Molly Robinson Kelly, Associate Director of the Lewis & Clark College Teaching Excellence Program
February 28, 2019
Any teaching development program at a college or university, like Lewis & Clark’s Teaching Excellence Program, aims to generate strong faculty participation. But faculty are busy people, especially mid-semester. Too often, when papers, tests, advising appointments, and administrative projects of all sorts start building up, our availability for “extras” like our own research or teaching development dwindles severely. Still and nevertheless, there are many faculty who regularly say yes to opportunities to grow in the art and craft of teaching in the company of others by attending TEP events – just as there are many who do not. In other words, when that email announcing an enticing new possibility for working on our teaching comes across our screens, some of us think, “Well, hello hot stuff!” and swipe right, and some of us mutter, “Ain’t gonna happen” and swipe left. (And let’s face it, some of us really want to swipe right but simply can’t, due to conflicting class or meeting times, or the urgent need to prepare for a class that begins 5 minutes after the event ends.)
Why is it that some of us find the prospect of talking about teaching with others so appealing, while others of us flatly resist it? I am convinced it has nothing to do with teaching ability or accomplishment. There are teachers of excellent reputation who attend every pedagogy lunch and workshop, and others, just as respected, who have never attended. To be sure, one can be a perfectly good teacher without participating in pedagogy workshops. And yet, for those of us who attend regularly and have experienced how invigorating, how helpful, and how comforting it can be to talk about teaching with other teachers, we wonder, why doesn’t everyone want to do this?
As I’ve pondered this question, I’ve developed a theory about how one’s vision of teaching might influence one’s views on pedagogical development. It seems to me that there are two basic ways in which one can view the role of teacher, especially the college-level teacher, who represents the highest levels of disciplinary knowledge and accomplishment.
On the one hand, one could consider that the teacher is responsible for passing the methods and content of a discipline on to students. From this perspective, the teacher is an “imparter” of knowledge s/he has spent years mastering at the highest levels possible (thus the term, “terminal degree”). “Imparter” teachers see their primary responsibility as being to the content and discipline they represent. They strive above all to ensure that their students understand the content and become as skilled as possible at putting it to use. Over the years, they develop and perfect their own unique approaches to imparting this material that, they believe, do not apply widely to other teachers in different disciplines.
On the other hand, one could consider that the teacher’s most essential role is to establish a certain kind of relationship with students. Once built, this relationship will provide an environment in which content learning can happen most effectively. “Relater” teachers consider their primary responsibility as being to the health and well being of the learning relationship. They strive above all to create an environment in which their students can do their best learning.
Of course, as with most dichotomies, few of us are pure imparter, or pure relater. Most of us fall somewhere in a blended middle, a little more this, or a little more that. “Relater” teachers feel responsible for imparting content, and “imparter” teachers know that having a positive relationship with their students is crucial to learning. Still, this dichotomy can be useful for understanding oneself as a teacher, and one’s vision of teaching development.
For I suspect that, when it comes to participating in pedagogical development opportunities, relaters might occupy more seats than imparters. The possible reasons for this are multiple, and complex. On the most basic level, relaters place a premium on relating, so the prospect of getting together with others to talk about teaching might appeal more to them than to imparters. Moreover, by nature, campus-wide events focused on pedagogical development need to apply across disciplines. As a result, they do not usually relate to the specific content towards which imparters naturally gravitate in their teaching. Instead, they cover topics deemed to be useful for teachers in all disciplines – topics like inclusive pedagogy, universal design, transparent assignments, etc. Perhaps, imparters perceive that teaching development will not be of much use to them, because for them, teaching is about sharing specific content. So they stay away, leaving the relaters to talk about teaching without them, thus making it more likely that teaching development programs at the college level come to emphasize relationships over content, simply because relaters are the main participants, and in this way drive the agenda. Yet in truth, pedagogical development opportunities offer much that is relevant for all of us, relaters and imparters alike, precisely because the real work of teaching asks us to work across the spectrum of imparting and relating. We would all benefit from having more teaching styles represented in the room when we talk teaching.
