I'm processing week 1 of Fall 2021 as I write this reflection post. Being back on campus in person is a surreal experience. You can feel the vibrations of energy spread across the campus as students masked faces and wide eyes pepper the landscape. Even in the graduate classes I attend as a student, we are more talkative than normal. I don't need a second cup of coffee until the afternoon these days. My anxiety about COVID-19 exposure is met with equal parts joy to see folks excited about learning. What does that say about 'traditional' college-aged students and face-to-face instruction? It's saying something. Online classes are a fantastic accessible option that should certainly continue in appropriate volume per interest moving forward (beyond the pandemic) and we should all improve our online pedagogies. However, there is something special about a community of learners in a shared physical space. I don't think we can look past that either.
What did I learn this week in theory?
I listened to two podcast episodes from Pedagogue: Episode 30 and a bonus episode with advice for first-time teachers. Nancy Sommers, who gave advice for first time teachers, has taught composition and directed composition programs for thirty years. Sommers now teaches writing and mentors new writing teachers at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Sommers initially began her comments focusing on building trust and building community on day 1 of class. In a rhet/comp class where we expect students to analyze texts, discuss their analysis, and peer critique work: trust is non-negotiable. How do we build community effectively? Sommers would remind us that we should remember our roots: we were called to the classroom and we are writers first. To be effective co-learners and learning facilitators, we have to consider our own values, be ourselves, and make the classroom our own.
Jody Shipka, Associate Professor of English, is teaching courses in the Communication and Technology Track. Her research and teaching interests include multimodal discourse, digital rhetorics, play theory, materiality, and food studies. In Pedagogue Episode 30, Shipka discusses the idea of co-learning and being a student in your own classroom. Shipka remarked that they enjoyed teaching the most when they could learn from students and that students showed them what was possible. I appreciated the posturing of teachers not as experts of EVERYTHING but as experts of facilitation and preparing good prompting questions. How do we allow students to show us what is possible? How can we better shift away from the role of all-knowing expert to a true comrade in learning?
What did I learn this week in practice?
This week, I split up my 23 students into smaller groups (in response to COVID-19) and instructed the first 12 to attend class on Monday and the latter 11 to attend Wednesday. I organized them by alphabetical last names.
On Monday, I facilitated an introduction with the first half of the class. Walking into the room a few minutes early, I set up the computer and projector. I logged into my email to download the PowerPoint I needed and opened the two websites I wanted to show them: Canvas and where to download the eBook. Then, I wrote my name on the board alongside the class number and description.
I also wrote our objectives for the day in numerical order:
Another reason to tell students what is going to occur in the class is because, with adult learners, our students should be told what they’re doing and why they’re doing it!
I opened the class session by playing music as students walked in the room. Promptly at 1:00pm, I greeted them and took roll. I quickly gave them a condensed course description. At this point, I introduced myself!
The next activity functioned as an ice breaker: they introduced themselves one at a time and we went around the room hearing each students short intro. After that, I wrote “Community” on the board in all caps. I explained that in rhet/comp, we think about what words mean, how words are defined, and how to use language and syntax effectively for a position or argument or persuasion, etc. I asked them to call out what they thought about when they heard the word “Community.” The students offered up, “A group of people,” “a city,” “unity,” and “fellowship.” Together, we looked at the various definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary online. Then, we discussed how, when you belong to a community, you abide by unspoken and spoken rules.
Transitioning into campus policies regarding COVID-19, we used the idea of belonging to a community where our decisions directly/indirectly impact others as a segue into discussing our university-wide policies regarding masks and self-reporting exposures.
We went through a PowerPoint developed by Amy Carey, an instructor in English and director of the Writing Center at USM, regarding COVID-19. At this time, I paused for any questions or concerns.
Considering communities and behaviors that are conducive to building community, I transitioned to our unique course policies (as outlined in the syllabus). These policies can be summarized as respecting one another, extending kindness in discussion, and setting up pathways to growth if incidents of offense occur.
Our last activity was walking through the syllabus on the projector section-by-section. After we navigated the syllabus, we reviewed what the next two weeks of class would look like. Before I ended class for the day, I paused for any questions. The only questions I received were about COVID-19 and in-person learning versus online.
Reflecting on Monday’s class, the 55-minute session was clear and well-paced. I left feeling like I had adequately prepared these students to understand the course and how to navigate it.
Looking back, I felt like this group of students were “well-behaved” and extremely reserved. I wish I could’ve engaged them more in discussion and seen them loosen up. All students were first year freshman and most likely had only experienced high school classrooms that did not encourage laid back attitudes or discussion-based learning. We don’t change attitudes overnight, however, I walked away from this session asking myself – “How can I engage students more actively and involve them in active participation on Day 1?”
I took this question about involving students immediately and encouraging participation into my Wednesday class with the remaining 11 students. I followed the same lesson plan as my Monday session but I did a few things differently. For one, I dressed less professionally according to the arbitrary interpretation of the word. Instead, I chose an outfit that was professional enough for the classroom but was more comfortable. As a result, I felt more like myself and I was more at ease - modeling that behavior to them. Secondly, I asked more questions and paused longer until someone answered these questions before continuing on. As a result, students were answering by the end of the class and a few stayed after to ask me general questions or just comment on the class. They seemed more relaxed in their posture during the class and they certainly participated more and asked more questions than Monday's class.
When we defined "Community" together, they had great words to compose our definition: "church, school, workplace, sports team, acceptance, judgment, friendship, group of people, shared goal." I found that by asking follow-up questions, and pausing longer, I was able to engage more participants than Monday's attempt.
Thinking about this week as a whole and my teaching practices: I am acknowledging the importance of asking follow-up questions, pausing for long stretches (even if it feels awkward), being okay with a little awkwardness in general, and being myself as a teacher because when I am at ease - students reflect that posture.
Phrase I want to highlight from this post: "teachers as co-learners"
Gloria Brown Wright (2011), author of Learner-Centered Teaching, makes the point that student's learning "should guide all decisions as to what is done and how." When the learner is centralized, the positions of student and teacher shift from their traditional placements, Maryellen Weimer (2002) states that the teacher changes from the "sage on the stage" to the "guide on the side." Teachers should shift away from thinking of teaching and learning as separate endeavors. As teachers model curiosity, learning that reflects creative and critical thinking, and learning as discovery, they illustrate learning as a lifelong practice.
Wright, G. B. (2011). Student-Centered Learning in Higher Education. International Journal of
Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 23(3), 92–97. Retrieved from
Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco,
CA: Jossey Bass.