Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Physical Learning Environment

The other night I had a dream in which I had been assigned a classroom on the Ag Campus next to a building that was being demolished. There was a constant, high-pitched alarm emanating from the building. I was trying to conduct class but I couldn't focus at all. In desperation, I left the classroom to find a secretary who could find me a new room in the building. I then gave my students directions to the new room, but they got lost on the way--I couldn't even find it through the maze of elevators and Willy Wonka-esque domes. This leads me to my point:

The most common problem I have in class is the classroom itself. 

  1. Rooms without technology. Last semester I was assigned a classroom that had a projection screen but no projector and no place to set the portable projector to get a good image. This was in a class where I had planned regular student presentations. Luckily, someone switched with me. I've also been in classrooms that had only a chalkboard and were across campus, so it was difficult to convey the projector even if there had been a screen and convenient plug. I usually solve this problem by scheduling a class in the library for special viewings, but I find it very limiting to my pedagogy in general. 
  2. Location. Sometimes I'll have a class on the far side of the Hill and then another right afterward in Humanities. That's tough, but not impossible. Much worse is the condition of a friend who has one in Humanities followed by one on the Ag Campus--that's 15 minutes to get to a class almost a mile away.  When I've taught on the Ag Campus, I haven't had to rush there or back, but it was still a problem because students were often late. And don't get me started on classrooms that are still TBA 2 days before classes start.
  3. Access. Once I taught in a room that could only be accessed through a narrow stairway. A student broke her leg, and we moved for four weeks to the library. 
  4. Sound pollution, sometimes due to construction and sometimes to other classes. In an otherwise perfectly nice SMART classroom, the class next door was always showing films too loudly. I sent the instructor an email requesting he not show any on the day of the midterm. At a final exam this past semester, a classroom across the hall was having some kind of student presentations that were too loud and I couldn't do anything about it. I would love to work in a place that has sound barriers, even just corkboard on the walls.
  5. Size and shape. I've taught in large, cavernous rooms where my voice echoes. One room in the Alumni Memorial Building had a little stage in front, which would have been great if it had been a literature class instead of a writing class. One class had old wood floorboards that creaked and echoed over my voice. I also had a classroom that had huge filing cabinets taking up half the space.
  6. Climate control. Older buildings with window a/c units are particularly problematic, because it's a dilemma between comfort and being able to hear. In lots of other rooms, you can't control the temperature at all. This is so important that I once traded a SMART classroom without working a/c for a plain room that had window units. 
I don't want to sound too negative--my university has some lovely rooms, and overall I've been lucky. I simply want to observe that it's harder to have a good class when the physical environment is working against you.

*Image from

Classroom Struggles

I'm preparing for an interview for a new job, and I've been thinking about some of the standard questions that are asked. One of them is, "Tell us about a class that went poorly." Another version of this question that I like better is, "Tell us about a challenging class session."

It's hard to come up with scenarios. I don't have students disrupting class in loud or violent ways. I don't have rebellions. The larger failures aren't overt. Sometimes an individual student is unfocused or pays too much attention to his/her laptop rather than the class, in which case I say something to the student privately. (This reminds me that I want to say something about student professionalism later.)

The biggest problems I run into are students not preparing for class and students not responding to my discussion prompts. I try to address these as soon as I notice them. I have allowed myself to get a little mad when I see several students without books, but I'm thinking in future that I will use the "I'm very disappointed in you" tack. Last semester I ran into the problem of a class that stopped talking, and I addressed it with a large class conversation about what makes a good class. I used a reflection activity I had found online (I'll try to look for this later) and it led to a good conversation about why active learning was important. I also address low participation with group work. These strategies aren't always effective to the same degrees, but they always lead to some improvement.

