Blog Post

LSTS 1: Best Learning Experiences, Best Teaching Experiences

ENFPs should not promise to write blog post series. My attention span is somewhat better than that of a goldfish (an unfortunate misconception about ENFPs), but I do prefer to consider all the things I could write about over writing about the things I said I would write about. Case in point, as soon as I committed to addressing the six questions posed by Neil Haave in my last post, I promptly set off thinking about all sorts of other interesting things. I signed up for an archived mass open online course (MOOC) offered through EdX. I found a new (to me) presentation tool, Prezi, that I think holds a great deal of potential for communicating material to students who identify as visual or spatial learners. I’ve also started considering how to revise my syllabus for next semester; it’s time for some new primary sources and the blogging project could use tweaking. All productive lines of thought, but not at all focused on what I intended to write. Hence my delayed return to blogging and to the series of posts I sketched out in Learning Style, Teaching Style (LSTS).

Haave’s first two prompts for reflection are:

  1. Describe the best learning experience you have had as a student.
  2. Describe the best teaching experience you have had as an instructor.

He encourages readers to consider how the two answers intertwine. What similarities exist between the two experiences? And what do those similarities reveal about the choices we make about teaching practices?

Learning Experience

My best learning experiences have been in courses that challenged me to work hard for the grade or for intellectual parity with my classmates, but did not seem like a hopeless cause from the start. My undergraduate astronomy class falls into the latter category; even basic knowledge of pulsars, quasars, and simple constellations eludes me. The semester-long program I spent in London as a freshman undergraduate is one of the former.

The program satisfied the college’s general education requirements for philosophy, history, literature, and fine arts – but nothing about the program felt basic or required. Each week, my cohort of twenty-five students attended two lectures that set the historical context for the week – and then our professors set us loose in the city with assignments to visit galleries, museums, or performances and read primary sources related to the period covered in the lectures. We also met three times a week for colloquies (small discussion groups) to sort out the important themes from texts, images, and exhibits. Weekly writing assignments prompted us to pull together artifacts, texts, and lecture material into a synthetic, insightful, interesting commentary about the week’s material.

The program was wonderfully immersive and encouraged deep and intimate camaraderie among participants. I pulled all-nighters with fellow procrastinators and had my ego taken down a notch in peers by people who were clearly more thoughtful and gracious than me. (That was a necessary thing at that point in my life – and definitely still needs to happen from time to time.) The learning experience was foundational not only because the rigors of the program required me to live and breathe the material, but also because it impacted my values, character, and friendships in significant ways. It was the closest I’ve come to a holistic learning experience.

Teaching Experience

The connections between one of my best learning experiences and my current teaching practices are transparent. Each class is bookended with lecture material, but centered on primary source texts and discussion. I also include short prompts aimed at getting students to think about connections to their lives and society in some classes. More often than not, the conversation moves in that direction without my guidance and I have the privilege of witnessing a student internalizing a text or idea in unexpected ways. These are my favorite teaching experiences.

Last semester, for instance, I assigned a portion of Thomas of Celano’s First Life of St. Francis as the primary source for the class on Medieval Europe. The assigned passages relate stories about Francis’s conflict with his father, his interactions with the poor, his conversations with animals, and his audience with the pope, in which his order was given official sanction by the Catholic Church. When I read the source as an undergraduate, the professor emphasized Francis’s compassion for the poor and loyalty to the church as well as the madness of some of his actions (because, remember, this is a man who has conversations with fish). I intended to bring up similar themes in class, but my students connected with unexpected portions of the source.

Their first concern was with the conflict between father and son – and they tended to side with the father, not Francis. Their second major concern lay in the sustainability of Francis’s care for the poor (or lack thereof) – how effective was it, really, to just give someone a cloak? How many people could that really help? I later discovered, in conversation with an instructor of Global Development, that the second theme was a significant one in her course – and students were quite possibly carrying the idea over into their reading of the source. The students in my course were, with very little prompting from me, discovering their own connections and allowing the source to prompt reflection about their society. A beautiful thing, if I may say so.

Next Post

I am generally satisfied with the way my course is structured and I think students respond well to the format – especially the discussions. I do wonder, though, if I could shift my attention more often to the rigors of the course. In other words, is the course actually intellectually challenging – or is it just a lot of talking? And what would “intellectually challenging” look like for an introductory-level, required module for a program without a history major?

My queries (or worries, depending on the day) fit nicely with Haave’s third prompt, “What are you trying to achieve in your students with your teaching?”, so I’ll pick those up in the next post.

Blog Post

Roy Rosenzweig’s Solution to the “Desperate Struggle” of the Academic Life

I’m revisiting Clio Wired: the future of the past in the digital age as part of a preliminary survey of digital history (in an ever-so-tentative exploration of a possible dissertation topic). The collection of essays is significant for its wide range of topics – the authors explore Wikipedia, digital preservation, impacts of new media on education, and the challenges of creating accessible (i.e., free) content in scholarly journals – and its willingness to consider the interplay of medium and message in the digital age.

