As an English instructor I have merged traditional methods with more experimental approaches in order to identify my style, evaluate student learning tendencies, and keep teaching fresh and interesting. The following “Teaching Reflection” is intended to describe both the successful and less effective techniques that I have employed in the categories of: lecture style, assignment design, class work, and grading. All three sections highlight my strengths and weaknesses and include examples/samples of relevant artifacts.
I am comfortable giving lectures and tend to get quite excited about the material. My style involves student interaction — what I like to call “interactive lecture” — and very few (if any) of my lectures revolve around me. My lecture style is a valuable tool for instruction because it reflects my teaching philosophy most strongly. I will often ask provocative questions – and solicit a response from students – in order to make a point or complicate an issue. To best disseminate information I utilize a variety of strategies that include powerpoint (about 10% of the time), writing on the board (about 50% of the time), and using my posture, expressions, position, pauses, and gestures (all of the time). Talking to students is less effective with me than talking with them. I am not afraid of silence in the classroom, and feel comfortable showing students my knowledge – and even lack of knowledge – about a topic. I like to bring informed enthusiasm to the table, because students are most likely to eat what I serve up if it looks delicious — and if they are made to feel insatiably hungry for knowledge. For my lesson plans, I generally follow an outline of points rather than reading from a script. Although I do let myself follow the current of the class interaction, I do a good job of harnessing the direction of the topic at hand.
Strength: My course evaluations have proven that students love my enthusiasm, finding it inspirational and conducive to learning. For example, students commonly intimate on evaluations that “Jenn is so passionate and excited that I couldn’t help but stay interested,” or “I attended class everyday due to her motivation.” Most students have noted that they feel class lecture is a good use of time; peers and supervisors are consistently satisfied with my demeanor in front of a class.
Weakness: Not all students have felt that my lecture has been used well; these students tend to prefer discussion and tend to dislike lectures that rigorously emphasize one or two aspects of a text or issue, rather than a more holistic approach. Because I value improvisational lecturing so much, when I want to deliver a more traditional performance – by reading off a sheet, for example – I find the task extremely challenging, if not impossible. As I teach more literature courses rather than writing ones, I see the need to prepare a lecture with more rigid direction so that I don’t miss crucial points. For example, students will sometimes make comments such as “I wish that discussion could have been a bit more structured,” or “I would have liked more lecture and less discussion.”Striking a balance between lecture and discussion continues to be a challenge for me because I don’t want to appear too dependent upon a script. As I continue to develop my lecturing skills, I am primarily focused on learning to walk the line between sharp organization and sporadic interaction.
While I always have both clarity and creativity in mind when designing any assignment, I do not always achieve the creative goal that I set for myself. This is mostly due to my strong desire to let students control the content and reach of their inquiry. I spend a lot of class time teaching students how to contextualize and relate their unique interests to the topic at hand. For my Winter 2010 ENGL 101 class at Highline Community College I formulated an uncharacteristically formulaic assignment prompt for Essay 3 (see Assignment 1 here). In it, I outlined very stringent guidelines and expressly articulated the components – and even the order of these – for a response to Walker Percy’s “The Loss of the Creature.” Such a move seemed necessary and proved to be useful since Percy’s essay was so difficult and confusing for students. We worked together through the sequence to practice each of the skills that I asked them to display in the essay. The essays that I received were some of the best in terms of cohesion, and balance between ethos and pathos. They were some of the worst in terms of context and creative exploration.Other assignments have been prescriptive as a way to teach crucial skills (see Assignment 2).
My assignment prompts tend to be open, although they are structured (see Assignments 3,4, and 5). From time to time, I do assign more “creative” work because not all students feel comfortable relying on their own thought-processes to create an interesting idea. Sometimes, they like – and need – guidance (Assignments 6,7, and 8).
Strength: My number one intention in assignment development is to allow students to practice the principals that I emphasize in class; namely, to contextualize a topic based on their interests in order to make the paper interesting as well as relevant. Students have less opportunity to do so in assignments that demand too much in terms of topic choice and direction. I save my lock-down face for enforcement of writing principals and form. Students often write that “I appreciated the space we had for exploration. It really helped me to write better,” or “Context was the missing link.”
Weakness: Giving students creative freedom is always a risk – although I think it is one worth taking. There are always a handful of students who never feel confident on their own, no matter how much guidance they receive. Students are prone to regurgitate lecture, and I absolutely ban students from doing so in papers. Some students feel incredibly uncomfortable knowing that they can’t argue the same points that I make in lecture, complaining: “I wish you would have given us clear topics to write about,” or “Jenn expected too much. This class took up too much extra time just to think of interesting ideas.”
