Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Reflections After a Semester of Teaching (for the first time)

Yesterday, I finally pushed the big writing project of my semester off my plate. Admittedly, I did it with little aplomb or flourish (in fact, I may be legitimately concerned that it might have landed with something like a splat), I've still got 30 final exams to grade, ongoing work with the digital humanities project I work on, and a spring research trip looming. But it feels, at last, that this very busy and taxing semester actually might wrap up. My classes have ended, my final essays (and revisions) are graded, the graduate student event I've been coordinating all semester is poised to take flight on Wednesday, and this week I finally have some time in my schedule to do things which I've been putting off since the mid-term break.

As I near the point where I can legitimately say I'm not a first-time instructor anymore, I've been reflecting, like Erin about the end of this semester, my first semester of teaching. This winter, as I walked into my first-ever classroom as sole instructor of an intro English course, there were several things that I expected and had prepared for, but others that presented unique and unfamiliar challenges. As a result, there are some things that I'm pleased to say went very well, but others that I think I'm going to change going forward.

First, I should say that I am really privileged to have walked into my first-ever classroom with a lot of support behind me. In the first year of my PhD, I took a writing studies course on how to teach writing which helped me feel confident and knowledgeable about how to approach first-year composition. My department also put on a valuable proseminar on how to teach English literature. Finally, and most importantly, I was given a really excellent teaching mentor who was willing to answer basically any question I had, gave me copies of sample assignments, and helped me to assess my assignments and imput my grades. I really don't think it would have been possible to be a sole-instructor for the first time without this kind of support system, and I think anything I did right was because I had the benefit of these helps.

Anyway, without further ado, here are some of the decisions I made that I'm really happy about:

1) Assigning an obscure text: I put a book on my syllabus that I was not sure would go over well with my students, a late-nineteenth-century feminist utopia, Margaret Dunmore, or a Socialist Home, which is totally not mainstream, but I thought might be an interesting pairing with Dracula. My students found it fascinating, and took it up productively in ways I didn't expect. In the future, I hope I'll be less anxious about making decisions to feature texts on my syllabus that are obscure if I find them interesting and/or provoking, even if they are a little off the beaten path.

2) Sequencing Assignments: For every essay, I made my students do a short three or four sentence "Question and Answer" prospectus, which consisted of a question, revised from the essay prompts I provided, and an answer that would form the thesis of their papers. (Taken from John Bean's really excellent book Engaging Ideas). When I got them back, my first instinct was that it was a terrible mistake, because they were kind of awful. But I was then able to give detailed feedback, explaining to my class again collectively and to each student personally how to write a thesis statement. It made my papers infinitely better than they would have otherwise been. I did this with both of my papers, and for the last final research essay, I also assigned an annotated bibliography which helped make sure they properly assessed the sources for their final essays and understood them in advance of the final assignment.

3) Requiring Drafts, Allowing Revisions: I had a peer review class for each essay assignment in advance of the due date, and required at minimum a detailed outline and intro that my students had to bring to class and read to each other. This meant that students were forced to get thinking early about their assignments, and able to collectively bounce ideas off each other in the classroom space. I also allowed revisions for their papers, but only up to a week after their papers were handed back. Only six students over the course of the semester took up the opportunity to revise their papers, but reading them as though they were drafts, and seeing the potential for improvement, made a big difference in how much I enjoyed marking their assignments. It was also a great pleasure to see how much improvement the students who did take up my offer to revise their assignment were able to make in their writing. I had several students bump up their marks from high C's/low B's into the A-range, and it's great to see how much they learned to clarify/revise their thinking and writing.

Of course, there were also things I did that I did that I'm not terribly pleased with--hopefully these are rookie mistakes that I won't make again:

1) Overpreparing: I often prepared wayyyy too much material for an hour and twenty minute class: too much groupwork, too long of a lecture, too much knowledge crammed into my head/refreshed the night before. This often caused me to rush through my lectures and not take enough time for class discussion if I had too much to say. This was a big issue in the first half of the semester. Serendipitously, my daughter's/my frequent illnesses in the last half of the semester meant that I simply couldn't prepare nearly as much as I had been in the first half, and I cut down my prep from probably 6+ hours for each class to just 2, and was pretty shocked to see how much of an improvement preparing the right amount of material had on my actual classes. I also got a whole lot better at being okay with letting things go if I didn't get to them. Hopefully this is something I can carry forward to my next teaching experience.

2) Poor Organization of Classroom Time: This one is related to the above, but more specifically related to how much time I took in the space of the class to a) lecture, b) do group work, and c) undertake class discussion. I was not taking enough time for lecturing/class discussion, and giving too much time for group discussion. Fortunately, I did a stop-start-continue (an anonymous assessment from my students suggesting what we should stop, what we should start, and what should continue doing in the classroom space) with my students just a few weeks in, which let me know that I was giving too much time for group work. In response, I cut down group work drastically to between 3-6 minutes, depending on how many questions I was having them discuss.

3) Overassigning: In addition to the two essay assignments and annotated bibliography (and the sequenced assignments therein), I required my students to do 7 weekly reading responses over the course of the semester, which they were required to post on a private course blog. This one is tough because I really really liked the outcomes of this assignment: my students were always very well prepared for class, they had ideas that they were comfortable discussing in groups and as a whole class, and I'm pretty sure this largely followed from the assignment. I also used these blogs to prepare my lecture: I tailored my talks to the themes they picked up on, and was able to correct misreadings and redirect discussion to the things I thought they should note. But the fact is that there were just too many things to mark, even though it was low-stakes writing. I think in the future I'm going to have to cut this down to a maximum of 5, but of course I'm concerned that if I do this, the students themselves will be less prepared.

What are the things you do in the space of your classroom that you've found work well? What have you learned as you've become more experienced in the classroom space? Do you have any advice for for new instructors that you wished you'd learned before you stepped into the classroom space?

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Jana, and it sounds like your class turned out marvelously! I like to think that I had a hand in a couple of those policies ;), though you've given me some great ideas for my own syllabus planning, especially as I begin to think about teaching a REAL LITERATURE course next year. And of course, overpreparing is *completely* common and to be expected, and everyone (I hope) learns to fall into his/her own rhythms. It's funny that Imogen's illnesses and other life things fueled this realization.

    Couldn't you just raise the stakes of the reading responses? Especially if they make course planning easier....could cut down time in other ways. I think I'd lean toward a more-assignments-worth-more model rather than one or two major things. But that's just me.

    I don't know if I have any other specific suggestions right now--after all, I'm a fairly new teacher myself. I'll be keeping my eye out for any further comments!

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