.

One of my professors in my M.Ed. work (the inestimable John Van Dyk, who has had a profound and pervasive impact on the way I think about my role as a teacher) reminded us:

I take that seriously. Yes, my students have to do the hard work of learning. I can't make them drink. I doing what I can to make them thirsty?

The trouble with this is that I start to put a bit of a burden on myself then, you see? I want to do my best to make class for my students; I want to structure the learning environment in such a way that it supports them, encourages them, challenges them, engages them, and--dare I say it?--makes them a little thirsty.

I'm working on it. I know that I'm not the most engaging lecturer. I think I'm better as a storyteller than a lecturer. The emotional engagement from a story gets them "thirsty" in a way that just the fact never will. But it's harder to tell stories the first time you're teaching a class. And there is so much content in this geography course! While I'm confident in my ability to teach it, it's my first time through. Planning a lecture--even though it might be more "boring" for the students--feels safer.


Lecturing (for me) doesn't seem as effective at leading them to water. (It's not that lecture is "bad" as a methodology...but bad lecture is THE WORST.) So even though its a little scary for me, I'm trying to get students more actively involved. I'm asking them to help direct my class presentations by asking questions to clarify what they've read. This has been pretty successful so far, but it's definitely still a work in progress for me. I'm also trying to do in-class projects and collaborative work that gets them more actively involved than just sitting back and listening.

Today, for example, we were exploring intergovernmental organizations, like the UN, EU, NATO, NAFTA, G-8, SCO, BRIC, WTO, IMF, and was alphabet soup! And rather than me lecturing my way through all of these organizations, I figured we could collaboratively generate a database.

So I made a Google Doc and populated it with a list of 20-ish supranational organizations, and shared it with my class. Basically we were seeking to answer three questions about each of them:
1. What is this?
2. Who are the major players?
3. Why should we care/be concerned about this?

The students partnered up and launched in, and after about 10 minutes, we had a solid beginning. I then directed them back to it to read through others' responses, adding to them, tweaking, modifying, updating...trying to get the best responses we could. I read through them too, and made a few tweaks myself, adding some info, correcting a few (very slight) errors. And there it was: a database of organizations, developed collaboratively and vetted corporately (and by me.) They were actively involved throughout, and the "why should we care?" question really worked for them--this was part of the running them around the waterhole, I think.

Can I ensure that they all will know about the African Union, and DR-CAFTA, and the Arab League, and OCED? Hard to say, I suppose. But were they actively involved in learning about them today in class, with a sense of "need to know?"


I marked today's lesson as one of the most successful of the semester so far.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Getting Them to Read

I've really been thinking about reading this week. A big part of the prep work for college-level course work is reading. I assign a fair bit of reading to my students--generally at least a chapter to prepare for each class meeting. (This varies a bit, of course, depending on the subject matter or the course.) And I think it's pretty important for students to do this reading.

I mean, if it wasn't important, I wouldn't assign it, right?

But I'm also a little cynical. I know that as a college student, I didn't always do all of the reading assigned. (Gasp! This feels like true confessions...) I suspect that some of my students are in this boat too. It's not like they deliberately set out to not prepare for class. But I wonder sometimes if there are things I'm doing as an instructor that make it less likely that they will do the reading I want them to do?

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Trusting Students

I was agonizing about class today.

The title of my geography course is, "World Regional Geography: Peace and Justice on the International Stage." And that's really our emphasis: not just knowing places on the map, but rather, "Who cares?" and "What can we do about the issues in the world?"

So on my syllabus today, the topic was "Developing a Biblical Framework." Since I'm teaching at a Christian institution, and I have the freedom to give full voice to my faith commitments, I wanted to frame the way we're thinking about geography--aiming to emphasize peace and justice--in light of a biblical perspective. But my fear was that it would come off as, "So here's the biblical perspective, and once we have talked about this, we can check it off the list and go on to the next topic on the syllabus." Since I'm really striving to teach Christianly--to live out my faith in all aspects of my teaching practice--this is not what I'm about. In terms of the curriculum for this course, I want to challenge my students to own their faith, and not just parrot back what I think.