Collaboration always plays some role in my course. For example, in one ENGL 111 class I experimented with group essays in which students worked in groups for a full sequence on a unique context involving Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures. I took time to be sure that each member was accountable for work (using a contract and consistent progress reports). The result was truly astounding, as I received five essays that were original and interesting (see two examples here and here).
I have only attempted a large-scale group project that once, and would like to do it again in a smaller literature class. In larger classes and online courses I often utilize an online discussion board in which students “blog” about various issues (see example 1, 2, 3 and 4). Students are required to respond to posts in various ways. I comment on them as well, and bring examples to class for multiple purposes.
Discussion is conducted in three ways in my classroom: lecture (about 30%), small group (about 50%), and roundtable (about 20%). Lectures are interactive and there is a large amount of discussion that occurs (see above blurb about lecture). Small group discussion can be a successful format (see “weakness” below), and it is the one that I believe in most (see samples of online discussion blogs here and here). While I still have yet to master the art of small group discussion, I see its benefits clearly. Particularly, small group discussion allows a space in which more quiet students can participate. I tend to give explicit instructions for these activities, and the classroom swells with noise: laughing, arguing, and high-pitched revelations. Each student is assigned a role so that they feel they have contributed and that discussion has been worthwhile. Roundtable discussion is almost always successful and interesting. We arrange ourselves in a large circle and discussion is driven by student interest. I monitor and take notes (which I post on the website). From time to time I will need to direct us or recap a series of ideas. Very rarely do I leave a roundtable session feeling sorry that we had one (although, it does happen; see below).
Strength: Emphasizing collaboration in the classroom gives students many opportunities, such as: bouncing ideas off of peers, expressing their ideas in a low-stakes situation, developing relationships that contribute positively to the class atmosphere, and getting direct help with comprehension or writing problems. Students tend to enjoy small group discussion as long as they feel there is a purpose to it. I articulate the directions of each meeting as well as the reason for it so that students can see its purpose in the scope of the course. I change groups three times during the quarter so that students have varied experience.
Weakness: Sometimes groups are not motivated due to sluggish interest. Many students feel more confident working independently since this is the format with which they are most familiar. Other students feel like group work means that they have to work harder to compensate for lazy members, whether or not they have a contract. In group situations, assertive students will sometimes try to dominate while quieter ones feel intimidated. I do not have the chance to interact with all groups during a short class, although I do interact with some.
I have experimented in evaluative methods as much as in other areas. Depending on the course outcomes, the style of grading has shifted to reflect the course’s unique goals, assignments, and topics. Even within the same numerical courses – in which the outcomes are the same – my evaluation has shifted. For example, sometimes I have taught ENGL 197 with a very rigorous focus on breaking down specific outcomes or objectives in each assignment prompt. In a different ENGL 197 course I may not include a single-standing rubric but rather synthesize the goals as part of the assignment language. Similarly, when I comment on student work I may include a succinct breakdown of the rubric in the end comments, or a hearty paragraph of feedback (see examples to the right). Consistently, however, I value marginal comments most in formal essay feedback, and take the time to get personal with each paper. Students almost unanimously state that my comments are one of the most useful aspects of any course.
My grading style sometimes shifts, however, when evaluating small assignments versus major essays. With smaller assignments – like journals, in-class writing, blogs, presentations, etc. – I may slant my commenting toward exploration, seeking to help students unearth their interest, investment, and position in a given topic. I often play “devil’s advocate” by purposefully complicating their responses (see examples to the right that include various commenting styles for short assignments).
Strength: Students appreciate the time and effort that I put into commenting, saying that “Her comments showed me exactly what I needed to work on,” or
The feedback on papers was really helpful.” I make it a point to show students mistakes in writing that pertain especially to them, so that they can continue to define themselves as writers. I learn a lot about writing, in general, through meticulously commenting. Through the years this practice has made me a stronger writer and a more aware rhetorician.
Weakness: Students who complain about grading practices in the courses that I’ve taught often have a similar woe; namely, that they do not understand it. My rubrics tend to be so rigorous that students who, for example, continue to struggle with comprehension of basic writing or reading principals (such as rhetoric, or claim development, or close reading) have no sense of what I’m grading, let alone why I’m grading it in that way. I do my best to explain my practices clearly. But time and again, evaluations show that students want clearer evaluation. Part of this – maybe even most of it – is due to the nature of humanities evaluation in general. We grade critical thinking, close reading, and writing, which are, to many students, completely subjective (despite our insistence that there are objective factors in every subjective experience).
Please sample my grading of a variety of strong papers. These papers are from various courses and will also lend insight into the assignment design. Find samples here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here.