Sunday, January 31, 2010

Class Discussions

Before I begin, I just wanted to introduce myself to those of you who don’t know me: my name is Cara Saraco, I’m a senior English major (advisee of Dr. Goldsmith’s), and I’m also getting certified in secondary education. Last semester, I student taught 8th, 9th, and 12th graders.

While I was student teaching, one of the things I was most nervous about was developing good class discussions. Though a discussion is typically regarded as a highly successful pedagogical tool, it’s also (in my opinion) one of the most difficult things for a teacher to pull off. I wanted to be the teacher who facilitated the kinds of illuminating dialogues in her class that I’ve experienced as a student, but I also remembered all too well the many attempts of my former teachers to spark a discussion that completely failed. Over those three months of student teaching, where everything I did was pretty much an experiment, I learned some things that can help to create an active and meaningful class discussion; these techniques are also practiced by the best professors I've had at Ursinus:

1.Scaffolding. It’s hard to get a discussion going if students aren’t already prepared with some thoughts. If you are going to be discussing texts, it’s helpful to set a purpose for reading so that they come into class having already considered the text. While the 8th graders I taught read Steinbeck’s The Pearl, I had them note quotations that responded to three “essential questions” for the unit. When we finally had our discussion of the novel as a whole, they had plenty of textual support to refer to and had been considering these questions throughout the reading.
2.Good questions. Questions should be intriguing and debatable. Though there’s likely an understanding you want your students to arrive at, questions should also reveal misconceptions.
3.Don’t ask a question that you don’t really want an answer to. Students can tell when a question isn’t really important, and will not feel like responding.
4.Wait Time. Studies have shown that teachers typically wait only for about 1 second before calling on a student, which is understandable: the silence is terrifying. However, it’s important to keep in mind that students need time to think, especially when you’re hitting them with some pretty heavy stuff, and if you wait just 3 to 5 seconds before calling on someone, more hands will go up and answers will be more substantial. I no one is raising their hand, don’t give in to the silence immediately. It might feel horribly awkward to stand there in silence, but it feels awkward for the students too, and sooner or later someone will feel obligated to break the silence.
5.If a student asks a question, resist the temptation to answer it yourself. Put it back out to the class to see if another student can answer it before you do.
6.Don’t be afraid to break away from your agenda. If a discussion is thriving and it’s intellectual, it’s good to hold off from predetermined questions and not worry too much about getting back to your plans.
7.Classroom arrangement. It may seem silly to force students to make their desks into a true circle, but it really does help. My most successful discussion with the seniors I taught occurred when we pushed all the desks to the sides of the room and sat in a circle on the floor.
8.Knowing and using students’ names. Making the effort really does pay off.

Dr. Goldsmith and I would like to hear your thoughts and experiences as well about this tricky topic.
• In your opinion, what constitutes a good discussion? What are some ways you’ve facilitated good discussions?
• What to you constitutes good questions? How do you develop them?
• What do you do if a discussion fails?
• Why is discussing good? When is it not good?
• For those of you who have students use discussion forums online, how do you get students to respond to each other rather than just posting their individual thoughts? (I tried doing a blog with the seniors, and the most common problem I found was that students didn’t read and respond to their peers’ comments).

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tomorrow's Prof

Some of you may already read Tomorrow's Professor (a blog run by MIT and Stanford to discuss issues in higher education). If not, I encourage you to check it out!

If you use journals in your courses, you might be interested in TP's recent discussion of the subject. The author explains the benefit of student journals -- they get students actively reflecting on their reading for your courses--but provides some creative solutions to the problems journals pose (i.e., the feeling that you have to grade and comment on them). I know I might be making some revisions to my journaling policy based on this article.

Friday, January 29, 2010

"Anyone, Anyone"?: A Panel Discussion Sponsored by the TLI

Do you ever feel like your classes are like this?

As our student blogger mentions, everyone has days when it feels like discussion rocks, and some days when it just doesn't work. Newer faculty might be adapting to a range of different class preps, class sizes, and student discussion styles and capabilities. For all of us, though, generating discussion can be a challenge. The TLI's first Common Hour will address this issue--please join us for "Anyone, Anyone?": Thoughts on Generating Class Discussion. Panelists will include Becky Jaroff (English), April Konstosthatis (Education), and Stephanie Mackler (Education), and all of them, I promise, are MUCH more interesting than Ben Stein.

Where: Pfahler 108
When: Feb 17, 12 noon

Introducing...Student Consultants

This semester, as part of the TLI, I am participating in the Bryn Mawr-Haverford Faculty Pedagogy Seminar, in which faculty meet weekly to discuss pedagogical challenges and continue their conversations on a blog. So far, I am enjoying it immensely--the opportunity to meet faculty from other school in other disciplines offers a vivid reminder that teaching challenges are both perennial and universal. There's no such thing as a perfect class, perfect students, or a perfect teacher--all the more reason, though, to think critically and reflectively on this challenging thing we do every day.

