Category Archives: engaging students

Weekly Gaucho Podcast – Try Something New

You may not know that GCC has an unofficial student podcast. In this bonus episode for the Weekly Guacho podcast, I explain a little bit about the podcast and how I get students to contribute episodes as part of our journalism class, JRN213: Writing for Online. You can visit our blog and podcast here:

Students are very creative when given the opportunity, so my message to you is to “just jump.” Try something that might make you nervous for fear of failure. You’ll be surprised by what can happen. If you’re interested in trying it, I added the podcast assignment to Canvas Commons, so you can download it to your class and try it out.

And for an added bonus, here’s a link to my favorite student episode from Season 5.


A Balancing Act

A Little of This – a Little of That

One of my goals as an instructor here at GCC is to improve students’ listening skills. Most of the time I do this without them consciously knowing it. That sounds rather odd. It’s not that they aren’t conscious, but they may be distracted — paying attention to other things — while improving their listening at the same time.

I ask questions that I hope will make them think about what they listen to in their every day life. I ask them to describe what they are hearing and what their first reactions are. I’ve found if I can include visuals they will listen a lot longer and understand more clearly what the music is trying to convey. I have discovered that students start paying more attention to everything that is part of their listening day, and that is my intention.

One of the questions I often ask is “Do you listen to orchestral music?” Most students answer, “No, never.” I then talk a little about film. Do they watch films? Again, most of them say, “Oh, yes, I watch movies all of the time.”

With that they usually realize that they have listened to lots of orchestral music. Here’s an example: Composer John Towner Williams (we have learned through trial and error that there are a lot of ‘John Williams’ out there so I have become accustomed to using his middle name just to make sure we are all talking about and listening to the same guy), who has had the temerity to scare us out of the water, share the feeling of flying under all sorts of conditions, whether on a broom, a bicycle, or as a bird, and show us the martial qualities of The Dark Force. I chose this clip because of the content, the audience reaction, and, in this case, not for the visual images, which are slightly blurry. The answer to your question about the first instrument you see is – a contrabassoon. This is as iconic as Bernard Herrmann’s strings in Pyscho, but I digress. One of these days someone will re-master it and it will be clear — but in the mean time, I dare you to stick your toe in the water….

Williams’ Jaws

Known for many different kinds of music, Elmer Bernstein’s music has been patriotic and poetic. Here is a well-known theme. I usually choose something from the film “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but you should all be familiar with this.

Elmer Bernstein’s National Geographic Theme

There are a number of others I could have included if we were learning some specifics, but I thought it might be interesting to simply poke a little fun with Vangelis:

Mr. Bean with one of my favorite conductors – Sir Simon Rattle

I hope you enjoyed the listening.

Apologies for any advertising that may have appeared. In Canvas this does not show up.


Can We Live Without Risks?

A statement someone made recently jumped out at me. They said they rarely take risks. I was amazed. I consider myself a very careful person, but I often feel like my risks are the challenges I take on. Of course, I’m not talking about doing anything like this!

Perhaps it’s the definition of the word risk [enter student’s clichéd discovery of dictionary definition to make written assignment longer]. Wink

I see risk as a transition and an opportunity. Now, if the risk doesn’t have that element, I won’t do it. In some ways, we all take risks every day. There are certain risks I simply won’t consider, the consequences are just too costly.

Professionally, I was always taught to say ‘yes,’ if you want to work. People want to know that you will say ‘yes,’ when they ask. It saves time for those hiring. That’s a musician’s point of view. It’s the way you keep getting more opportunities – or, for those who prefer less formal constructs – How you get more gigs. Regrets, yes, certainly. I said ‘no’ to a really good opportunity, which was a risk, because I was just getting married (hence, already in the midst of a transition) and didn’t want to spend my honeymoon thinking about the project and risking the beginnings of our marriage… I’ll always think about where that job might have led. But see, once again, I keep going back to the positive-negative balance of risks.

