Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Teaching 101: A Hard Lesson

On the bright side, I have the nicest classroom out of all the TA's.

As I've mentioned before, I was lucky enough to get a teaching assistantship at UNCW. This means that I receive a stipend and tuition assistance in exchange for educating undergraduates about the fine art of creative writing. UNCW actually has one of the better programs for teaching assistants - we're given a ton of support through co-teaching with a cohort our first year, a class devoted to creative writing teaching and pedagogy, and a network of TA's, past and present, who freely share their experiences. We're not at all expected to reinvent the wheel, for which I'm very grateful.

So, now that I'm two weeks into the whole teaching thing, what's it like? To put it simply: much, much harder than it looks. It's no secret that I love school and would even go so far as to consider myself a connoisseur of the classroom experience. That, however, is as a student. As a teacher? I pretty much have no idea what I'm doing.

That's not true. I have an idea. In my head, I arrive to class with a brilliant lesson plan that illuminates the mystery and magic of writing and that inspires my students to pick up their pens and complete their exercises courageously, fiercely. They all clamor to share what they've written out loud and are terribly disappointed when we only have time to hear two or three. That disappointment is short-lived, because soon we're discussing last week's assigned reading and the students are full of insightful opinions and astute questions. I explain what I can in a clear and concise manner and my students think I'm the most brilliant teaching assistant to ever walk on this campus. After class, many of them hang behind to continue the discussion or ask for recommendations for further reading. I head to my next destination feeling confident in my abilities as an instructor and excited about the next generation of writers and readers.

Oh, the glamor!

This is the idea. The reality goes something like this: I spend hours breaking my lesson plan down into five minute increments, so there is no chance that I will run out of things do to fifteen minutes into class (a very real fear). I comb the archives of TA's past and my own hazy memories for writing exercises and readings that I think my students will connect with and respond to.  When I get to class, my students stare at me, waiting for... I'm not sure what exactly they're waiting for, but it is clear that whatever it is, I do not have it. I hastily give them a ten minute writing assignment so I can breathe deeply and rewrite my lesson plan while they work, because they are obviously not up for a five minute long discussion of a story that no one seems to have read. When the ten minutes is over and I ask for volunteers to read what they have written, everyone is apparently fascinated with the table, the floor and/or their shoes, because no one is meeting my expectant gaze. I eventually call on someone randomly, which makes me feel like a horrible person, but what am I supposed to do? After that person reads - and their writing is actually pretty good - I decide to call on everyone, just so I can be equally horrible to them all. They all read, and deep down they seem to enjoy listening to each other and sharing their own work. Will they ever admit this? Will they ever actually volunteer to read? Probably not. 

Class ends ten minutes early, which is pretty good considering what we've been through. As I tell them next week's assignment they're already packing up their stuff, rustling papers and pulling out cell phones to check their messages. "Good work today," I say, but no one hears me. Within thirty seconds they are gone and I'm left alone in the room, wondering how anyone does this for a living. 

For now, I remind myself that I've only been teaching for two weeks, and that if I think about, the second week was already better than the first. I'm learning and hopefully, eventually, I can pass that on to my students. In the meantime, I am finding that having an arsenal of in-class exercises is key, and that calling on people does not make me an evil teacher. Baby steps, my friends. Baby steps. 

To my fellow professor, teacher and student friends: Any advice for a brand new teacher, who would like to turn this into a somewhat successful career? Any and all advice is appreciated.

25 comments:

  1. Try to remember the classes you took as a student that you enjoyed the most and think about what it was that you loved about them. 
    I have found that the Socratic method is what worked best for me, as a teacher and as a student (but then again, I teach International Law!): constant questions and answers that lead the students to develop conclusions on their own, to "create"knowledge, not just to absorb what I am saying. I generally started with questions when I meet new students ( what do you know about int. law? why are you interested in the subject?)  Perhaps you could ask them what do they like to read, favourite authors, what do they like about them, why are they taking the class, if they have writing experience, etc. 
    I don't know if this can be of any help...just hang in there, it will get better!

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  2. I'd love to learn more about the mystery and magic of writing! If things get desperate, I could send Miriam to your class to get the conversation started ;)

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  3. My own teaching style is pretty jocular and conversational, so I would suggest that you chat with them before class.  Do you know all of their names? Ask them the questions that Marcela suggested, but also get them talking to one another.  Sharing work and opinions will be easier if they feel both comfortable with you and comfortable with each other.  Maybe give them a group writing assignment so that they are talking to each other as they begin the writing process.  

    And it will get easier and you will get better as you spend more time in the classroom. You will find your own style, your own teaching philosophy, and your own best practices for eliciting responses from students.  

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  4. I forgot something: Have you thought about getting them to play the exquisite corpse? It used to be an ice-breaker in writing classes I have attended and it is very fun to do it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exquisite_corpse

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  5. I have a tip: you are an absolutely amazing person. And don't you forget that!

    I just love to see where life is taking you and while I am not known to be a fan of any sport, I read your blog with the enthusiasm of an OSU Buckeyes fan (the crazy ones who start riots and such).

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  6. Breathe - and then breathe again. Let them know that they will be expected to write a short response about any assigned reading at the beginning of class for a grade - and then you will be able to discuss. You can even ask them to look at a specific aspect when they are reading.....yada, yada, yada - mostly, just breathe. You are amazing, love writing, and are great at it - and that makes all the difference!