In addition, the Bryn Mawr TLI hooked me up with a Student Consultant, a student who has been trained to serve as a source of structured, supportive feedback on faculty classes. My Consultant, Nicole Gervasio (Bryn Mawr '10) will visit my class once a week and meet with me regularly to comment on the progress of the class. She came for the first time today (in the middle of a fire drill, no less), and I was happy to see how comfortable my students swiftly became with her presence. (Me, however--that was another matter.) The Student Consultants are paid for their work, take a weekly seminar in which they discuss their own responsibilities, and are mentored by the Bryn Mawr TLI Director (Alison Cook-Sather, Education). It is my hope that after piloting the process with Nicole this semester, next fall I can begin to train consultants for Ursinus. FYI: students sign a strict confidentiality agreement--they agree not to discuss what transpires in a class or their meetings with faculty members with students, or with anyone else. Their comments have absolutely no role in the tenure process. Such students could be excellent resources for us--dedicated to attending a class throughout the semester, they have more time than faculty are often able to provide, as well as a difference in perspective.

Do you have a student you think would make a good consultant? I'm hoping to establish a pipeline this semester. Students need not be academically exceptional, but they should be strong students with a capacity to think reflectively about their learning. Please contact me if you'd like more information, or if you'd like to pass a name along.

Friday, January 22, 2010

What Can the TLI Do for You?

*co-ordinate mentoring for new and new-ish faculty members
*co-ordinate classroom observations
*facilitate panels for faculty to discuss a wide variety of aspects of teaching
*help you integrate a new approach (technological, artistic, you name it!) into your teaching
*provide feedback and support for new faculty, completely separate from the tenure process

What are some of our larger goals?

*to foster discussion about teaching and learning for faculty at every stage of their careers
*to encourage students' participation within the Ursinus community as active, engaged learners
*to house and make available information about best teaching practices at Ursinus College and elsewhere
*to support and honor the hard work that Ursinus faculty engage in every day

What the TLI won't do:

*impose a top-down model of teaching "excellence," or imply that one approach to pedagogy is superior to any other

For more information about the TLI, please feel free to contact Meredith

Thursday, January 21, 2010

TLI Advisory Group -- who are we?

Five faculty members graciously agreed to serve on the TLI Advisory Committee: Chris Aiken, April Konstostathis, Stephanie Mackler, Heather O'Neill, and Jenn Van Gilder. Drawn from across the disciplines, each one brings expertise in his or her field and a wealth of experience. However, each also brings a commitment to the critical, reflective, and passionate practice of teaching. I look forward to our continued collaboration.

What Did You Do on the First Day of Class?

It's day 4, and the semester already feels well (and disturbingly) under way. What do (or did) you do on the first day of class? How did it go? Here's a link with some recommendations. For clarification, while the link is housed at U of Hawaii, the material is actually written by Joyce Povlacs's, at the University of Nebraska.

Do any of these sound useful? I'd love to know what others do on Day One--please feel free to comment!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Small Grant Competition

The TLI has approximately four small grants to offer (500$ each) for faculty pursuing an innovative pedagogy project either this semester or next fall (the grants area available for year of 2010). These grants provide incentive and support for the hard work, critical reflection, and and creativity we bring to our courses at Ursinus. Here are a few examples of what the grants could support:
*integrating some new software or technology into one of your courses
*a course-related partnership - with another faculty member, at UC or at another institution (a co-written blog? a sustained listserv/e-mail exchange?)
*the time involved to visit another faculty member's courses on a routine basis, with a consideration of the implications for your own teaching
*integrating the arts (or the sciences, or any major extradisciplinary element) into one of your courses
*integrating an off-campus component (including travel) into a course
*bring us your ideas--be creative!

One-page proposals are due February 12 for this coming semester, and April 1 for the fall semester. At the end of the semester, we request a one-page write-up of your project. These one-page write-ups will be available on line to colleagues who may apply for grants themselves in the future.

In the Spring and Fall of 2011, there will be eight grants available. So if your schedules are already crowded for this year, please consider planning ahead!

Welcome to the TLI blog!

Dear Colleagues,
Thank you for your frank, thoughtful responses to the survey. Just a few words to update you on our latest activities:

Based on your requests, we are organizing the following events for the Spring semester:
*a Common Hour on generating discussion at UC (February 17)
*a Common Hour on dealing with "problem students" (March 24)

Feb 17 panelists: April Konstosthatis and Stephanie Mackler