Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Show your work: modelling scholarship in teaching

This week, no one did the readings, and we had a great class anyways.

How can it be week 11 of the semester already? The students in my graduate seminar on Writing the Self Online have already done two or three response papers, produced an autobiographical writing project online, cultivated an audience, and written a short analytical essay about their experiences, and, last week, submitted proposals and bibliographies for their final projects. I collected those last into a pile very early Friday morning as I handed back their projects.

This is a little bit a story about how it soon became pretty obvious that no one had done much more than skim the readings, hoping that others would have done so more carefully and they could float through. They're really busy with the flurry of end-of-term assignments coming hard and fast now, both the ones they are producing and the ones they are grading. It's dark, they're tired, I get it. It's easy to write about this. But this is mostly a story about how I wasn't really as prepared as I wanted to be to teach: it's dark, I'm tired, I've been hauling ass for several weeks assessing SSHRC apps, graduate course proposals, extra office hours, travel, grading assignments.

What we did was this: broke into groups of four, each group assigned one of the three scholarly articles, and produced reading notes and lesson plans. Each group spent 25 minutes cobbling together their best notes on the article. Then the timer went off and they shifted to 15 minutes of producing a credible lesson plan so that they could teach their article to the other groups.

To begin, I put up on the white board my own process--how I take notes on materials I intend to teach, and how I build a lesson plan from there. I told them to snap a pic of the boards, that this was information they could apply to any teaching situation. We went meta: the class became as much about time management and note taking and lesson planning and teaching as it was about Twitter and collective life writing.

It went so well, I had to increase the time.

Each group took a turn to teach their material, instead of simply presenting it. Everyone else took notes. We debriefed afterward about what parts of which teaching were most effective. Students looked way more awake, way more engaged, and way more confident that they knew the material.

In one of the presentations, a student asked all of us to take a moment to craft a Six Word Memoir (hat tip to Laurie McNeill's book chapter on Life Bytes!). I took a risk and wrote this for mine:

"Grading done, lesson not done--crowd source!"

I was so impressed with how the class had pulled a really creditable session together that I felt I had to fess up: I was overwhelmed and under prepared too, and I knew it had nothing to do with motivation or interest. That I was in exactly the same boat as they were, but we could do something great anyways.

I'm trying to do more of this, more of the explicit modelling of scholarship and teaching by making visible the cracks and fissures in my work as much as I share tips and tricks to make it all manageable. There's clearly something valuable in me teaching my students to read efficiently and make useful lesson plans. Of course. But there's something just as valuable perhaps in showing that the reason I need these tricks and tips is because I run out of time too. Out of patience, out of breath, out of energy, out of ideas, but can find a way to keep going that's based in compassion for myself and compassion for others, to keep the the whole apparatus on track.

It's possible that I could have lectured for three hours--I did know the material, even if I hadn't pulled together a real lesson plan. I could have wagged my finger and chastised them for not doing their part of the work. Probably class would have been pretty dead: me asking pointed leading questions about the readings and then glaring at them as they struggled to find answers. This would have been an impressive display of my moral rectitude, greater knowledge base, and authority. But it would have been awful and no one would have learned anything.

It's a lot easier to say; "Ugh, my students didn't do any of the readings barely! Kids these days!" But it's a lot more productive to say: "You know what? I feel like I ran out of time this week, too. It's a hard, and busy time of the semester. What can we do in our three hours together to get back on track?"

All semester, my students have been impressing me with their smarts, their diligence, there creativity. I told them so and I will keep telling them so, even when they didn't do the readings this one time. Because I know, because we're all in this together, and maybe we can learn something new now, about how to ask for help, how to work together, how to make something great simply by admitting we're not ready to do it alone.

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