Thursday, October 19, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Quizzing Basic Knowledge

Over the past 20 years I've served as a professional educator, my thoughts on basic knowledge and skills have fluctuated.

Early in my career, I know I focused a lot on "just the facts." Students in my math classes learned algorithms for solving particular kinds of problems. Students in my science classes memorized a lot of definitions for vocabulary. The idea for me: they have to know the facts! And...perhaps's easier to assess their factual knowledge than the deeper understanding that I hope they will also develop.

Looking back, I now realize that about five years in to my teaching career, a shift began to happen. As I matured as a teacher, I began to de-emphasize basic factual knowledge and instead began to focus more attention on ensuring that students could actually do something with that knowledge. Eventually this meant I embraced standards-based assessment practices for my science classroom, focusing on giving students multiple opportunities to both learn concepts as well as demonstrate their understanding of the concepts. I remember having a (somewhat heated) conversation with a colleague during this time in which I said something like, "If they can find the answer on Wikipedia in under 30 seconds, they don't need to memorize it!"

Friday, October 13, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Daring Acts of Pedagogy

Last week I enjoyed attending the Heartland Christian Teachers' Convention held here at Dordt College. They keynote speaker was someone I deeply respect (and...let's be honest...I'm kind of a fanboy) and have followed on Twitter for years: Rick Wormeli. Rick is a gifted presenter, a passionate educator, and an intellectual pot-stirrer. He is unafraid to challenge teachers to rethink their classroom practices, and to not do things just because "we've always done it that way." (Not to say we need to crave novelty...but that we need to be reflective, introspective, and willing to adapt.)

It was great to have Rick here on campus, and I confess, I attended every session he presented. (And live tweeted them...) It wasn't necessarily "new" material for me--I've been reading things he wrote since the mid 2000s when I was doing my Masters degree. But it was good reminders of the things I believe to be true about assessment, about differentiated instruction, about meeting the needs of students, and about teaching for understanding.

As an added bonus, I got to help out with a tech issue, and then took this awesome selfie with Rick:

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Readiness to Learn: A Reflection on the Silage Pile

Last night I had a new experience: I helped cover a silage pile.

You should know that I'm a city kid through-and-through, and even though I've lived in the midwest for quite a few years now, I know next to nothing about farming. But when I had the opportunity to help out with a church fundraiser that involved heading out into the country, I was up for it.

My view from the bottom of the pile, where I was holding down the tarp.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Writing Tests

It's time for our first test of the semester in World Regional Geography. I've spent quite a bit of time over the past few days working on writing it. This perhaps something the non-teachers out there don't realize: writing a (good) test is actually a lot of work!

Yes, I know there are lots of pre-fab tests that come with curriculum materials. In my experience, these vary in quality quite a lot. Some of them are pretty good. Some of them are pretty awful. Most are somewhere in between, perhaps with some great questions and some...less great questions.

I generally prefer to write my own tests though, and in this course in particular--while I do have a great text that we're using--I don't have a teacher's manual the way I did when I taught in K-12. And, honestly, I really prefer to write my own test questions anyway.

I've shared my strategies for writing test questions before on this blog, and I'm putting them into practice as I've been working on this test. It's been a timely reminder for me about the challenges of writing good questions: questions that get at what I most highly value, and not just what is easy to measure.

Image by Alberto G. [CC BY 2.0]
(Funny, because I never use Scantron sheets for tests I write...)

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?