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.


  1. We are just touching on multilateral aid in our middle school socials class. We are watching "Living on a Dollar" and reflecting on what we see and what would be considered as effective help. Reflecting on what World Renew is doing there and how they are helping. A simple version, but I'm hoping the movie living on a dollar provides the salt for the oats. :)