As I mentioned back in February, I had the opportunity to get back into the classroom this past semester and teach an undergraduate course called Literacy in the Content Area Classroom at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, PA. I taught a pretty small class of mostly sophomores and junior secondary ed majors in a variety of disciplines, and while I don’t think any of us were enthused about the idea of a 3-hour long class on a Monday night, you’d never know it by the level of energy and commitment these future teachers brought to class each week.
I still haven’t received my official course evaluations as conducted by the university, but toward the end of the course I asked my students to reflect in writing on some elements of the course; specifically, what I did this semester that they found particularly valuable as well as what I could improve upon for next time.
I appreciated the feedback I received from my students. I have no specific reason to believe they pulled their punches (although it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge their potential for discomfort with critiquing their teacher), and much of what they said to me aligned with my own observations & reflection. Below are some of the common themes that emerged from their feedback (not every single suggestion) as well as my own reflections.
Improvements for Next Time
More emphasis on Bloom’s Taxonomy. At some point toward the end of our first class period, I noticed I kept getting quizzical looks whenever I referenced Bloom’s Taxonomy. I naively assumed that all students had at least a passing familiarity with Bloom’s, which they informed me they did not. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I got slammed with the flu later that week and had to cancel the second class. In between shivering spats and vomiting spells, I managed to put together an assignment for them to complete over the week that would provide a “101” intro to Bloom and get it uploaded to Blackboard. Upon my return, we dug in a little deeper, looking at Bloom through the lens of questioning. I got a lot of positive feedback on that along with the suggestion that I spend even more time on Bloom next time I teach the course. Roger that.
More time on discussing fiction. This one surprised me. For a class with very few students majoring in the humanities, I tried to tailor the course to what I thought would be most beneficial to agriculture and science majors (the majority of the students) and emphasize approaches to non-fiction texts (we did cover fiction, but in about 2-3 classes, instead of the 6 or 7 devoted to non-fiction). My English teacher soul loved this response, so I’ll do a better job balancing fiction and non-fiction next time.
More in-depth looks at technology tools (e.g., Newsela). This I added toward the end of the class almost as an afterthought. The students seemed to like it but I think we were all a bit frayed at this point in the semester (or maybe just me?) so it was hard for me to get a good read on how valuable it was for them in the moment. This suggestion came up a few times so I’ll definitely have to reconsider not only how I approach this (I considered having them explore NoRedInk as well but scrapped it because of time constraints) but what larger structural changes I’ll have to make to the course in order to accommodate it all.
What They Liked About This Time
Midterm conferences. Taking a page from Dean Shareski (can’t think of a specific blog post to link to but I’ve followed his writing about teaching undergraduates closely over the years) I took my assigned midterm “period” and divided it up into 15 minute segments for individual conferences with each student. This was facilitated greatly by the fact that I only had 13 students in my class; I’m not sure how (or if) I would do it with a much larger class, but I’ll cross that bridge if/when I come to it.
Optional second mini-lesson. To make a long story short, I had originally required and planned for each student to conduct two mini-lessons. A few factors led me to decide to scrap the second, but keeping in mind that some students may already have started work on their second lesson, I didn’t want that work to be for naught. I presented my students with a choice: you can either skip the second lesson (in which case the score from your first lesson would count twice in the overall accounting of the final grade) or you can present your second lesson. Nobody chose to present their second lesson after all, but many students told me they appreciated having the option to choose which way to go rather than being told.
New (to them) types of assignments. For one assignment, students were given a choice of working solo or in pairs on either a) giving a book talk with a corresponding close reading activity or b) choosing a reading selection, developing a discussion prompt, and actively moderating an online discussion over the course of a week. Many students had never seen or heard of book talks before but said they liked getting exposure to books they wouldn’t have read otherwise (my only stipulation was the book had to be about teaching). Most students had participated in online discussions before, but developing and moderating them gave them a whole new appreciation for the potential of the medium (as well as how they feel that potential is not often reached and how much work is involved in getting there).
Aside from generally really enjoying getting back into the teaching groove after so many years away, one big takeaway from this semester has been the single-point rubric. After hearing about it on the Cult of Pedagogy podcast and then finding it referenced elsewhere, I used them pretty much exclusively this semester. The students told me they much preferred them to the typical 4-point rubric, as did I. I even shared the rubrics I developed with some teachers and administrators I work with for their own implementation. Initial feedback from them has been positive as well, so looks like we may be onto something here.
Not that I didn’t know this already, but this semester reinforced for me just how hard teaching is. My inner perfectionist knows I would have done a better job had I not been teaching at 6pm on Monday nights after having already worked a full day and commuted 45 minutes to the university, but regardless – teaching is intellectually taxing (one of the reasons I like it so much, tbh) and proportionately rewarding. Aside from the course content, I also did my best to imbue my students with relevant pearls of wisdom here and there gleaned from my years of experience and my current position, especially as someone who hires teachers and has some insight as to what might set them apart from other candidates. Perhaps the job hunt is too far away for most of them, but hopefully in a year or two when they’re prepping for their first round of interviews, their memories will jog with something I said and maybe it’ll do some good for them.
All in all, it was a simultaneously tiring and energizing experience, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to teach the course again, tweaked ever so slightly for the better, with a new crop of future teachers.