In conclusion, from this “mainly relater” to you “mainly imparters” out there: please join us! If you find yourself thinking that TEP doesn’t relate to the kind of teaching you do, think again, and give it a chance. Talking about teaching with others not only introduces us to new techniques and perspectives that re-invigorate our teaching, it reminds us how amazingly cool it is, this job we get to do. That’s something all of us need, especially veteran teachers.
Molly Robinson Kelly, Teaching Excellence Program, Lewis and Clark College
November 8, 2018
“Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?”
― Lawrence Durrell, Justine
Many wise proverbs, as well as wise people, place a high value on silence. One has only to do a quick online search for quotes on silence to realize that a majority of them extol silence as of great benefit to humanity. As scholars and intellectuals, many of us probably enjoy and even need the silent, meditative spaces that are so conducive to deep thought. Yet as teachers, silence – specifically, the silence of our students – can be discomfiting, even terrifying. Who has not stood in front of a classroom and asked a thought-provoking question we felt sure would generate vibrant discussion, only to encounter a silence as awkward as it is resolute? Who has not asked for a volunteer to solve a problem or share an answer, only to find themselves in front of a classroom of stubbornly downcast eyes? There are few things that can destroy a teacher’s confidence as quickly as their students’ silence, especially in the smaller classrooms of a liberal arts college, where lively discussions are thought to be the hallmark of a productive class.
Things get even more uncomfortable when a particular student’s silence takes on the quality of rock: hard, unchanging, immovable. In my own classrooms, as well as in classrooms I have observed, I have seen students enter and leave class without removing their backpacks or uttering a single word. I have seen them taking up a seat at the far edges of a classroom or as near to the door as they can manage. I have seen them sit for an entire class period, their eyes riveted on the floor or, occasionally, on their phones. I once saw a student pull her hoodie strings so tightly around her face that only her eyes showed. As her classmates engaged in stimulating discussion with the professor and each other, she sat, never looking up, repeatedly tying and untying the strings in a bow. These were classrooms in which a majority of students were having a satisfactory educational experience; in which only a student or two sat literally on the margins, disengaged and thoroughly non-participatory. Everything in the body language of such students says, don’t call on me, don’t speak to me. In many cases, we comply with their unspoken request. We focus, quite understandably, on the students who make us feel successful as teachers. Sometimes, it’s easier to let our most reticent students remain in the seats on the edge or in the back row, literally and figuratively outside our line of vision.
Yet, we don’t feel good about it. None of us want our students to feel excluded or marginalized, yet the reticent student’s behavior seems to indicate that this is exactly what they are feeling. We want our classrooms to be inclusive, yet sometimes, despite our best efforts, not everyone seems to feel included. What to do about this situation? I have no easy answers, but I have a few ideas that might be worth testing if you have a reticent student in your class.
Your reticent student may have prepared the material and have much to contribute, but may feel uncomfortable sharing their as-yet unformed thoughts and questions verbally in front of a group of strangers. (Especially if they suspect deep down that those strangers are smarter than them.) Instead of insisting that they talk, give all of your students – not just the reticent ones – a chance to show their engagement in a variety of ways. People learn and process information differently: through speaking, yes, but also through writing, drawing, questioning of others, and even simple, attentive listening. Silence is not always empty of meaning or thought. It probably wouldn’t hurt our teaching or our students’ learning for us to grow a little more comfortable with it.
Molly Robinson Kelly, Associate Director of the Lewis & Clark College Teaching Excellence Program
October 10, 2018
“The most fruitful and natural exercise of our mind, in my opinion, is discussion.
I find it sweeter than any other action of our life.”
Michel de Montaigne (trans. Donald Frame)
Readings have long been a mainstay of the college classroom. How could it be otherwise? Written texts represent our best means of communicating facts, ideas, and experiences over time and space. Reading is integral to learning. As faculty, we put considerable thought and effort into creating the reading list for our courses. To me, my reading list feels like the beating heart of my syllabus: the “oxygen” of my course flows from it, and when the fuel provided by one reading dwindles, we return to the reading list for new sustenance. If the reading list falls short somehow, my course will surely fall short as well.
