Tag Archives: teaching

Gather Around the Coffee Mug

The significance of building relationships is often overlooked in education. As a teacher, it is easy to fall into that boss/employee relationship with your students. As a professor, it is easy to get the feeling that you are on your own, with little support outside of the occasional observation from a superior.


Fortunately there is an easy solution to both of these problems:

Coffee.

Cup of Coffee
You can almost smell it. (c) giphy.com

When I first started teaching I had a difficult time managing the classroom. Despite their classroom antics, I found they still would always say hello or try to strike up a conversation when I was on my lunch break having a cup of coffee.

Eventually this evolved into a post-class ritual: I would leave the class, go the to the lunch area, and have coffee. Those students who did not have a class to go to would join me. We would chat about things, sometimes English related, sometimes movies, and sometimes just idle banter.

As the semester moved on, my insecurities within the classroom started to diminish. I was more comfortable with the class, and they realized I was just as human as everyone else.

Fast-forward a few years and I found myself in a similar situation in the Adjunct Faculty Office. There was always a silence there, the room serving as a cross street as we sped to our various destinations. On the rare occasion a question or idea would come up, but it was far from a daily occurrence.

Busy intersection
Off to class I go. (c) giphy.com


The solution was to make things more personal, have a chat, offer that cup of coffee. It wasn’t long before I started having lunch and coffee with a few of my fellow adjuncts. At those short meetings I was able to discuss assignments, classroom management, teaching techniques, and various other topics that made me a better instructor and a better person. One person in particular, Gary, even encouraged me to pursue publishing my short stories after the topic came up during one of our lunch breaks. That one conversation had a major impact on my life.

So the final message I leave is this: Students are people. Teachers are people. We all have similar fears, desires, struggles, and pursuits. Discovering that bond in a structured environment can be difficult, but put a lunch or nice hot cup of coffee in the mix, and friendship is just around the corner.

 

Making an Entrance

In my heart of hearts, I genuinely want those around me to succeed, and I take pleasure in watching them do well as they develop. I’d rather help people work out their problems than tell them what they need to do. I don’t consider any of those things character faults, but very early in my teaching experience I learned that certain actions can be confused with weakness. Weakness in the classroom leads to problems that are not easy to correct.

To say I was nervous on my first day in the classroom would be an understatement. I made the mistake of not wearing an undershirt, and my  light blue dress shirt was a drenched dark mess by the end of the 45-minute period. I imagine I seemed as ridiculous as Sir James Martin from Love & Friendship:

That lack of self-confidence and abundance of nerves  lead to problems throughout the rest of the semester. I found out very quickly that if a classroom doesn’t respect you as a person, they also will not respect your lectures, your grading, or your discipline.

That was a difficult semester, but as time went on I gained confidence and my nerves subsided. This lead to better relationships with my students and more success in the classroom. Year to year things improved incrementally. Eventually though, something happened.

Image of Luke from Star Wars about Overconfidence.
Ah George Lucas, your horrible dialogue rings true.

With my nerves fully at bay, my inner-nice guy came out again. With it, the entire catalog of issues I had in my early years started to manifest themselves again. Why?  Because while my students may have liked me, they did not respect me.

So here we are at the heart of the lesson folks: Respect is key. Respect should always be in the back of your mind when standing behind that desk. Whether it was nerves or being “Mr. Nice Guy”, I lost the respect of my students, and with it, full control of my classroom.

It wasn’t easy, and I still make mistakes, but I have learned to balance my kind demeanor with the responsibilities of being an educator. I found that I can still joke, have fun, and be myself, as long as students know I am serious about my job.

The most effective method I have found to encourage a healthy classroom dynamic is to start off strong. I like to make my first week of class filled to the brim with activity. I like to give students things to do, show them the gamut of what is to come: a journal, a discussion, a short essay, a quiz, and a reading. I do it all, because it lets students know that the primary goal of my course is for them to learn. If we end up having fun in the process, that is a bonus.

The classroom is a world with its own environment, dynamics, and life. It has the power to evolve and overtake you if you let it. Start off strong, confident, and focused, and that classroom will turn into an environment that encourages both learning and respect.

 

 

 

Humility + Assessment = Success

I have always been fascinated by assessment, unfortunately I know not everyone shares my feelings on the subject. I have had colleagues who consider it a dirty word. They dread the thought of it, and treat it as just another hoop to jump through when the time comes to participate.

A pre-test here.

A post-test there.

A journal reflection.

Or the ultimate avoidance, just saying a regular class assignment is, in fact, assessment.