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  7. I think it's totally fine to call on students in class!  You're definitely not the only teacher to have picked up the message that it's somehow wrong or mean, but I think that teachers have a right to expect their students to come to class prepared and ready to participate.

    When you do call on students, I think what matters most is how you handle that interaction.  That's what makes the difference between an effective teacher and an ineffective or mean one.

    Good luck, my dear!  Give it time and be patient.  Great teachers are not made overnight.

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  8. Yeah, the intense floor/table study is the best, isn't it?  I've only taught a lit class at the college level, but with writing classes I've found that reading aloud poems/parts of stories/etc. really helps.  They get an idea of what's going on out there, plus it takes up time.  In a good way.  Have them read a piece or three aloud, talk about them, and the get on to their work.  And incorporating it all together helps.  When I was an undergrad, we had book lists of poetry, so we always discussed an entire collection each week, which helps a lot (and exposes people to new work).  I doubt you can do that, but printed out samples are the best.  

    But it really does get better over time!  And you sound super dedicated and up to the task, so that's the hardest part :)

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  9. This is my fifth year of teaching, and while it gets easier, I don't think it ever gets easy. I don't think it should. I dont' know how many students you have, but I would suggest breaking them into two or three smaller groups and having them bring a prepared piece to read and critique. Maybe a smaller group will be less intimidating. 

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  10. Getting a discussion going can definitely be one of the toughest parts of teaching! Even after 11 years of this, I will still occasionally have a group who just doesn't want to talk much. A weird aspect of group chemistry or something.

    I think being casual and conversational is always good -- share a little bit about yourself and try to have a "conversation" first and then a "discussion" second. 

    I also sometimes start with having students write something (or take a short quiz) at the beginning of class so we can then talk about what they just did, so that's a good thing you're already doing.

    Getting them "warmed up" with something that doesn't require a very verbose response can be good too: a quick opinion poll where they can raise their hands (or not), describe such-and-such with just one word, etc. 

    Some will be more comfortable talking in a small group than in front of the whole class -- but instead of calling this "group work" I usually say something like "take a minute to chat with your neighbors about __" to make it seem more casual and chatty.

    Um... those are my main strategies for a class that doesn't want to talk. If I have a really stubborn one I will MAKE them work in small groups with a specific task that they then have to present to the class and make it part of the directions that each person in the group has to speak once. 

    Oh, and the packing up and zipping bags while you're trying to finish your remakrks? HATE THAT. I will just say, "Hey, we're not done yet. Don't worry, though; I won't keep you late." Or just, "Oh, good, we still have a minute left, enough time for me to tell you ____."

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  11. Teaching is tough. I taught college-level writing for 4 years and while it did get easier, it was hard every single class because you are always on the spot, planning, replanning, etc. I think agree with others that being conversational early in the session helps ... It might feel like 5 wasted minutes at first, but getting to know the students makes a huge difference.

    Good luck. Every week will get a little easier as you find your routine!

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  12. Think of yourself as an idiot savant. It's carried me for four years.

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  13. Thanks for the advice, Marcela! Just knowing that it will get better is a big help. :)

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  14. If I had even half a Miriam I would be fine! :)

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  15. Thanks Raquelita. Chatting before class is a good idea. I also have an exercise planned today that will involve them pairing up and writing dialogue, which will hopefully be wildly successful! 

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  16. I love exquisite corpse! I think we'll definitely do that when we get to the poetry part of the semester. 

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  17. I love you Jen! You never fail to brighten my day!

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  18. Breathe. Got it. I think I may have been forgetting to do that actually. ;) 

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  19. Thanks, Rose-Anne. I do think that I'm pretty nice once I call on someone and appreciative when they respond or read. So maybe they don't think I'm evil after all. :)

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  20. We are definitely going to be reading things out loud in class. We did that last week, and the second half of class was a million times better than the first half. 

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  21.  We'll be critiquing each other's work in a few weeks so I think that will go a long way towards helping them open up. Thanks for the suggestions!

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  22. Kate, this is fantastic advice! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with me. I like the idea of getting them warmed up at the beginning of class - I will try that today with a short exercise! 

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  23. Conversation before class seems like a key thing everyone is suggesting. Consider me sold! :)

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  24. Well, that shouldn't be too hard for me. ;)

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  25. Christy Melton LeDuff9:33 PM, September 08, 2011

    I remember taking Creative Writing when I was an undergrad, and it was so intimidating! Sharing something you've written (well, for me) was so scary. I would never have volunteered, and I feel like I remember my prof having to call on us. I feel like we also had weeks where we KNEW we would share. We also would work in small groups to critique each others' work. Doing it in a small group helped ease the transition into sharing with the larger group (for me).

    In the class I taught at SFA, I used group work a lot to get them to talk and think in class. I found that when I went around and conferenced with small groups about their work, they were much more willing to ask questions and discuss with me than they were in the large group. In large group, I would always start by asking for volunteers, but would sometimes resort to calling on people.

    It may sound silly, but in my classroom (preschool, not college), it is really important to incorporate large group, small group, and individual learning experiences. Different children learn better in different ways, and that gives them opportunities to learn both within their comfort zones and outside them. I really think the same principal applies to college students (or any students) as well. 

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