Yet reading alone is not enough. College is at its best – especially a small liberal arts college – when students have the opportunity to engage in vibrant discussions, most often about what they are reading. It’s when we discuss a reading that the magic happens: the magic of full-on engagement, in collaboration with a group of peers, with the work, thoughts, imagination, and discoveries of another, often from lands and eras distant from our own. Through discussion, we grapple with the material. We poke and prod at it from the different perspectives and positions we each occupy; we help each other think of questions that hadn’t occurred to us; we make each other see things we never would have seen on our own. As Montaigne notes, good discussion forces us to reckon with diversity and discord in ways that “launch” our learning, and make things more enjoyable along the way: “Discussion teaches and exercises us at the same time. If I discuss with a strong mind and a stiff jouster, he presses on my flanks, prods me right and left; his ideas launch mine,” he writes, adding, “Unison is an altogether boring quality in discussion.”
As academics, most of us have experienced the alchemy that happens when we engage so fully with the person we encounter through reading, discussion and writing, that his or her ideas become part of our own mental landscape. As teachers of reading-based classes, we have the opportunity to give our students this same experience. But as anyone who has assigned a beloved reading fully anticipating a lively in-class discussion of it, only to encounter what I like to call “asymmetrical enthusiasm” and the stubborn silence that accompanies it, discussion doesn’t always go as planned. Sometimes we need tools that go beyond simple questions to get our students to engage with, process, and learn from the readings. The harder the reading, the more this is true. Following are some tools I’ve found that encourage active and participatory reading, discussion, and learning, whether or not your students love the text.
No-pressure quiz. Start class with some kind of quiz. It can be serious (verifying important details, ensuring the reading was done), or fun (top three moments, favorite terms, “boredom rating,” etc.)
Response paper. Have students write a non-graded, one-page paper in which they write about an aspect of the reading that they found compelling. If you have a big class, you can assign just a few students to do this for each class. As they share their papers, you note their main ideas on the board and refer back to them as discussion proceeds.
Bring a MIP (most intriguing passage). Have everyone come to class ready to share their MIP and explain why they chose it.
Spontaneous writing. At the beginning or at any point of the class, ask students to write for 5 minutes about any aspect of the text they’d like, then share their thoughts in small groups or with the entire class. Like the response paper, this gives the more introverted student the opportunity to prepare their thoughts before speaking.
Note key words. No matter the exercise, take note on the board of what students are saying as they speak. It doesn’t have to be in great detail: a few words suffice. This tool is multi-valent: it validates the student’s participation, makes them feel that what they are saying is worthy of note, helps you to structure further discussion, and allows you to return to their thoughts later and make proper attribution if you do so. Students have consistently said that they felt validated when I “took notes” of what they were saying on the board.
Designate class experts. At the beginning of a semester in which you know that your readings will touch on certain key topics, you can list these topics (e.g., gender, self-consciousness, positionality, race, art, history, environment, scale, etc.) and designate a group of students to be “class experts” on this topic. For every reading, these students have an explicit responsibility to be extra attentive to that topic, and to report back on it during class. (You can also devote some class time to giving these working groups a chance to meet and share ideas with each other.)
“Cover the reading” without tedium. Here are some techniques:
If I have time, I prepare discussion questions that I post on the projector. Almost always, I have pairs or small groups wrestle with them first and come up with an answer they agree on. Later, they share it with the group.
If I don’t have time, I ask them to generate discussion questions. You can assign to each group a particular part, theme, or character of the text. Ask them to find a question they’d like to discuss with the large group, and write it on the board.
Ask them to make a visual representation of the topic or reading on the board. Some topics and readings lend themselves well to concept maps, flow charts, diagrams, and even drawings. They can work alone or together; try different approaches on different days. This technique gets a lethargic class moving and embraces the possibility of different learning styles. I especially like to do this when they’ve just turned a paper in: I ask them to create a visual representation of their paper on the board and explain what it means to the class. I’ve been amazed by the creativity that emerges with this approach.