Unfortunately, those who avoid confronting the challenges of assessments are not helping with the end goal, to improve student education through meaningful analysis and feedback.

The reason that some fear to participate in a group assessment and decide to take a solo route is that assessments are looked at as inconvenient or difficult; however, these approaches often overshadow efficient strategies for approaching this dilemma, strategies that which rely on one, simple trait: humility.

I love my standardized rubric for essays. It isn’t perfect, but it is consistent, and students appreciate that. The rubric is based off of one that is required to be used in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. That system consists of 16 colleges and every writing instructor uses the same rubric for their essays. I was lucky enough to see that rubric be initially implemented as well as its evolution over the last decade into its current form.

Now there was significant pushback when the rubric was first forced upon the faculty. Arguments ranged from “but I don’t grade essays with a rubric” to “my rubric is already better than this one”, but top to bottom it was adopted.

It is difficult to adjust teaching habits, but understand that a standardized rubric doesn’t change the way we teach, it simply unifies the way we grade. In that way, a standard rubric is even less intrusive than requiring a specific assignment for assessment.

So what is gained from using the same rubric for every essay?

Starting on the class level, it is easy to get a snapshot of student’s skills improving (or not improving) over a semester. It also allows the teacher to see if the class as a whole is struggling in a specific area (I’m looking at you point of view slips). This lets allows class needs to be addressed on a holistic level through lectures. I do this with my youtube series “English Power Lectures”, but setting aside 15 minutes when essays are handed back to address major problems does the trick as well.

When multiple faculty start to use the same rubric the assessment becomes that much more valuable. Now trends can be seen over a much larger group of students, it is also possible to see where one class struggles and another doesn’t. With this knowledge, teachers can share techniques for dealing with that particular issue. This is the beauty (and truly the purpose) of assessment. It serves as a common tool and focal point that can start an analysis, conversation, and implementation of course wide improvements.

Now implementing something district or even school wide is difficult, so start small. Talk to a group of fellow faculty (or adjunct faculty) and do your best to develop a rubric that works for multiple assignments or essays. Use that rubric in a course and compare notes. It won’t be perfect, but assessment can always be improved upon. It may be difficult to unify your grading techniques with others, but remember that teaching isn’t meant to be a solo endeavor. Instructors are stronger as a community, and students will benefit from that community. All it takes is a little bit of humility.

 

Evaluation Plan for Faculty Can Be Fun. Really.

© Laura Strickland/MyCuteGraphics.com

So I’m a member of the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) committee again this year. As a member of this committee, I have agreed to be a mentor for a probational faculty member that needs to comply with the RFP requirements. When I heard about these new requirements for probationary faculty, my first thought was, thank goodness I’m not probationary. I don’t want to have any part of that. Well, it turns out no one can really escape PAR. Even us old residential faculty, as all the newbies are required to have mentors. And with so many new faculty, pretty much everyone who is not new is a mentor.

The Maricopa Community College District implemented this new peer assistance and review model (PAR) for probationary faculty about 4 years ago. Faculty are considered probationary for 5 years. Under this new model, probationary faculty are assigned a residential faculty mentor to help guide them through the process to becoming residential (tenured). As part of the PAR, probationary faculty have the opportunity to document their professional growth, mentor evaluation, administrative evaluations, and student evaluations in a Google Sites template.

I actually ended up with two pretty awesome mentees. Both are excellent teachers and fun to work with. The best part is they make being a mentor fairly easy. I’m going to share my recent evaluation of one although evaluation isn’t quite the right word. It was more of an observation with feedback. Evaluation indicates the making of a judgment about the value of something; assessment. I’d like to believe all teaching has value, and it’s really not up to me to judge someone’s value or their teaching. I like to observe and then give feedback. Lucky for me what I’ve observed has always been inspiring.

Recently I sat in on an after class review session and the room was full. My first observation was how does that happen. Students stick around for a study session after class? The whole class was engaged. They were divided into groups of 2-4 and it appeared that they each had an assigned topic to cover. As the instructor called on each group, students were prepared with their information. Some reading from notes or slides; others reciting information from memory. My mentee was encouraging and peppered the whole class and group members with questions. Students volunteered answered. Whether they were correct or incorrect, they each received the same kind feedback that the answer was correct or incorrect. It didn’t seem punitive if the answer was not correct. Someone else was just called on to provide a different answer. The whole session was positive and encouraging. I was inspired, and I wasn’t even a student in the class.