And I’ll admit to some positive/negative possibilities. I’ve walked into a classroom and spoken completely ‘off the cuff,’ which is definitely a risk. It’s not that I hadn’t thought about it. I had. I know my subject deeply. Some of those have been my most inspired lectures, but occasionally, they have not. It’s a risk.

How about classroom management? I had a student who sat in the front row of class and never took a note. (This is a room that is set up as a lecture/recital hall, so down in front is noticeable.) In fact, he came in without anything – no books, no notebook, no pen/pencil or computer. Nothing. An instructor would assume he didn’t come prepared for class. And we’ve all had those students who obviously weren’t. Did I mention this was a long lecture format? The class was two hours and twenty minutes long. Should I say anything to him? He wasn’t disruptive, and he did well in the subject. One day he came in with a Rubik’s cube. I saw it, but chose not to say anything. As the lecture was finishing I just happened to look over at him. He subtly showed me his work by merely opening his hand. It was finished, and it was perfect. He hadn’t been disruptive to anyone, he didn’t show anyone else, I hadn’t been interrupted by what he was doing, but it allowed him to concentrate on what we were talking about. A risk, and a reward.

Deeper Risks

I could stop there, because it would be a great place to end – but I’m going to “risk” it and go heavy. As I mentioned earlier, we take risks every day. Driving, flying, walking down a set of stairs, saying something that you wish you hadn’t. I never discuss politics. I’ve gotten to where I rarely offer comments – especially to the entire world on any of those fronts.

But I’m going to include the world community and the risks people are facing today because we need to be talking about this in our classrooms. These are the ultimate risks because they are about basic human needs. This is not something that is happening somewhere else. It will ultimately affect us here. I was just reading an article about the fact that many Russians are also leaving their homeland, just as many Ukrainians are – except those who choose to fight. There is a general surge of people trying to survive with some semblance of their lives intact. In the article, the author referred to a family’s current residence, a shared room with three mattresses on the floor. The people had a roof, they had mattresses, a floor, running water, and they still had some money. They had been well-to-do so such living conditions would not have been acceptable in their previous life, but under the circumstances they knew they were lucky. They calculated the risk and felt they’d come out ahead considering the cost.

I first saw evidence of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s in Sweden. I ended up working with two Russian musicians as part of a Swedish quartet. There were interesting cultural flare-ups that surprised me. But like other recent mass emigrations, everyone was, and had been, fleeing for their lives. It’s amazing what we are willing to risk when we feel that we have little left to lose or too much to lose – our lives or our children’s lives.

In Estonia, ten years after the last Russian troops slowly left, I moved there, and in my research I learned more of Stalin’s ’round up’ of people. Sometimes there were lists, sometimes just numbers. ‘Take this number of people. I don’t care who.’ They disappeared or went to gulags. Often, no one ever knew whether they were killed outright or just never seen again. How can you live with that threat? I was part of an interview team to determine whether a young Estonian man would study in the U.S. when he talked about the importance of the NATO alliance to his country. I knew about NATO. It also meant, in couched terms, the U.S., from where funding came for this prestigious scholarship. I occasionally thought about NATO – but not to the extent that this young man understood it because the Estonians had few defenses against the Russians on their shared border. We, as Americans, have the luxury of a different point of view.

Before I sign off, I want to mention that moving people, their craft, their professions, their influences, and their cultures affects everything. It affects the arts, music, the humanities, science, technology, engineering, people, and even education. Would you stay or would you go? Ultimately, when we talk about risks, these are the most critical risks to discuss. I truly believe as educators everything we do counts, but we are also lucky that we can talk about risks that are so relatively ordinary when others face risks that are so tremendously devastating.


Okay, All Your Students are Online. Now What?

I still chuckle when I think about every teacher I work with is now doing some form of remote or online teaching. I know it’s not a laughing matter, but I can’t help it. After spending four years as eCourses coordinator at the college, I know the reality of that statement. I’m sure everyone is doing their best. However, I can’t help but think about that select few who wanted to teach online because they thought it would be easy. Well, it’s not so easy after all, especially when you only get two weeks to do it.

