Looking for What’s Wrong

I was listening to the Teach Better podcast this weekend (episode #20, if you’re curious), and there was a comment that I don’t think I agree with (for the record, there was a lot of good stuff on there, as well; this one comment just jumped out at me).  One of the hosts said that there’s not a difference between great teachers and bad teachers in that they both know something is wrong or isn’t working in their classes; the difference is what they do about that knowledge.

I don’t think that’s true.  The real difference is that bad teachers often don’t know something is wrong or isn’t working at all.  They continue doing what they’re doing without any kind of reflection or knowledge.

There are two ways this lack of recognition shows up.  First, there are the teachers who blame the students or the system.  If students don’t do well in their classes or don’t take them at all or give them low course evaluations, they blame someone outside of themselves.  They argue that students today just don’t care or that their courses are too demanding for students (which is why they avoid them) or other professors focus on fun (which is why students take them) or the course evaluations are unreliable.  What they don’t do is try to understand what might not be working in their classes.

Those teachers don’t worry me too much, as it’s usually quite evident to everyone that they’re not good teachers.  Students know enough to try to dodge their classes, and most of us don’t have to deal with their complaining on a regular basis.  We can focus on our classes and go on with life.

The second situation is much more problematic to me.  In this case, professors believe their classes are just fine.  Students do well on their exams and/or give them positive course evaluations.  They’re getting no negative feedback; in fact, they are often praised as being good teachers.  However, they never change their classes or try to improve their teaching, taking the approach of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

For example, I once worked with a professor was seen as a great lecturer.  Students raved about her classes, and she always got glowing evaluations.  I saw her lecture a few times, and I could not understand why students thought she was teaching them anything they couldn’t get out of a book.  They passively wrote down notes (a lot of them, which makes students think they are learning a great deal), then took exams where they gave that information back.  The professor never did any kind of evaluation to see if real learning was going on.  Why should she, given that everyone thought she was doing great work.

There’s one other idea that struck me after hearing that quote.  My first-year writing classes cause me the greatest amount of frustration.  I’ve taught over fifty sections of such writing classes, and I’ve tried a wide variety of approaches.  I’ve had semesters where I had the students read a large amount, and I’ve had students where they read nothing that wasn’t directly related to writing, and we only discussed writing in class (as opposed to some theme or literature).  I’ve tried to find topics they will enjoy writing on and topics that would truly make them think about their lives and their world (my current theme is identity, for example).

I’ve used large-group discussion and small-group discussion; I’ve tried group debates and individual presentations.  I’ve used blogs and traditional papers and journals and short papers and long papers.  I’ve talked about grammar every other meeting, and I’ve ignored grammar completely, assuming they would get it based on my feedback.  I’ve given detailed feedback and minimal responses.  I’ve done conferences (individual and group) with drafts and graded what they turned in, then allowed them to revise.  Almost every two years, I make major changes to this class.

From everything I can tell, none of it matters.  I see the same mistakes, and I don’t see any significant growth.  I could blame the class itself, as it’s almost impossible to see students make much improvement in their writing in fifteen weeks (roughly 40 hours of course work and a few papers), but that doesn’t sound right to me.  I just keep thinking that I can find something that will make a difference.  Maybe next fall.  Maybe never.



Thoughts on the First Day

I’m a fan of doing something beyond going over the syllabus on the first day of class.  In fact, I’ve pared my syllabus down to a front-and-back handout that I call the Top Ten Things You Need to Know About [Insert Class Name Here].  This has seemed to work well in the past, as I save paper and time, and I can focus on actually beginning to talk about the content of the class.

This semester, though, I’m not sure it worked as well as it has in the past, so I’m rethinking my approach.  One problem may simply be that I need to put different information on the shorter handout.  While I listed the goals for the class, I left off the textbook information, thinking students would simply go online to look at the full syllabus and get that information there.  Many of them do, but they’re often confused if I haven’t talked about the books in some detail, which I forget to do if it’s not on that sheet.

My first-year writing class, though, is more problematic.  The spring semester is different than the fall, as these students are ones who tested into the lower level writing classes and have worked their way up to this one.  They’re typically not as strong of students, in general, as those in the fall.  Even if they’re good writers, they struggle with time management, which prevents them from doing as well.

Also, our school has a reasonably high percentage of first-generation college students (around 35%), and those students struggle with how to manage being a college student, not out of any lacking on their part beyond a simple lack of knowledge of how college works (quick side example: I had a student ask if he requested transcripts through me this past week).

Thus, I’m beginning to wonder if I do need to spend more time going over basic course information, especially in the first-year writing class.  Those students might need more explanation of the basics of a college course, such as how to read the schedule.  They definitely need me to talk about the textbooks more than I have done in the past, so that change will happen, regardless of what I decide to do.  Perhaps I can still get by with a shorter syllabus, but I might need to spend more time talking about that syllabus.

Some people suggest talking about the syllabus, but doing that on the second or third day of class, especially at places where the enrollment shifts rather dramatically during the first week or two.  I’ve thought about that, as well, but I like to get moving on the material, and talking about the syllabus on the second or third day of class delays that.  Also, I’ve found that students are anxious if I don’t cover basic course material on the first day.

Perhaps what I need to do is simply shorten the amount of actual course material we talk about the first day, then spend the rest of the time talking about the syllabus and logistics of the course.  This is the first semester I’ve seen the problem this pronounced, so it might be an aberration.  Still, it’s something worth paying attention to.

New Ideas for a New Year

As I almost always do, I’m going to try a few new ideas this semester and see how they work.  They mainly center around hearing more student voices, especially in my literature classes, where students have still been able to hide.

First, in my U.S. Literature survey, I’m going to have students do a bit of the teaching.  I’ve been wanting to add this component to classes for some time, but I’ve struggled to do so because of the size of the classes.  I have 17 for the spring (as of now), so having each student teach would take way too much time.  Instead, I’m going to have them teach in groups of 2 or 3.  Given that they’ll be leading the class for 20-30 minutes, each student should still do a good deal of teaching.

I’m going to let the groups choose a story or poem to teach, and they’re going to be in charge of the class for that time period.  Since it’s not an education class, I’m not grading them on their pedagogy; instead, I’ll focus much more on their preparation.  I want to see what kind of research they’ve done, so they go beyond just reading the story and asking some questions.  I will have a number of education majors in the class, though, so it will also give them good experience.

In my core literature class, I’m going to do more small group discussions that lead into the larger group discussion.  I haven’t ever felt the need to do that in this class, as I always have classes that contribute.  However, as I’ve paid more attention, I realize that there are students who go the entire semester without contributing anything to the discussion.  I want to make sure that doesn’t happen this semester.  I want to hear every student’s voice, so I’m going to make sure that happens.

I’m not doing anything dramatic in my composition course.  I’ve rearranged the structure of the class to have one day per week focused on our theme (identity) and one day focused on writing itself instead of the combination of the two I tried last semester.  If I have the time and motivation, I’m thinking of making short videos focused on grammar and writing for them to watch, but I’m not sure if that will happen or not.  I don’t know that the students will use them, and they’ll be a bit of a time investment.  Of course, once I do them for the first time, they’ll be good for years, so I might see if I can at least do a few to see how they go.

I’ll comment on how some of these ideas are going throughout the year, I’m sure.  I’m looking forward to hearing what students have to say this semester.  They always surprise me with some great comments, so finding ways for them to talk more should only make that happen more often.