Agonizing about class: would they actually discuss things?

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Pre-Assessment

An old gradebook from when I taught middle school...
Time for me to practice what I preach, folks. If I tell my Education majors something is good practice for teachers, I better be doing it in my own teaching, right?

In my pedagogy-oriented courses, I often emphasize the role that assessment plays in teaching. I often talk with my students about the importance of setting objectives, aligning appropriate assessment vehicles to these objectives, and then ensuring that our instructional moves will actually support students' learning of those objectives. When I say "assessment vehicles," students often jump immediately to tests and quizzes, but there are, of course, lots of other possible ways to assess students' knowledge, understanding, and skills.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Day One

My wife calls this my "first day of school"
outfit. (She's not wrong...)
It's the first day of school for me for this academic year. Ah, the beginnings: the excitement, the nervousness, the joy, the fun of meeting up with new students, the even-more-fun of meeting up with students I've taught before who already know me...

I love this about teaching: the rhythm of the year with beginnings, middles, and endings makes it feel like a new journey each time. Today was stepping out at the start of a new expedition, and it was a joy, honestly.

The first day of class is a challenge though. How deep can we go on the first day, when they haven't read anything, or written anything, or prepared anything? Do I just have introductions and go over the syllabus? And who wants to do that for 75 minutes? (Ugh!)

Monday, August 28, 2017

Learning to Teach Again

Tomorrow morning I will enter the classroom again, beginning my 20th year as a professional educator. I am excited! And...I have the jitters again, as usual.

This fall I'm teaching a new course. I'm adding World Regional Geography to my repertoire, and I'm really excited for this! I love geography, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to help my students expand their view of the world.

But I'm anxious about it too.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

I'm Not Superman

Facebook is a weird partial record of parts of my life that I decide to show online. It's always a little interesting to see what pops up in my personal "this day in Facebook history" each day. For instance, this one was today, six years ago:

The comments in response to this post (there were 20 of them!) were pretty funny to read through. Some were encouraging, like a former student who said, "People ask you for help cause your AWESOME!!!"  Some were a little more pointed, such as the family member who said, "Build a bridge and get over it..." Others were empathetic, along the lines of a friend from church who responded, "I had that too!" And still others were just a little weird, like a college friend who suggested, "Just duct tape your thumbs down and explain it can't be down without opposable thumbs." (I love that last one...)

I'm reflecting back, trying to remember exactly what the context was. I know I was serving as Technology Coordinator in a K-8 school at that time, and given that it was nearing the first day of school, I suspect this was in response to a whole slew of, "Hey, Dave...can you help me a minute with ________?"

There were a lot of those kinds of questions, honestly. And it's in my nature to try and be helpful. This comes out of a sense of obligation to doing excellent work at my professional commitments, sure. But, when I'm honest about it, it's also partly out of a drive to want people to think highly of me, to see me as some kind of Superman who can swoop in to save the day.

That's insidious, isn't it? But, as I've written before (here and here), the challenge for me is that if I can do something, it's often a quick slide to I should do something. When people come asking for my help and I can help, does that automatically mean I should do the thing they are asking me to do?

I'm not Superman. I cannot do all of the things. I should not do all of the things.

And yet...there is this awful pull for me that somehow I feel like I'm letting people down if I don't.

So this year, I'm practicing saying "no." I am working on making my default response to requests a kind, gentle "no." After four crazy years of grad school while working full time, my hope is that I'll be able to better prioritize in my life. By saying "no" to most things--even the good things--I'll be better able to say "yes" to things that I really need to devote my attention toward, and be excellent at those things. Call it a year of Sabbath...or a Year of Jubilee, even.

So, if you ask me to help out and I say "no," please don't be offended. It's not you. It's just that I'm not Superman. :-)

Image by Cia Gould. [CC BY 2.0]