It’s really good to see good teaching, but the best part is there is no one way about it. Every instructor brings her own touch to the classroom, and we can all learn by observing how others get the job done. Turns out that this whole PAR thing might not be such a bad thing after all.

Video Investigations as Assessment

Photo by Cheryl Colan

Sian (left) and Merry (right) at SCC Tech Talks 2017

On January 27, I attended TechTalks at SCC and watched Geology faculty Sian Proctor and Merry Wilson present their talk Video Investigations: Students Presenting Their Understanding of Our World. From their abstract (scroll down the linked page a bit to read it in full):
Video investigations are a unique way of having students demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of complex topics and establish accountability in an online learning environment.
I love this idea for assessment in an online class. Merry assigns 4 video investigations per semester, while Sian assigns them weekly. Their students:
  • receive specific guidelines for each assigned video investigation
  • see an example video made by the instructor
  • get a link to the free Screencast-O-Matic.com
  • do not need to be given instructions on how to make a screencast – they figure it out on their own
  • create 1- to 5-minute videos to show knowledge, demonstrate mastery or reflect on course topics
  • embed their videos into Canvas Discussions to share with the rest of their class

Photo of presentation slide on the Design of Video Investigations

Sian and Merry had some goals in mind when they designed the video investigation assignment. One goal was having a way to be sure the students were actually the ones submitting the work in an online environment. A video submission goes beyond plagiarism detection via Turnitin, because you are hearing the student’s own voice, and possibly even seeing the student via webcam. Another goal was to cut down on grading time. You can grade a 5-minute video in 5 to 10 minutes, depending on how much feedback you write per student. Other goals included increasing student engagement and learning retention. Being top-notch scientists, Sian and Merry gathered data about their students before and after introducing video investigations into the courses they teach. If my memory is accurate, they found students tend to report they enjoyed the topics where video investigations were assigned more than the topics that did not involve a video investigation. Students also felt more of a sense of community, because they saw and heard each others’ faces and voices as they shared their videos. The process of creating video also built up the students’ information literacy skills over the course of the semester.

Photo of presentation slide on Engagement and Literacy

I’ve used video in the classroom as a student and as an adjunct, and I can confirm that having students produce short videos is an excellent learning and engagement tool. If you would like to learn more, reach out to Sian and Merry, or contact me in the Center for Teaching, Learning and Engagement for more information.

The Strength of the Base of the Pillar

As adjunct faculty, our power inside and outside the classroom is like night and day. We are not full-time; our job is always at the whim of funding or enrollment. We don’t advise students or get the chance to participate in most staff meetings. How can someone with so little power have a positive impact on the workplace when they are, by most respects, the lowest member on the totem pole?

The answer is to use the position to your advantage. As an adjunct there is very little danger involved in sharing your ideas or asking questions. You have the advantage of avoiding workplace dynamics, the so-called “water cooler talks” or “he said she said”. As the lowest member on the totem pole, you have the advantage of being part of the team while also being outside of it. It is tough to make enemies as part time staff, so be brave. If you have an idea, go ahead and start talking it over with other adjuncts to see how it is received. If it goes well, suggest it to your advisor or department head. Making suggestions and taking an active part in trying to help those around you will help you shake any feelings of self-doubt you might have. Not all of your ideas might be used right away, but by sharing them, you are showing everyone that you do have ideas, and you do want to help. The other thing you can do is ask questions. You will find that most educators are more than willing to help you in your hour of need. Helping, after all, is part of what defines us as educators. Asking other adjuncts about their ideas or solutions is encouraging to them. When someone comes to you and asks for your help it shows that they have faith in you, that they trust your opinion. Trust and kindness often go hand in hand.

So don’t be afraid to share ideas and ask meaningful questions. By doing these two things a dialogue and community is created. Support others when you see them trying to reach out, and seek out support when you need to. By moving past your fear and realizing the impact you can have, even as an adjunct, you will encourage kindness and understanding in the workplace.

 

Finding Inspiration from Isolation

This year marks the three-year anniversary of my teaching solely online as an Adjunct Faculty at GCC. At first glance teaching from the comforts of home might seem like a win-win situation, but I can assure you there are many setbacks, each of which deserving its own article. The most obvious and problematic setback is that of isolation. I don’t get to see my students face-to-face unless it is via a rare Skype conference. I don’t get to have my treasured lunch outings with Gary or Andy. I don’t even get to participate in Assessment Day or Adjunct Appreciation. I am, by most respects, a ghost in a machine that sometimes sends out e-mails and makes videos to remind the world I exist.

