November 1, 2014

Teaching with Excellence

It is a beautiful day in Phoenix. The sun is shining (always in Phoenix), and the temperatures are warm (finally, we are out of our 90s). It is November 1st, November 1st! I cannot believe that the year is almost over. It seems like 2014 just flew by so quickly. I know that I say that every single year, but really, this year does seem to have passed by more quickly. Perhaps it is because I have been so busy. Or perhaps it is because my life has taken such an interesting turn, and the events that have occurred have made the days seem to slip by with more ease. I am not sure, I just know that I am sitting here at my computer this morning, thinking about today being the first of November, and contemplating that there are 60 days left until 2015 arrives! Oh my goodness!

As I sit here today, I marvel at the work of the Lord in my life. I am almost finished with the most grueling semester of my life. Yes, I mean teaching, and not graduate studies (that honor goes to Spring 2014 when I passed Quantitative Research Methods!) This semester I took on four courses, thinking that the extra income would be a welcome relief (from my poverty status as an adjunct professor). I am teaching at two schools, about 30 minutes apart from each other, and although I am in class MWF's only, the travel and prep time has doubled the teaching workload (as weird as that may seem). Moreover, I am teaching four different courses -- all new to me this semester -- and I am learning "on the go" so to speak. I am learning how to teach, how to prep, how to deliver lessons -- all in real time. This is not my preferred teaching/learning method. No, I prefer to know ahead of time so that I have a better than average chance of success. I rarely go into any endeavor without preparation, and I rarely will choose to do anything where I have a good chance of failure. For me, failure is not an option (well, as far as failure can be avoided).

This semester has been my greatest challenge thus far. I am working hard at being a good teacher, learning how to deliver lessons with more effect, and to engage my students in discussion. It is difficult for me, but I am constantly changing, re-evaluating, learning from mistakes, and improving my performance. Am I successful? I don't know. I think I am functioning at about a "B" level right now. I have not figured out where my "sweet spot" is so I continue to refine and revise to improve my efficiency, my proficiency, and ultimately, my results -- successful results.

Teaching is a challenge for me. I am not a natural born teacher. I enjoy mentoring, and I enjoy learning (oh yes!), but I really do not think the way a natural born teacher thinks. Let me explain...

The good teachers I have had in my life seem to have one thing in common. They all seem to have the same mindset that is "student-oriented." This is critical in my view, especially now that I have experienced the thrills, the highs and the lows, of being a professional teacher (two years now). Student-oriented simply means that the approach taken in the classroom considers the needs of the student above the needs of the teacher. In the old days, in my old days (college), my professors were "lecture oriented." They were self-determined experts in their field, many had been teaching for decades, and they delivered content -- heavy content. My job as student was to be a repository -- to be an open vacuum that sucked up all the information they gave out. I then had to process that information and synthesize it (along with the reading material) and be prepared to write about it or take a test on it. My job was to listen. Their job was to disseminate information.

In this new modern age of teaching, the job of the professor has shifted from knowledge dispenser to discussion facilitator. Teachers are encouraged to elaborate on the material presented in class, but not "lecture" to the students. Students are supposed to be engaged, to be encouraged to learn, to be inspired to think about the materials. Students do the learning; Teachers present and facilitate. The role of teacher and student have shifted over the last 20-30 years. Studies in learning adaptive strategies suggest that students learn best when stimulated through activity. Students enjoy discussion, enjoy learning in peer groups, and enjoy processing information collectively. They are not solo learners (so the pedagogy suggests). I agree with the current trend in many ways. The problem I have is that I am a student-learner at heart. Therefore, I struggle to take my learner cap off and put my teacher-facilitator hat on.

So those good examples of teachers I have had in the past fall into one of two categories: those that inspired learning through information dissemination and those that encourage learning through hands on activities. I am unique in that I learn best through self-study. I learn best through reading and processing solo. I don't like group work. I don't like group discussion. I like the lecture style of teaching, and I engage with the material through reading, writing, and note taking. It is difficult for me to shift my mindset to a student learner approach simply because it goes against the natural way that I learn best.

In my opinion, natural born teachers are those that understand that the student needs outweigh the needs of the instructor. I can give you a good example of this point. At one of the schools where I teach, there are several instructors who spend the entire semester teaching students how to write essays using a deconstruction method. By this I mean that these instructors spend weeks on one essay, asking students to deconstruct the introductory paragraph, find the topic sentence, highlight the thesis statement. Students take a part well written essays to look for their constructive elements. These students are detectives. They are engaged in the process of mimicry. The goal is to train students to see what other writers, good writers, have done and then ask them to replicate that technique. I get this approach. For many years, I believed that replication or mimicry of good writing was the key to learning how to write well. I believed in this approach, and I thought "Yes, this is how to take a poor writer and help them improve." This style of teaching is common in freshman level writing courses. I would think that for many writing instructors, teaching format writing, is a time-honored, proven method for helping students learn to write well.