When I started re-reading yesterday, however, I barely made it through the introduction – not because it was tedious, but because it was so blasted inspirational.  Anthony Grafton’s opening essay is essentially a lovingly written, extended eulogy to historian Roy Rosenzweig (1950-2007). I encountered Rosenzweig’s work while reading for my archives capstone in spring 2014, so I’m not overly familiar with his work outside the archives/digital history sphere – but I sincerely hope to read more of his work eventually because his scholarship, at least according to his friends, is striking for its passion, dedication, innovation, and collaborative spirit. As Grafton notes in his introduction, Rosenzweig worked in a Brooklyn shoe factory to gain firsthand insight into the experience of the blue-collar workers he studied as a labor historian (see Eight Hours for What Will). He was an also an early adopter of computer technologies and participated in/co-founded multiple publications, both print and digital (most notably Radical History Review).

The piece I love most about Rosenzweig’s work, though, is his collaborative spirit. Most of his writings are co-authored or edited volumes and, according to his peers and friends, cooperation and exchange were the hallmarks of his scholarship. Grafton, reflecting on this aspect of Rosenzweig’s legacy, recounts:

“He was still in graduate school when he took up what became a lifelong practice of collaboration – a radical innovation at the time. In those days historical work, whatever its methodology, was usually monastic in its form. Each scholar worked for him- or herself, locked away in a carrel, engaged in a desperate struggle to master the sources before being overcome by melancholy or crippled by writer’s block.” (Clio Wired, Kindle Edition, Loc. 118)

My goodness, that sounds familiar. That “desperate struggle” is far and away the most difficult piece of the academic life for me – it is the thing that initially prompted my current leave of absence and the thing that consistently has me questioning whether this academic life is ultimately worthwhile. But here’s the hopeful piece, the piece that bid me pause halfway through the introduction. Grafton quotes Rosenzweig’s co-author and friend, Elizabeth Blackmar (The Park and the People: A History of Central Park) as she reflected on Rosenzweig’s solution to the “desperate struggle:”

“What do you do when you don’t know what you are doing? You organize a reading group; you form a collective to produce a journal, you make sure that all of your friends know each other–whether in person or as legends. You give other people drafts of your work to read and read theirs and talk to them. Roy helped us all collectively to gain the confidence to do our creative work, and he helped many of us find jobs, housing, roommates, and life-long friends.” (Clio Wired, Kindle Edition, Loc. 123)

This is the sort of historian I want to be – the kind who intentionally and persistently seeks out academic and personal connections with other scholars. And there’s no reason I can’t be that sort of historian and educator. I think I often use the geographical distance that currently separates me from my peers as an excuse, but honestly, it’s usually just simple laziness that prevents collaboration and connection. I’m not sure how formal or informal those connections will look moving forward, but I want to make space for that lifeline – by sending emails, communicating on messaging and video apps, and meeting in person when possible.

Blog Post

Learning Style, Teaching Style

I’m preparing to rewrite the “Teaching Style and Practices” page on this website – partly because I think my perspective has shifted thanks to a bit more teaching experience and partly because that page needs a lighter tone (it’s deadly earnest at the moment). Ideally, the content will ultimately serve as a better reflection of my current teaching practices and the prose will be more immediately accessible to both potential employers (who will undoubtedly need to skim the page) and to students who are interested in gaining some insight into my philosophy and methods.

I found inspiration today in the Faculty Focus article, “Six Questions That Will Bring Your Teaching Philosophy Into Focus,” by Neil Haave. Rather than focusing on the history of education or education philosophies, Haave asks readers to think about six questions:

“1. Describe the best learning experience you have had as a student. (This helps to identify how we best learn and reminds us as instructors what it is like to be a student. Maryellen Weimer (2013) recently discussed this in the context of influencing the learning environment.)

2. Describe the best teaching experience you have had as an instructor. Are there any similarities to the learning experience you described above? (This question attempts to link our learning to our teaching.)

3. What are you trying to achieve in your students with your teaching? (This is a big question and may be best initially answered by thinking about it in the context of what you feel is the course you teach with the most success.)

4. Why is this important to you? (This helped me to begin articulating my approach to my discipline in the context of teaching. For others I know it becomes larger than the discipline itself and may link to the personal growth of students and not only their intellectual growth.)

5. How do you achieve your objectives you wrote down for question #3 above? That is, what teaching strategies or approaches do you use in your classes that produce the learning environment or opportunities for your students to reach your teaching objectives? (Hopefully, this has been informed by your answers in questions #1 & 2 above. If there is no apparent connection between this question and your answers to #1 & 2, then this might be cause to pause and reflect why this is.)

6. Why do you use these particular teaching strategies as opposed to others that are available to you? (This is where you start developing the argument or citing the evidence for the value or success of your approach to teaching. Hopefully, you are able to make links to your own learning philosophy.)”