So where do I find inspiration in such a situation? Fortunately, even behind a keyboard and monitor, there are those who have managed to help keep me improving my courses and teaching, and grading all those essays.

Although not a part of GCC, my wife’s support is essential to my improvement. She is a workaholic, a zealot for her career and passions, and a stickler for punctuality. Her work ethic and drive have, over the course of our fifteen years together, rubbed off. I do my best to seize what opportunities come my way now, one example being that I volunteer as an emergency substitute teacher at my community’s local school. When my schedule permits, I get to work with and teach children ranging from kindergarten all the way to High School seniors; it is a blessing, and something I would not have pursued if not for my wife’s example.

Despite being a solid twenty-hour drive away from campus, I still treasure my conversations with the faculty at GCC. This includes both full-time faculty and fellow adjuncts like myself. Alisa Cooper has been my bedrock ever since I left the desert valley. Her drive and curiosity about new and exciting technologies has prompted me to reform how I approach online learning, all for the better. During her time as my direct supervisor she pointed me in the direction of opportunities and helped me correct and learn from my mistakes. Thanks to her I am now a video fiend. I’ve started my own youtube series of power lectures, and made myself less of a digital phantom to my students by posting videos and voice overs regularly. This continued with Beth Eyres who took over for Alisa after “Dr. Coop” (#cooperize) moved to the CTLE. Beth has helped me feel like I am still connected to the English faculty and community at GCC. She often informs me about events that I can take part in from a distance, like this blog. Most importantly she has made me feel like a contributor. I have worked as adjunct for four colleges in my ten years as an educator and she was one of the first supervisors to make me feel like my opinion mattered. Helping to create and develop the online English 101 shell has been one of the best experiences of my career, and I have Beth and her faith in me to thank for that.

Inspiration, even in isolation, is not hard to find when you stay in contact with the right people. My family at home and my family at GCC continue to be the right people to help me improve and better myself every day.

 

Professional Development and Reflection

     I have always been a reflective learner and thinker.  When I began teaching, I had a long drive to and from work, and I used that 45 minutes to think on the day and its lessons--my lessons--and how students had learned or become engaged.  So when reflecting became a mandatory part of our teacher portfolio each year, I thought No problem.  This is amazing.  And did I ever reflect.  I liked knowing that the person who evaluated me was getting to see such a valuable piece of teaching that was beyond the reach of a classroom observation.  And I'll just say right now, this is one reason why [NERD ALERT] I like writing my IDP.  I want my colleagues and evaluators to know more about my teaching.  Reflection is a critical part of teaching that takes place all behind the scenes.
   
     And this takes me to professional development.  I've always liked professional development, including the time we played with marbles or had to put on skits and even the time I had one of my most embarrassing moments with all the English teachers in the district present.  Nope, not getting that one out of me.  But the key to professional development, for me anyway, is having time to process all the learning, to really anchor it in with my current knowledge and understanding.  I'm sorry to say I haven't always had that time.  I'm lucky to have been able to work in two districts that so value professional development and really lucky that the second one allows me more time to do the reflecting.
   
     So when I attended Mary and Jennifer's LearnShop on Friday--Developmental Education: Teaching Learning Strategies and Critical Thinking--I was happy to get time to think and reflect during the time there, on the drive home, and over the course of the weekend.  I already applied what I learned to one of my courses.  As my friend Alisa Cooper said, "Learning is my passion...[and]...I want to learn new things."  I will continue to take advantage of as much professional development as I can and, if able, share it with people who want to hear about it.

The Curse of Week Four

     What is it about week four?  I arrived at work bright and early on Monday, eagerly anticipating the day.  But it just felt odd.  Stressful?  Already?  It's only Monday, I thought, determined to figure out why this week had me on edge.

     There were a few pieces of old business hanging over from the previous week: the Write6x6 blog post (ahem), some work coming in from students, some planning I had not finished. And there were thoughts of what I had to do coming up, one item not until April that I was worried about. Then there's that one troublesome student who seems determined not to learn from me all while I try desperately to learn from her in hopes I can actually find a sneaky way to teach her.  Maybe all of this unease is the settling in of the semester for all of us, students included. Yep, the semester really did start. Yep, weekends are now mostly about grading or doing homework.  Maybe now is the time to really work on balance. Yes, today I'll work on balance and get rid of some of this unease.

     This plan might have panned out at some point had Wednesday, the day some refer to as hump day, allowed me to have the time to think about balance. Instead my wife texted me to say we were overdrawn in the checking account (we just got paid last week). "What happened?" I texted. "We're supposed to be rich."