Whether or not I have time to prepare questions in advance, I always make sure I have an idea of 2-3 “essentials” I feel we MUST discuss from the reading. If the students bring them up, that’s great! I elaborate on it and they feel they’ve contributed. If the students don’t, then I make sure we get there somehow.
End class intentionally. We all know the feeling of trying to race through 20 minutes of material in the last 5 minutes of class. Whenever possible, give yourself room to end your class intentionally. Here are some possibilities for summing up:
Muddy point “flash paper”: Have them write for 5 minutes about something that is still “muddy” for them about what you covered that day. You can touch on these at the beginning of class next time.
“What stands out?” flash paper: Ask them to write about what stood out most for them in that class. You can use this to understand the “reception” of class material.
Look forward: Where appropriate, announce the topic for next week’s class and get the juices flowing by asking how they imagine this topic connecting with what they’ve already learned; or what they already know about this topic; or what their biases and expectations are.
Mini check-in: Every so often (I like to do it every 3 weeks), give them a half-sheet of paper with 3 questions: What’s going well for you in class? What is not going well? Anything I should know? Tell them they can write their name on the sheet or not; if they write their name, write a quick note on the back of the sheet responding to what they shared and hand it back next time. This will give you regular, low-pressure feedback on how they are doing both in and outside of class, and allow you to incorporate small correctives as you go.
For a printable handout summarizing the ideas contained in this post, see the L&C TEP Active Learning Toolkit.
Molly Robinson Kelly, Associate Director of the Lewis & Clark College Teaching Excellence Program
August 21, 2018
The time has come that we academics anticipate with a mixture of exhilaration and dread: back-to-teaching time. This is the time we hesitate to complain about to friends and family, knowing that they may not sympathize with our plight of having at last to return to work, following a three-month period of near-total freedom. We wistfully take our last camping trips, and watch meetings and orientation events appear on our Google calendars. The latecomers among us begin frantically perusing potential course readings with a mounting sense of what I call “syllabus panic.” Yes, alas: it is the time for us academics to start preparing our teaching for the fall. I know, some of you may have just thought indignantly, “I’ve been preparing my teaching since last spring!” or “I prepare all my syllabi and lesson plans before I start my summer vacation!” or “I’m good – all I have to do is change the dates on the syllabi I’ve been using since I got tenure in 2005. Thank goodness for the oldies but goodies!” If you are one of these people, good for you. If you are not – or if the third category I evoked made you feel a little sheepish, as it does me – read on.
Teaching is a complex and beautiful thing, a thing of mystery. To enter our classroom for the first time is to embark on an adventure that is messy and unpredictable. There is no way to know what our students’ needs, personalities, and level of preparation will be; no way to predict what events of the world will barge in to disturb our plans; no way to foresee the social dynamics (pre-existing or yet to be discovered) among our students. So many factors will enter into our teaching that we cannot control, and we will need to improvise and adapt our way through these uncontrollables. The random and chaotic elements of teaching cannot be avoided.
It is precisely because so much of teaching is by nature unpredictable that we must be ruthlessly vigilant with ourselves about the elements of teaching that we can predict and control. These are what I call “teaching fundamentals”: the things we can do, and should do, to give our students a solid and reliable framework from which to learn. They will need a stable foundation in order to feel safe enough to take the risks all good learning requires. When we systematically, faithfully tend to our teaching fundamentals, we allow them to relax, and focus their energy where it matters most: on learning the skills and content we want to share with them. The best teaching incorporates both stability and disruption, predictability and spontaneity. The teaching fundamentals I will describe below relate to the stability part of teaching. I see them as a sort of sturdy skeleton or frame upon which the rest of our course is built. If we implement them consistently and diligently, both we and our students will feel we are standing on something secure; but if we neglect them, our teaching will always feel at least a little wobbly.