Since my teaching style is still in formation, I’d like to use these questions to focus my own thoughts over the next few weeks – and, ideally, to start a conversation with others (or join one already running). I especially love the invitation to consider the ways my learning style influences my teaching. I think that opens up the opportunity to think about how that experience (and inevitable bias) either serves students well or blinds me to their learning preferences and needs. To that end, my next post will tackle the first two questions and then I’ll take the other four in turn, probably redirecting my attention towards other teaching/student concerns from time to time. If you’re already considering these questions, though, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Blog Post

Streamlining Classroom Technologies

I get a little over-exuberant about educational technologies – and can go a little overboard with the number of tech tools I use in the classroom. This semester, I started with three technologies: Socrative, a Facebook Group, and a class website where I’m hosting the syllabus, Google forms for assignment submission, and our class blog (currently private, per our class consensus). Those three technologies all have different advantages that I hoped to tap into:

Socrative is a free clicker app that lets me do real-time polls in class, collect attendance, and ask for feedback at the end of class. I used it last semester and I liked the platform – though it can be a little unpredictable. (The mobile app simply refuses to respond sometimes.) The responses are neatly compiled into a spreadsheet that I can either store for later or send to my Google Drive immediately. I can open and close polls – which means I can track which students are late based on who responds to the exit quiz at the end of class, but not the attendance quiz at the beginning. I can also switch up the room name, which reduces the possibility of students logging in remotely, thereby receiving credit for attendance without showing up in class. (For a variety of reasons, that happens from time to time.)

The Facebook Group is working well as a space to share links related to class and to post short announcements without flooding student inboxes. It also allows me to message students privately or as a group – and they’re wonderful at responding promptly. I’m hoping the FB Group will eventually grow into a space where students collaborate with one another and share links and articles they find as well.

The class website is the hub of all of our class information and is proving to be a super flexible online space. WordPress has a couple of limitations (most notably, there’s no way to create tables on pages or in posts) but there are workarounds (I upload screenshots if something must be presented in a table – like our blog post/comment rubric or the grade scale in the syllabus). Otherwise, it’s been easy to adapt the website to what I need it to accomplish – I started with pages for announcements, the syllabus, and a blog, and have since expanded the pages/categories to include a space for class slides, organizational resources, and the schedule for students’ blog posts.

My favorite feature by far, though, is the ability to embed Google Forms into pages and posts. This means I can ask students to submit discussion questions and other assignments directly through the class website. Their submissions are all compiled into a neat spreadsheet on Google Drive – just like Socrative.

Which brings me (finally) to the title of this blog post: I really need to streamline my classroom technologies.

Because, at the moment, I am using two technologies that are essentially accomplish the same things. Both Socrative and Google Forms can be used as polling mechanisms, I can take attendance through both (submissions through forms are time stamped), and asking for the exit quiz is a non-issue (I don’t read that until after class anyway). Plus both tools funnel collected information into spreadsheets on Google Drive. Socrative has a couple very slight advantages over Google Forms – it’s more aesthetically pleasing and updates more effectively for real-time responses – but Google Forms works more consistently. For me, that’s a decisive advantage and using Forms alone allows me to simplify the technologies used in the classroom.

So, for today’s class, I created a page for “Quizzes” on our class website and a post that contains Forms for today’s attendance quiz, a brainstorming/definition quiz, and the exit quiz. I’ve provided details regarding the path to access the Forms on my slides for each quiz (“Class Website -> Quizzes -> Quizzes for 2/4”) that I’m hoping will make the switch fairly seamless. Keep an eye out for future posts on the success or failure of this little experiment!

Blog Post

In Which My Students Create Their Own Rubric

Can I just brag about my students for a second?

I’ve assigned them a blogging project this semester for their long(er) writing assessment. Over the course of the semester, they’ll be asked to work in small groups to compose and submit three blog posts related to the class material. The posts can be about anything relevant to World Civ I – they can create comic strips, write satires, summarize research, give a reflection on what a part of the course means to them, or review films/tv series. In addition, I’ve made commenting on their peers’ posts a part of their overall grade for the project.

The problem with accepting such diverse material is that it’s beastly to grade. I felt completely stymied trying to come up with evaluation criteria when I wrote the assignment over the winter break.

So, during our first meeting on Wednesday, I gave them a rather unconventional assignment: as a class, compose your own rubric for the blog posts and comments plus decide how many points (or what letter grade) each post/comment will be worth. Mind you, this was the introductory class for a compulsory history module that most students are more than a little wary of – and usually professors set the evaluation standards, right? I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the exercise.

It was ridiculously easy and the responses were marvelous. The students, working in small groups, submitted their responses via Socrative. For the blog posts, criteria like “insightful,” “relevant,” “free of grammatical errors,” and “not too draggy” (meaning, as a student explained, engaging, entertaining, not dull) popped up on the screen immediately. Expectations for the comments included “respectful, not aggressive,” “focused,” and “constructive feedback.”

I highlighted the recurring words and ideas on the whiteboard, funneling them into a list of standards for an “A” blog post or comment. Within fifteen minutes, we had a working system of evaluation for the blogging project. The final results looks like this:

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In the future, I think there are ways to make this exercise even more student centered – maybe by having a couple of students lead the portion where we funnel common ideas into a final list or adding a Socrative exercise for voting on and finalizing criteria. But I’m pleased with the first round and excited to see how discussions, posts, and other class activities proceed with such an obviously thoughtful group of people.