     "I don't know.  I lost track.  Bills.  Students loans.  I bought some clothes."

     Dollar signs appeared before my eyes. I imagined trucks pulling up in front of the house, delivering racks of clothes. How much could someone spend on new outfits?

     This bump in the hump was just a bit of a slow down midweek, but it was not awful, just perplexing.


     Shortly after arriving home, later than usual, I greeted the animals with sweet talk and lots of pets. It was just a few moments later that I realized our cute and sweet Lila was having another bout of diarrhea. It wouldn't be so bad if she weren't long haired and if she didn't curl her tail under herself in the catbox. I grabbed for some paper towels and then grabbed her tail--it's never a good idea to grab a cat's tail. She
tried to run, and she hissed. Her hind claws caught my toes which were only protected by socks, one of which has a hole in the toe I noticed.

     This was a job that needed more than just a dampened half paper towel. I grabbed and wetted a wash cloth and went in again. After much hiding under tables, running, hissing, and clawing--both of us--I got her to a spot where I could really hold down her tail and wash it, and surprisingly she let me do it. I think she was just tired. She's having a week four, too.

     I'm not sure I'm the only one having a week four, but it is certainly my challenge to work out the rough spots this week. I need to find a way to sand down the edges. There are two things that sometimes work for me:

1.  Read a book that has a little depth.  Right now I'm reading When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life's Sacred Questions by Sue Monk Kidd. It feels a little heavy for what may just be a strange week, but books like this challenge me to wonder about the big picture and, in doing so, I can generally put into perspective the little things.

2.  Do a brain dump and prioritize.  There's a formula I use for this. (I've had students do this at high stress times of the semester, too. Takes about ten minutes in class, maybe a few more if you talk about it.)   Here are the steps.  Math ahead.
   a.  List everything you can think of that you have to do that you can't stop thinking about.  (Here's where I'd make my list and actually put down that thing I have to do in April.)
   b.  Give everything a number from 1-4 based on when it has to be done (1=in the next day, 2= in a few days, 3=within two weeks, 4=long way off).  Rule?  You may not give everything a 1.  Rule?  Don't put down eating or sleeping.
   c.  Give everything another number from 1-4 based on how serious the consequences are if you don't do it (1=jobs lost, people die, you get the idea; 2=serious, but not life altering; 3=even less serious; 4=who cares?).
   d.  Multiply those two numbers together to give all items a new and final number.
   e.  Rewrite the items from 1-? and then cut the list in half.
   f.  Work on the top half.  Forget about the bottom half for now.

     This might seem obvious to everyone else, but I find it really helps me to focus, and maybe that is the key to conquering the curse of week four--to focus on what really matters and let the little things go.
   

Making a difference. Difference. Different.

Making a difference.
Difference.
Different.
When I think of all the people I encounter, I realize they all have made some difference in my life:
  • My colleagues challenge me to rethink my practice. They do so in a lot of ways but one way is simply by sharing their own practices. They share difference.
  • My spouse shares an insight from her readings, and I learn something new and make a slight adjustment to my thoughts about life and how we live it.
  • My friends share themselves and time with me, further encouraging me to be present and not bury myself in work.
     If I turn this around and think about the difference I make as a teacher, simply due to the volume of students I have had pass through my classroom, I realize the potential for making a difference is dramatic.  If my math is right, I've taught about 4,000 students.  Now that's no Taylor-Swift-Twitter-numbers, but I've also spent 45-180 hours with each of these people. And if I taught them more than
one semester or year or coached them, add even more hours to that.  That is a lot of time being present with someone.  It's hard not to make some kind of difference in all that time. In the smallest way possible, I hope to make a difference in teaching my students how to write. But what they take from these efforts of mine will vary.  A couple weeks ago, I ran into a student from last semester who thanked me profusely for helping her during that class.  She assured me that she felt really good in her current class because of all that I asked her to work on.  I was surprised when her eyes welled up with tears, and I thought, Wow, she took way more from my class than I could ever plan for.   In a more personal way, I try to recommend my students for items they may find personally interesting.  I've sent two returning students over to Debbie to discuss the honors program, and both of them are now taking honors courses.  I like to recommend scholarships to students and even assist them with their applications if needed.  I've written countless letters of recommendation, most recently for a student who wants to participate in a Study Abroad.  Even when students are not successful, I believe what I have written about them has the potential to make a difference in how they perceive themselves. I think I make the most difference in people's lives in my role as a teacher, but all of this "difference" spins out of relationships.  Relationships matter, and they give us a chance to become more reflective and to grow in knowledge and experience.