As I said, for a long time, I agreed with this approach. In fact, I taught my son how to write well using a format structured curriculum (Jensen's Format Writing). I believed that teaching format writing was part of a 50/50 plan that would give the student the tools and technique needed to write a well-crafted essay or research paper. My mistake, now in hindsight, was assuming that students (not mine) were learning to think critically across the curriculum, that they were reading challenging materials, discussing difficult topics, and being asked to think deeply on a wide variety of subject matters. My son was of course, but that was because I was home schooling him using a classical curriculum. I was asking him to read the great works of Western Civilization and synthesize them, draw parallels, think about them, and formulate opinions on them. Thus, when it came to writing about these works, he had plenty of "cannon fodder" as I like to say it. He had a lot of good thoughts to expound upon in his formatted writing.

Zoom forward to my first teaching assignment, to my first college class.

I was fortunate that my first college class assigned as a teacher was a course in American Short Story.
My students were mostly literature majors, some minors, and a few education majors. For the most part, all my students were excellent writers. They were readers first, writers second. They had passion, and they loved to dissect good works. I was in heaven. All I had to do was give them discussion questions to prompt them to think more deeply, more critically about the stories we were reading in class. My approach to teaching was to facilitate discussion on a variety of interesting topics, to probe, to question, to listen, to enjoy. I fell in love with teaching, and I knew right away that I wanted to be a teacher after completing this course.

Things changed, however, after I got my first writing class assigned this past August. I had to come up with a plan for teaching freshman composition so I reached back to my home school days and pulled out my old trusty companion, Jensen's Format Writing. I looked through some of my other materials, and I decided that the best approach was to teach technique, to teach my students to write through format. With my pedagogy in hand, I planned my lessons, and I created steps to help my students learn what was considered "good essay" format.

My first couple weeks were smooth as butter as we tackled thesis statement creation, format, style, technique. The problem came when I asked my students write about a critical topic, to analyze and synthesize an important issue, and present what they learned through that good 5-paragraph essay. I had trained them well, I showed them how to craft a good paragraph, a strong introduction, etc. What I learned from my experience was that I got a 5-paragraph essay back for sure, but it lacked substance, major substance. My students could put together an essay that was filled with garbage.

This got me thinking about writing, and about whether it is more important to know how to format an essay or whether it is more important to know how to think and write critical analysis. I know that many of the instructors at my school would argue that they are doing both through this deconstruction process, that they are teaching students how to analyze a paragraph, how to analyze a good argument. However, when it all comes out in the wash (as my grandmother used to say), my experience has shown me that students cannot write critically unless they can think critically. Thinking critically is a far more important skill, in my book, than formatting a paper properly. Yet, given the heavy emphasis on formatting papers (MLA or APA) you would think that technique and format are the focus of the writing process. I digress...

My teaching style has shifted over the past two months. I started out focused on teaching technique, and I have ended up teaching critical thinking. Yes, my students write -- they write a lot of papers -- in my classes. The problem that I struggle with, and I think many new teachers struggle with, is that fact that we (as an educational community) no longer regard critical thinking as a critical component to creating intellectual curiosity and engagement in thought. No, it is much easier to tell students what to do, to train them, and to test them in performance.

Lately, I have been thinking about my approach to teaching, about how I learn best, and about how I want my students to learn (to really learn). I realize that I am struggling right now. I am learning how to teach at the same time that I am learning how to be a doctoral student. I struggle with these two roles. However, soon, very soon, I will be finished with my schooling, and I will be a full-time professor somewhere (Lord willing). As such, I need to get my teaching hat prepped and ready to be an excellent instructor in critical thinking "across the curriculum." By this I mean that I want to teach critical thinking through all my courses, no matter whether I am teaching writing or communication, I want to teach my students to think critically, to analyze, to synthesize, and to argue persuasively for their point of view (we all have points of view).

My task is set clearly before me. I am in the process of learning how to become an "A level" professor, and to do that, I need to study and to approach the discipline from the most respected teachers on the ages. My analytical leanings tend toward Socrates and Aristotle, so I think I will spend time studying the great thinkers of Greece and Rome, and devote time to learning how to teach using critical thinking methods. There are some excellent studies available for teacher training -- I just need to apply myself (in my spare time -- oh -- what is that?) to learning how to become a better educator. God is good. I know He knows my concerns, my desires, my wants, and my needs. He will provide for me, He will guide me, and He will show me how to prepare, to plan, and to pursue teaching with excellence.

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