Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Regular Check Ins and Changes in Attitude...

Every four weeks I do a check in survey with my students. So I'll be sending them out in Blackboard announcements next week. I use Google Forms and mimic the questions on their end of semester IDEA forms. Pretty much I want to know what they like, what they're struggling with, and what they have issues with. This allows me to course correct and see what needs to change. The survey becomes part of a class conversation, what I can change, what I can't and why. I use it to be transparent about my choices.
It's a way to course correct, but also have a heads up if there are issues.
It doesn't always work. Last semester the check in surveys every four weeks identified nothing major, but on the end of semester IDEA forms I got hammered. I received comments that I was mean, harsh, and it hurt and surprised me. I am direct, but not mean, rigorous, not harsh.
So I spent time this summer wondering why this was. I wondered if it was because I wore a tie to work.
Twitter had a lot of conversations this summer about the prevalence of student shaming (as evidenced by the #examhowler trends this summer, and the ways it violates students), the often knee-jerk response to just blame the students for things, or assume they're lazy or stupid. There were also a lot of conversations this summer about how we approach our classes- whether we focus on policing or content. And since this seemed directly tied to my concerns, I added this to my brain's melting pot, as I thought about what I wanted to do differently this semester.
As a female high school teacher I often found that it was easier to front load all the "Don't Do This" the first day, laying down the law, to save me time and energy later. But in a lot of ways this set the tone of the whole class to being a form of gotcha.

As I sat down to brainstorm new ways though I was hit by the fact that this was never my approach in after school tutoring or when I taught Saturday school. So what was different? In one situation I felt I needed to police behavior, and in the other I was focused on helping the students get what they needed.

So I made a list of things I wanted. Then I started thinking of concrete things I could change in my classroom to reflect these changes.
I decided to start with my syllabus, as that's a focal point. All teachers hear a lot of "it's in the syllabus" and I get the frustration with taking weeks to craft something and then getting asked about what's in it- the very thing a well crafted syllabus hopes to avoid. But I also wonder what it IS about the syllabus that prompts this. If 100s, nay 1000s, of students are all making the same mistake, at some point I think it's worth asking what misunderstandings there are. So I started there.
  • Many syllabi contain the language that it's a contract between the professor and student. But how many of our students understand what that means? Do they deal with contracts? Do they read them? Do they understand the genre expectations?
    • I changed my language and approach to telling the students that the syllabus was the "how to" for my class- how to email, how to write assignments, how to do well.
  • The last couple of years I've used a presentation of memes as a way to introduce my pet peeves in the syllabus. The students seemed to like it, but informed by the conversations this summer, I didn't want to set the tone of the class by focusing on policing. That's not what we'll spend the next 16 weeks doing, so I moved the policing out of the classroom.
    • This year I made two 5 minute movies that covered the highlights of the syllabus, the pet peeves and students watched them in their own time the first week.
    • Instead we spent the first day of class talking about the content of the course- what we'd be doing.
I've always used a lot of tech in my classroom, but the not policing translates too to reframing laptops and cellphones. My policy before was as long as use did not interfere with class.  Now the phrasing is positive. In fact I went through my entire syllabus and rephrased ALL the language so that it was not policing. It costs me nothing to rephrase and still say the same thing, and might gain me a whole lot in the classroom.
One of my syllabi is here, so you can see the language.

I've never been a chalk and talk teacher, but especially in my survey course, I open most days with a short mini-lesson. But this semester, with these changes, I've noticed when the students turn to their group discussions breaking down the text, they're approaching it differently. And since I haven't changed anything but the above in how I teach, I've gotta credit the change in class culture with the change in their engagement.

I ended up not changing how I dressed, I'm still wearing ties, but reflecting on these issues over the summer, and implementing these changes as resulted in a radical change in my the tone of my classrooms.

I'm interested to see if the survey results match the feeling I have in my classroom. And of course, it will be interesting to see if this translates into students doing better in my class.


One of the other reasons I wanted to make these changes is as a teacher now in my 15th year, I'm tired of the tone that seems to dominate so many conversations about students. As a sarcastic person, and someone that knows the value of venting, I can understand the source of some of the frustrations, and choices. But maybe because I now consider myself a public scholar and teacher, the venting that may occur in a teacher's lounge, in private, vented and forgotten, has become something more. It's become a public sport.

In so many the tone seems to assume students are stupid, and lazy. And that concerns me. Because if you don't like teaching, dealing with students, or assessing them, seeing how they think, I don't know why you're here.
Let's flip it- how would you have felt if you read some of these things from one of YOUR professors? If they made fun of an assignment you recognized as yours? Or if you saw a comment you thought applied to you? How would you have felt?
I would have been devastated.

Everyone needs to vent. But when it becomes public, that's different. When it's no longer a single "bad day" but seems to reflect an institutional dislike for your students, that's different.
And to be clear- I don't care what you do in your classroom: laptops or no, tech or no, policies or no. I made a resolution at the beginning of the year to not respond to think pieces that cover those things, because it's just overdone. Although personally, I don't see how, with accessibility, and making sure students learn, you can ever be all one way or all the other, teaching is rarely so black and white.
I guess what I'd like to see is all of us taking a little more time to be reflective on WHY we do the things we do. If you have solid pedagogical reasons for why you do the things they do, and if they serve your population of students, great. But I keep thinking of something an experienced teacher told me when I first started, that if you were making decisions based on what was easiest for you instead of what served your students you weren't doing your job.
So that's my check in.
I'll let you know how it continues to go.

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