Another instance of "failure" (sort of) is when an activity doesn't turn out the way I thought it would. Last summer I tried a roundtable activity that I had heard about at a panel at the College English Association conference. The instructor presenting it typically used the roundtable to cover lots of background materials, like information about the Great Revival in the U.S. Each student would be responsible for one reading. The teacher would prepare general questions and have the students take turns asking them to the participants, who would respond when appropriate. I modified this assignment, probably past all recognition. Instead of contextual information, the students read stories from Stephen King's Skeleton Crew. I prepared questions for the students to ask, but the roundtable quickly devolved into the students merely reporting on their stories. I had wanted them to choose, based on the reports, what we would read as a class the next day, but they were incapable of choosing and so I made the decision.

What went wrong? I don't actually think it was the switch in genre. At first I thought they weren't well-prepared enough, but checking my notes I see that I had them prepare written reports addressing these questions:

    1. What happens in the story? Who are the major characters, and how are they connected?
    2. In what sense is this a “horror” story? What is the primary fear?
    3. What is the setting, and how is it important to the narrative?
    4. What is the mode of narration, and how does it contribute to the suspense?
    5. Identify 2 additional elements of fiction and explain how they are important to the story.

So it wasn't preparation. I suspect the mistake I made was the prompts for the roundtable itself. I believe I used these same preparatory questions and had each of them answer in turn, rather than creating a set of questions for the students to ask each other. 

Yes, that was the problem. The students never had ownership of the activity. And that was also why they couldn't make the choice for the next day's reading. This active learning technique remained about me, instead of about them.

What problems have you encountered in your classes? What did you learn from them?

    Thursday, December 15, 2011

    The Semester in Review

    This has been the longest semester I can remember. I was constantly struggling to juggle various assignments and preps. Still, I think it went smashingly, based on initial student feedback. Here are some things that definitely worked:

    • The Culture Reports in my upper-level literature class. Because the course was supposed to include a focus on both literature and culture over a 350-year period, it made sense to me to share the burden of gathering this information with my students. The students commented that not only did they learn interesting material but they felt that they had ownership of the class. 
    • The annotated bibliography in the same class. Most of them had never completed one before, but it's an assignment I often use with success.
    • The emphasis in my gen-ed sophomore survey on lifelong learning and student response to the reading. Several students said they had never had a teacher be interested in what they liked or didn't like before. I find that those conversations can lead to deeper analysis if they're encouraged.
    • Teaching computer skills to my first-year composition students. They all feel more digitally accomplished than before the semester started, which adds to the value of the class. 
    • GoogleDocs for the workshops, as I discussed in a previous post
    • My composition class's PowerPoint presentations, which were almost all excellent and on the whole better than most sophomore presentations I've seen.

    Some things had mixed results:

    • The paperless classroom, which made it easier to keep track of my grading, but also easier to avoid it. It also caused some student stress, though nothing unmanageable.
    • The Study Wikis in my sophomore class. They were a great idea, but the students needed some clearer guidelines. By contrast, the extra-credit Study Wiki in my upper-level course was truly impressive--because I gave them clear indications of what would be on the test, instead of making them discover the questions. The Research Wikis in my composition course were mostly a failure, also because they didn't receive clear enough guidelines.
    • I loved the personal nature of the Blogs, but I couldn't keep up with them over the course of the semester, so I couldn't give them immediate feedback or help guide their thinking in the way I had hoped. 
    • PowerPoints, as mentioned previously.

    And one thing that I will definitely change:

    • The final paper in composition, which asked my students to align themselves with a political party. Only about half of the students did a good job with this, simply because the task was too large. In future, I would ask them to pick a particular issue, research it, take a stand, and then identify which political parties agree with their view. This would require several steps. But for the moment, I'm finished with directly pushing citizenship. As the students mentioned in their blogs, they're just now able to vote and they're still figuring their way in the world. Some focus on citizenship is good, but too much just overwhelms them. 

    I feel content with my performance this semester and proud of my students' achievements, which is all I really ask for.

    And that's a wrap!
    *Image from the Troy Public Library