Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Repeat Grand Finale

One of my best friends is a corporate trainer, and a regular topic at our monthly lunch dates is teaching for different generations. We talk a lot about teaching the Millennial generation and how that generation gets dumped on quite a bit, and adjusting teaching for multiple generations in the same classroom. She's got some interesting views on this particular part of teaching, and I always come

away with a new book to read or a promise that she'll send me this article. It's a dimension of teaching not included in traditional teacher prep since most K-12 classrooms include students of the same(ish) age; this is not the case in higher ed or in corporate training classrooms. 


My classes this semester just happened to be dominated by recent high school graduates. Most have a semester of college now behind them, but a residual green-ness is still evident. Naturally, the different approaches I need to take now have been the focus of my prep time, especially since these same characteristics are typically those of students who don't do so well in or fail my classes.  

Two pieces got me thinking further about this. The first is a YouTube video sent to me by my co-worker the other day, Branford Marsalis' Take On Students Today, in which the speaker shares that his music students seem to be "only interested in how good they are, and how right they are." The most provocative part comes at about 0:43: 
"...the idea of what you are is more important than you actually being it..." 

Just hold onto that for a second.

The second is the buzz around Sec. Arne Duncan's speech on reauthorizing NCLB, (for background, read this EdCentral post), particularly the changes to the testing mandates that are said to set limits and streamline the process. 

Now, back to Marsalis. Marsalis was referring to the idea of being a musician instead of actually working to be a musician, but the same could be said for students in general. The idea of being a student is more important than actually working to be a student; the idea that you learned something is more important than actually learning it.  

And it seems that testing reinforces "the idea of" instead of the "actually being." 

A great comment on the Marsalis YouTube post says this: 
"...some of my teachers were great, but they let us know that we were just students in the process of learning." [Emphasis mine]
Assessments and tests imply that learning is finished. Try as we might to implement both formative and summative assessment or call it "progress monitoring," tests still trigger a sense of completion and stand for an end, a finished product in some manner. If we constantly test our students, we constantly tell our students that they are "finished" and the process of learning is cut short. The actual learning that occurred is less important than the idea that the student learned something. Taking a test is part of being a student, so it's more important to take the test and adhere to the idea of being a student than to actually be a student. 

Assessment itself is absolutely essential, and we need to keep working to find a balance. But I came to this when I started comparing the standardized, high-stakes, all-encompassing tests we ask K-12 students to do relatively often to the local, low-pressure, subject-specific assessments my co-worker uses in his AUTO classroom. Why do his assessments seem to work so much better? Because the instructor considers the action involved in producing the answers? Because students are held to get 100% before moving on? Because the instructors then use the results to inform teaching? Because they are local? All of the above! 

The nature of assessment in this classroom reflects progress, improvement, and opportunity. Students are well-aware that they are in the process of learning, not at the end; that the process requires certain actions and they won't be able to simply sit through the class and "get by"; and that the assessments are part of the process of learning, not the finale.

In my classroom in post-secondary, the students who struggle the most are recently graduated seniors students. They often struggle to find that new definition of what it means to be a student, to redefine what "good enough" now means or what "enough studying" now means, or to find the nuances that will guarantee them a good score. It takes a few weeks for most to figure out that the answers to the first two are outside their comfort zone, and that I'm looking for more than just regurgitation of my own brilliance. They can't just sit through the test and call themselves students. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Finding Balance in Re-Ignition

So, here's what happens when a faculty member is assigned to teach four writing-intensive courses that she has never taught before: burnout for the teacher, and for the blog.

I tried several new instructional approaches this past semester and I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so some of the burnout was self-induced. I taught a regular section of English, as well as one that was a trial run of a more supportive version. I taught rhetoric in the context of a business plan during an evening class of students in their last year of the bachelor's program. And I taught a class that would be defined by most teachers as "dream students": smart, talented, motivated, funny, organized, and worked well together. This was almost the perfect storm of a semester for experimentation. 

The final weeks of last semester felt like the cool-down to the perfect trail run. The intellectual demands of these classes exhausted me and my students, and it was good. It was a semester in which I had found the sweet spot--challenging material held to high standards taught and learned in such a way that my students were pushed outside their comfort zones and found growth. An effective classroom is one in which both sides--teacher and student--walk together. This semester, my students kept pace and gave me a workout. 

But it also opens up a discussion about how much I needed to give up in order for this to happen. Teachers like me know that the allotted prep time is almost always never enough, and teachers unlike me know that the allotted prep time is almost always too much. So, like so many other teachers, I brought my work home every night and every weekend, and had to pause most of the outlets that keep me from becoming a zombie. 

I brought my laptop with to the toy room during playtime with my boys. I graded and prepped during movie night with my husband. I put my workout regimen completely on hold. I owe my poor German shepherd a countless number of walks. I squeaked dinner out with fast food and convenience meals. I didn't go to a single Civil War Roundtable lecture. I'm currently halfway through the October book club pick. I spent almost my entire 2-week Christmas break grading final papers. And, oh yeah...I didn't post a new blog entry for three months.

Even though this past semester was a "perfect storm," it should exist each semester in some capacity. Does this mean that successful teaching and learning happen at the expense of the instructor? 

Professional-personal life balance is a conscious choice, and we would do well to recognize where the tipping point is for teachers. Teachers have a terrible habit of forgetting to keep the two separate, and it's all the more difficult since there are humans involved on both sides. After all, developing relationships with students is part of what makes a classroom tick. Defining that relationship becomes especially hard when very personal notes impact academic performance. We've all had students who become "my kids" or for whom teaching the hidden curriculum and guiding to success moves toward a mentor/coach level. 

What's more, teachers are terribly unselfish. Making choices in terms of professional-personal life balance means deciding priorities, which also means somebody loses. It's hard to admit to the 15 pairs of eyes waiting for rough draft feedback that I still haven't finished reading them all because I chose to read the boys a second bedtime story instead. It's more comforting to feel extra prepared for tomorrow and deal with an hour or so less sleep than to scramble for an idea during the morning commute. It's much more satisfying to check some grading off the list than get through the next chapter or two in the latest book club pick. 

This might be a tough topic because the actual art of teaching is still pretty misunderstood by those outside the classroom. Even school administrators and staff who were once teachers slip into the false idea that if a teacher isn't in front of a classroom, she isn't working. The issue of professional-personal life balance isn't by any means unique to education, but the way that it's defined is. And we can't begin to form that definition until we can redefine teaching according to the demands placed on today's teachers and instructors. 

My issue with the well-known demonstration of Stephen Covey's "make the big thing the big thing" concept is that it implies we need to fit everything in. Teachers would benefit from finding ways to make everything fit together. There is no escaping that time is scarce or that schedules will become less hectic, so fitting pieces of the professional-personal life puzzle together allows for that balance in the current context. My last semester was invigorating and refreshing, and I'm determined to balance it with the outlets that keep me from burning out. 
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