It’s easy to post content (documents) online, and most LMS’s make it easy to record video and audio. But the hardest part is engaging students. How do you even know they are watching, listening or reading what you put online? I hope I’m not freaking people out, but trust me, they’re not watching, listening and reading all that stuff you just put in Canvas. They are just looking for the stuff the “counts.” I know I sound pessimistic, but I speak from experience. When I first started teaching online over 15 years ago, the first thing I noticed was that if there was no point value attached, it got ignored. That included textbook chapters, handouts, content pages in Canvas, and yes, even YouTube videos. I was shocked. They don’t like my videos? Did anyone even watch them?

I couldn’t really tell if students were engaging or not with my content, but they were missing huge gaps in knowledge that would have come from engaging with that content. I constantly found myself asking in my feedback, “Did you watch the video?” or “Did you read the handout?” It was definitely frustrating especially since I made a ton of videos. Once I got fed up with that I decided to change the design of my courses. I now have several different formats depending on the course. I made a couple of videos showing how I changed things up that you can watch below, but I’ll summarize here first.

For my ENH114 African American literature class where reading is crucial (Duh!), I changed the course so that every reading is an assignment. Yes, you read that right. Every single reading is an assignment. I call them lessons, and each lesson either has reading handouts, video or audio and then something for students to do. For example, in Lesson 1.1.1 Origins of African American Language, students watch a YouTube video and then write a summary about what they learned. Simple. I create this by using Assignments in Canvas, embed the video, write my instructions and then set the assignment to accept text and uploads for submission. The best part is I didn’t have to make the video. Thank you internet and YouTube.

Another example from the ENH114 class is a lecture I wanted students to read. Again, I made it a lesson: Lesson 1.2.1 Importance of Negro Spirituals that included a recording of me reading the lecture as well as the text of the lecture, and then asks students to answer a question about the content. I use rubrics so the students know what I’m looking for, and it makes it easier for me to grade. The idea that everything I want students to do is graded in some way can be daunting, but using rubrics makes quick work of it. I’ll demonstrate more ways that I engage students in this class in the video below.

For my freshman comp classes, I have a slightly different approach. Not everything I want for them to read and do is made into a lesson, but I do wish that would work. However, I do consistently make some of the content into lessons. You really need to have something for students to engage with on a weekly basis. If you don’t, students get in the habit of “skipping” weeks. Having assignments with weekly due dates draws them into the course. They don’t have to be much, just something that says, “Hey, remember you have this English class over here.” You can see more from these courses in the video below. You can find the YouTube Series I mention here: Crash Course Navigating Digital Information.

Lastly, I teach a hybrid (used to teach a hybrid) JRN203: Writing for Online Media course. Luckily for me, I design all my courses as online courses, so I only had to make a few adjustments in this course to transition to online. The biggest change was adding more online discussions. Oh, I know. That sounds so boring, especially since students hate online discussions. But these discussions are fun. I use FlipGrid. It’s a social learning platform that allows educators to ask a question, then the students respond in a video. Students are then able to respond to one another, creating a “web” of video discussion. They’re fun and students really like these discussions. Some are a little shy at first, but they quickly get over it. I got permission from my students to show a discussion they are working on currently in class. See below.

The reality of the situation is I didn’t create all of this in two weeks. These are things I’ve added as I’ve taught over the years. For many faculty out there now rushing to move content online, my best advice is to pick one thing you can add now to help engage students, and as the semester continues on, consider what else you might be able to add. You can’t do it all now, but just one thing might prove helpful.

Engaging Students in JRN203 with FlipGrid
ENH114 Course Using Canvas, Softchalk, and FlipGrid
ENG101 Composition Course Using Canvas,
McGraw-Hill Connect & YouTube