Give yourself the gift of a finished syllabus. There are many ideas about what to include or not include in a syllabus: various blurbs, descriptions, rules, and warnings that you may find useful, or not. As far as these things go, do what seems right to you. As I see it, the main benefits of a syllabus, for both faculty and students, reside primarily in three things: the reading list, the grading schema, and the calendar. If you can begin the semester knowing what you will read, what work (reading, written, oral, etc.) the students will be expected to produce, how much this work will count, and exactly when you will do all these things, you are well on your way to a solid semester. A good syllabus gives both faculty and students a sense of direction and order. Yes, it’s a lot of work, especially for the first time. But believe me, it’s easier to edit a syllabus you’ve already written than to create one on the fly once the semester has started. (If you have time, read Steve Volk’s “The Dual Life of a Syllabus” for inspiration… but don’t let it be a form of productive procrastination that distracts you from finishing your syllabus!)
Make a lesson plan for every class. I know, it’s basic. The lesson plan can be as thorough or as loose as you like. Everyone needs something different in a lesson plan: make it your own. If you need ideas, take a look at Billie Harra’s “Lesson Planning for the University Classroom.” To me, a lesson plan should at least include the following: an idea for beginning the class, an idea for ending it, and a plan that makes students grapple with course concepts in a variety of ways. Go into class with a few things – I recommend no more than 3 or 4 – you absolutely want to get across in that class. They are your sine qua nons. Know these things. Write them down. Proclaim them to your students. Make sure they are connected to the homework they did for class. (There’s no faster way of signaling to your students that they don’t have to do their homework than never using it in class.) I also recommend changing types of activity every 15 minutes or so, and having several templates for lesson plans. Don’t always do the same thing every class. Variety is the spice of life, and teaching is no exception.
Make next time’s homework the first thing you do on your lesson plan. Go into class knowing EXACTLY what you will assign as homework for the next class. If you have 10 minutes until class and no lesson plan, and you have to walk into class clutching a sheet of paper with only the homework plan on it, so be it. Everything else can be improvised if need be. Do not say you will send them the homework later. Do not send them the homework at midnight the day before class. If you want them to do their homework, they have to know what it is, with plenty of lead time. Period.
Hand back graded work on time. This is without a doubt the hardest task for most people. Give yourself a schedule for grading, and follow it religiously. I like to put deadlines for the turning back of graded work into my calendar. Try not to let more than one week pass between when they hand it in and when you give it back. Maybe two weeks for big classes. The point is, give yourself a deadline. (And possibly a rubric, if it can help you go faster; see Jessica Greenfield’s “Rubrics: A Best Friend for Teachers & Students” for some ideas.) Not giving students timely feedback on their work undermines every learning goal you have for the class. Believe it.
Change your syllabus if you have to, not much. Teaching requires both structure and flexibility. We sometimes need to change things in our syllabus along the way. But know that it will frustrate your students every time. The most organized students will have made far-reaching plans according to your syllabus. I’ve had students who had made master calendars showing every assignment for every class of the semester, and who sighed deeply every time I moved a due date. Make changes if you must, and when you do, always proclaim and explain.
Be clear, with yourself and them. We are not here to be perfect. Your students can learn as much, if not more, from how you address your mistakes as from your brilliant, spot-on, teacher-of-the-year moments. In order for this to happen though, you will have to be clear about things, in a way that requires honesty and sometimes even courage. Be clear with yourself and with them. Make it your goal to ensure that everyone in your class knows what is happening and why. You most of all.
What it boils down to is this: when things get unpredictable and unclear in a class, or when students don’t know whether the work they are doing meets your expectations, they get stressed out. The fancy word for this stress is “cognitive load.” The greater the stress or cognitive load, the harder it is to learn. (For more ways to reduce cognitive load for your students, check out Jennifer Randall Crosby’s “Reducing Cognitive Load: Keep it Simple.”) Taking control over the controllable aspects of teaching – consistently and reliably making sure your students know what they need to do, when they need to do it, and how they are doing in the class – is surprisingly powerful, because it keeps your students’ energies focused on learning, instead of on trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. If you do nothing else, finish your syllabus, enter class with a basic lesson plan, assign and grade homework in a timely manner, minimize changes, and be as clear and transparent as you possibly can at all times. This will be a present to yourself that will support you in becoming your awesome self as a teacher.