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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

On trying NOT to be the worst teacher in the world

So I emailed the course director to see whether I could meet with him and discuss my class, and I mentioned the problems I've been encountering (minus, obviously, my belief that the subject matter and materials kinda suck), and he wrote back with a few moderately helpful suggestions, probably the best of which is just to do a shitload of different things each class period: reading quiz, discussion, in-class writing, group work, etc.

That makes sense, and after coming up with about five related but very different activities I'm feeling much more positive about how things will go tomorrow. I've also been assessing my expectations for the course and from my students and realizing that I may simply not have properly anticipated what these students can do and can't do, or thought through the ways in which my pedagogy needs to adapt. For instance, I hadn't really seen much point in giving them reading quizzes when the reading load is so light (and it's pretty evident who's done the reading), but I think it's true that my students aren't always reading very carefully. Short quizzes will a) allow me to find that out, b) put them on notice that they need to be reading closely, and c) provide a starting point for discussion.

I was also a little surprised when I looked over the introductory paragraphs I'd asked them to write, in groups, for an imaginary 4-page paper that would compare and contrast two essays we'd read (and for which I'd given each group an argument, although not a precise thesis). My plan was to type these up and have a discussion on Weds about the strengths and weaknesses of each that would allow us to talk about what an introduction should do, and how to construct one. However, these introductions are a total mess. One of the four approximates an introduction with a thesis; the others are odd, semi-summaries that just kind of begin and kind of end.

Obviously, starting out by looking at these things would be a disaster, there's just so little to work with. So I've decided to do two things. First, stealing an idea from an instructor at INRU, I'm going to take an effective introduction from a published essay, cut up the sentences and put them in an envelope, and have my groups attempt to reconstruct the original paragraph. Then we can talk about the logic behind their decisions, and the ways in which good writing flows quite clearly in a single direction, each idea growing out of the next one. I'll also give them a couple more introductions to look at and talk about. Then I'll have them look at the introductions they wrote, diagnose strengths and weaknesses, and return to their groups to re-write.

Perhaps another thing I'm not doing enough of is encouraging my students to apply the readings to their own experiences. I generally shy away from that, encouraging just enough to get discussion going or to show the relevance of something we're reading to their own lives--partly because that's my personality and partly because that's my pedagogy. A great personal story can be very instructive, but I don't want class to become a big encounter-group session and I don't want to shift too much attention away from the argumentative and rhetorical strategies that I feel are really the point of the class. But at BUU, the point seems to be, in part, to get them to start thinking about the subject of the readings in newer and deeper ways and to really challenge their assumptions on a personal level. I tend to assume that that happens along the way, as they're learning to write their own arguments. . . but maybe starting with the personal assumptions can also be a good way of getting at argumentation.

We'll see. Hopefully this will become a feel-good learning moment for LL--a nice job-market anecdote to answer the "tell us about a time that you failed in the classroom and how you recovered" question. If not, well--I'll be hating life for the next three months.

UPDATED 9/14 at 9.30 p.m.
Well, it went okay. The class period passed reasonably quickly, the participation level was noticeably (although by no means dramatically) higher, and I think we got some useful stuff done. However, I still feel frustrated by the collective atmosphere of apathy that seems to threaten to overwhelm even my most engaged students from time to time--one minute they're alert and participatory, and the next, BOOM! They're staring off into space as if just unspeakably bored. I guess that the best I can do is keep busy, continue to project a brisk and upbeat manner (no matter how much I want to slap certain students upside the head), and continue to design activities that I believe are teaching them vital skills. And they can come along for the ride, or not.

link | posted by La Lecturess at 8:46 PM |


Blogger What Now? commented at 9:25 AM~  

Oh, I love the idea of cutting up the sentences in a good paragraph; I'm totally going to steal that for my file of comp ideas.

Here's another thought, based on an exercise that one of my colleagues used last week (and our freshman writing class also starts with a personal essay). They started by talking about what makes a bad essay, and then she divided them into groups and asked them to write collectively a deliberately *bad* essay, making all of the mistakes that they had discussed. And then they read them aloud and discussed them, and apparently it was just hilarious and good fun for all. And then they started working on correcting the mistakes they'd deliberately made in the bad essay (which of course were mistakes that all of them accidentally made on a regular basis). But somehow everyone was more open to talking about mistakes since they had meant to make those particular mistakes and thus weren't feeling defensive about them.

And I quite agree with the suggestion of having a lot of different activities in a class period; I do that even with my upper-level students in 75-minute classes. I used to get bored out of my mind in some 75-minute classes, so it seems reasonable to me that my students might also, so I try to mix things up a little during the class period.

Blogger shrinkykitten commented at 8:46 PM~  

In order to get my 8am class to be more chatty, I often have them do small group discussions at the beginning of class, and then we discuss as a larger group. It helps them have more to discuss to talk first in a smaller group.

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