Sunday, October 07, 2007

Teaching Woes

h/t to Elle for topic, title, and an uplifting sense of not being alone.

Here's the thing. I'm teaching three classes this term, one in my specialty and two (the history of everything sequence) that is new to me. I'm coming up on my first batch of evaluations, and I've been thinking about the progress of each class. The two history of everything courses are doing, if I do say so myself, quite well! One is incredibly vibrant and the students are already telling me FREQUENTLY that it's their favorite class. The other one started out rough but they're coming around, and I've managed to get close to 80% of the students talking during class discussions. And the topics get pretty heated (and humorous) at times. So I'm happy with that, too.

Then there's my US History class. I am a US History specialist. I have taught this class before. I was tremendously prepared. And yet, the class isn't gelling together. I simply can't get the students to talk, and I can't put forth the sort of energy that I am contributing to my other two courses.

  • I'm dedicating so much energy to not looking foolish in my other courses (where I don't know the subject matter that well) that I'm neglecting this class.
  • It's the biggest class, which makes it harder to incorporate discussion.
  • It meets TTh, so I have not "set aside" particular time in the syllabus for discussion. [Every Friday is discussion day in my MWF classes]
  • It meets for 2 hours at a time. We're all just exhausted by the end of that.
  • It's got lots of young, first term students, who may be anxious about talking in a college setting.
  • It's a state-wide requirement, so the students are taking it because they have to.

    So lots of reasons why this may be happening. But how do I fix it?

    I'm thinking of implementing discussions for the second half of Thursdays. I'm also thinking of doing some small group work (give them a discussion question and let them work it out in a group) to get them used to talking, if not to me, at least to each other.

    Other thoughts, o wise teacher folks on the internets?

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    Blogger Andy said...

    To give history a sense of being "alive" and relevant, you could post a large copy of the Constitution on the wall and cross off little bits of it every day as the President gets rid of them.

    8:54 AM  
    Blogger Neel Mehta said...

    Incorporate weed. You'll get a LOT of interesting discussions then.

    "George Washington was in a cult, and the cult was into aliens, man."

    Sorry. Serious comments sure to follow.

    8:54 AM  
    Blogger Jade said...

    In high school our Honors History teacher (Mr. C, you probably remember him) was frustrated with the lack of discussions in our class. He assigned a topic, we'd read, and the next day the same 4 or 5 people would talk, maybe. One day we sat down, expecting to discuss the reading from the night before. About halfway through the class he started talking about the ep of Seinfeld that had been on the night before (I believe it was the one about the bet, as a matter of fact) Everyone had something to say... was it controversial? What did you think? How about this part... what does this say about society? It was interesting, it was fun... and probably the first time I'd ever had the guts to open my mouth in class in front of everyone.

    When the bell rang he looked at us and said "Well... now I know you all know how to have a discussion, perhaps tomorrow we can have the same energy put towards the material at hand?"

    Heh heh... sneaky.

    Not sure it would help in the context of your class, since ours was only 45 minutes long, so his little test only ate up about 20 or so minutes.... but I've always remembered that lesson learned. If I have an idea, it's OK to say it out loud.

    If it is the largest class, and mandatory... your assumption that people are intimidated is probably right. As one who fears public speaking more than death, I can say smaller groups are a great way to allow people to become comfortable with expressing their ideas.

    3:30 PM  
    Blogger Neel Mehta said...

    All serious now, and generally echoing Jade's statement.

    In my student experience, working in small groups has mixed results, in terms of overall effectiveness. Not all, and in fact very few, of these little discussions will be as productive as you'd like.

    However, once a group has to report its findings to the rest of the class, the teacher can get an idea as to how each member of a group contributed, even if only one person speaks on behalf of the group. That spokesperson tends to incorporate the views of others in recounting how their discussion went down. It usually works out that way. (And if it doesn't, the teacher can always ask the rest of the group if there were any alternate opinions.)

    12:47 AM  
    Blogger EJ said...

    Ask them what the constitution says about senators looking for sex in a minnesota airport...if that doesn't spark conversation nothing will.

    Than maybe jump to the mormons being forced to Utah...and whether the republicans can actually vote for a mormon.

    Throw something in about gay marriage and maybe stem cells...

    You probably will not be teaching the next class so problem solved!

    1:09 PM  
    Blogger Julie said...

    Question: How long is the break (or breaks) during this class? Do the students get up, walk around, go to the snack/pop machine near by during the break (seventh inning stretch)?

    4:21 PM  
    Blogger N. English said...

    Bullshit Tuesdays.

    One garden shovel

    The first half hour of the Tuesday class, hand someone the shovel and ask them to tell you what part of last weeks material they thought was bunk. The first time you do it, find the Mike Uffelman (sorry if you're reading this, I liked it that you riled things up) and hand it to him/her. When they say what they thought was wrong, hand the shovel to someone else and ask them to agree or disagree and why.

    I've never tried this, but I just want to see you walk into class one day with a big shovel, look at the class and say, "I'm going to bury you all..." with a straight face. Yeeha! That'd be sweet! See if Copley will lend you his shovel (it'll be like passing down the lightsaber to his padayan).

    7:17 PM  
    Blogger Quinn said...

    Ah, Mr. C stories! And seriously, if Mike U. is reading this, I would be thoroughly and irrevocably surprise and possibly freaked out.

    I like the idea of bullshit Tuesdays, though. Didn't we give Mr. C an autographed shovel at the end of our year?

    8:45 PM  
    Blogger N. English said...

    Yes we did. He had it hanging above his desk for a couple of years anyway. One of the best-teachers-ever.

    9:00 PM  
    Anonymous kr said...

    It was on his top shelf in his office when I visited in 2000 ;). The ink was a little faded (or worn?) ...

    12:21 AM  
    Blogger liz said...

    I kind of like it when my teachers asks us to bring in something from a newspaper or magazine that we think might go into a history book in 20 years.

    8:25 PM  
    Blogger Neel Mehta said...

    Fascinating suggestion, Liz. I'd probably submit this article.

    11:51 PM  
    Blogger mom said...

    It could also be that elusive classroom culture wild card. I have taught back to back sections of the exact same course with v. diff results -- the students really are half of the equation. Also, interestingly - the worst teaching experience of my life was in an upper level course in my specialty - I haven't taght it since! In my mind it was too terrible to relive, but I actually do think it was the students in that case -- it was a 1x week evening class and I had a major community involvement piece and frankly, I think I had a bunch of senior who I think were looking for a free ride.

    5:22 PM  

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