Monday, November 21, 2011

Situational Factors - the unexpected and uncontrolable bits of teaching

The making of a stellar teacher involves more than planning the perfect lesson, or studying teaching philosophies and the latest models. The making, or rather the development, of a truly stellar teacher also comes from dealing with the unexpected and stubborn bits of life. Learning grace under pressure and working constructively with limitations makes us not only more reliable, but also more creative. We call the funny bits of life that you cannot change in the classroom 'situational factors.' The following are examples of situational factors that members of GTC have had to deal with. How would you deal with them?

You have a great introductory class planned for your discussion section in which students will sit in a circle and toss a ball of yarn from one person to another to demonstrate both class diversity and similarities among the class. You are very excited about this year’s discussion section and plan on doing a lot of interactive group activities involving people moving around the classroom and conversing in a large circle to help the students feel more included. When you get to your classroom you find that the desks and chairs are fixed in place, facing forward toward the projector and board. You will not be able to move them into a circle and do not have the table space to do small group work. How do you modify your class and activities?


You are teaching a language class would like to hear the student’s pronunciation of the words. To do this you are having the students repeat sentences back to you as a group. You can detect discrepancies and easily practice more where students need practice. Suddenly jackhammering begins outside and you cannot hear your students unless you are standing 2 feet from them. How do you continue to improve their pronunciation (which will be important for their oral text the next day), while the noise is going on?

You are in the middle of a power point presentation watching media footage when the power in the building goes out and you loose the video and access to the rest of your power point. How can this become a teachable moment, and how can you continue your discussion?

Your class falls in the afternoon 3, a generally safe time, except that you have a bunch of baseball players who come in late from practice on a consistent basis and are constantly riled up and excited. They are a predictable and constant disruption to your beginning of class routine of journaling silently about a prompt.

You would like your students to be able to access websites discussing sex for their paper on human sexuality, but their internet searches are blocked from your classroom. How do you deal with the blocks on their potential research?

Your classroom is new and still smells of fresh paint and construction materials. During the first day of class 4 students complain of headaches due to the smells. You are doubtful that the smell will go away any time soon and you know that there are limited rooms available on campus. What do you do?

You are teaching at a school where many of your students come from low income families and have little money. During the first week of class you discover that very few of them have purchased the text because it is too expensive and there are arguments breaking out about the reserve copy at the library. How do you rectify the situation?

You are at UC Davis. You would like to take your students on a field trip to the Vernal pools to have them identify the native plants there, however there is not funding in the budget for this excursion. How can you still expose them to plant identification with those rare species (that you cannot collect from the wild) without physically taking them to the place?

Your bike has a flat tire and you are going to be 15 minutes late to the class you instruct. Luckily you have a few of your students phone numbers / emails so you can let them know. How do you prevent the class time from being wasted? You were planning on lecturing and then reviewing previous material for an upcoming quiz.

After giving this some thought, feel free to comment. We would like to continue this discussion on the blog.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Gleeful GTC Experience

Some of you may associate the name “New Directions” with the creativity, vitality and crazy mash-ups, of the recently popularized TV series Glee. We at GTC, associate it with creativity, vitality, and crazy mash-up . . . in the winter quarter. Our GTC meeting last Monday became a productive brainstorming session about where to take the Graduate Teaching Community in the future.

And we are deciding to take it on an adventure (which may involve some serious kinesthetic learning, not unlike a glee club). So next quarter we will be asking GTC participants to come to each session ready to learn a lesson and evaluate the style and functionality of the teaching presented. Those who volunteer to teach will get a chance to strut their stuff in front of a supportive audience with teaching experience, who can provide insightful feedback. Those who observe will be asked not only to evaluate the teaching experience, but also the style and modality in which they are asked to learn. We will ask you to come to a kinesthetic teaching workshop, a workshop in which you will be asked to learn with a temporarily imposed disability, and workshops in which you will be taught in sterotypical and a-typical environments. So, get ready GTC for a brand new quarter this winter with a new approach. Be prepared to teach and to see your teaching through your student’s eyes.

And for the next few weeks...
Come check out how situational factors that we cannot change influence our teaching and learn about how to encourage creativity in the classroom.

Friday, November 11, 2011

How to teach "character"?

What is the role of character "strengths" such as persistence, self-control, resilience, optimism in academic (and life) success? can they be taught? how?
This article by Paul Tough in the New York Times gives a good overview of evidence and educator's experiences on this topic, right at the core of what education means.

"[...] the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class. "

You can also listen to an American RadioWorks podcast about this topic here.

As a grad student, I am sure you know very well what they are talking about. ...how does creativity enters the picture?

Writing in the Classroom

On Monday John Stenzel from the University Writing Program visited the GTC and shared many different resources for incorporating writing into classes of all sorts. John’s presentation provided new ways to think about and framing learning in the classroom.

We discussed the idea that “If you[, the instructor,] are not talking, that does not mean that students are not learning.” and the pressures we face to keep talking to and at our students. To help instructors address their learning goals, which around 90% of faculty claim include critical thinking, John argued that writing is critical thinking, and that incorporating more writing is fostering those vital skills in students.

However there are many perceived impediments to using more writing in classrooms. A primary impediment is the difficulty of writing. Writing is primarily a generative task, and one that involves making frequent and repeated judgment calls, e.g. tense and voice, sentence structure, flow, who is the audience, etc. All these decisions can quickly lead to cognitive overload at which point the whole process shuts down and no writing occurs.

John suggested several ways to address cognitive overload. These methods differ primarily on the scope of the writing with shorter assignments having different strategies than longer ones. For longer assignments the idea that writing is an iterative process is important not just stress but practice, model and incorporate into the class structure. In addition to the traditional method of requiring multiple drafts to be turned in over the course, an instruct0r could also model the process by showing the students a first draft and the further progress that comes with each successive draft of their, the instructor’s, own writing.

As for smaller assignments one of the easiest approaches to implement is a “Mad Lib” style prompt. Giving the students a more constrained problem domain relives some of the cognitive load and allows students to focus on the parts that you want them to. Another approach is more intermediate length writing samples, called micro-themes. Micro-themes are short, 2-5 minute writing exercises that are designed to engage students with the material and not be polished. By making clear that the micro-themes are not finished projects but times for students to get their ideas down on paper, again some of the cognitive load is dissipated. Additionally the repeated and regular use of writing in the classroom setting supports higher quality writing during assessment periods.

John also pointed towards and heavily recommended John Bean’s “Engaging Ideas” and Derek Bok’s
Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More” as resources for how to incorporate writing into the classroom and a critique of higher education in terms of its lack of critical thinking respectivly.