Blog
Suchi Shukla
Senior Teacher

Doors As A Metaphor To Human Hearts

#Doors Doors are a phenomenal example of paradox. They stand as an inlet and outlet at the same time. There are doors that are opened to welcome everything and everyone that is destined to enter in; while there are doors which keep shut thier shine or dark in order not to let the world have a glimpse of it. There are doors with engravings carved on them as the bruises of the soul and body which even without opening give an insight into what lies within. Then there are doors of wood and metal which stand against the vagaries of weather holding fast their position refusing to let go. The rusting and decaying is inevitable due to the heat and moisture just as the violence and sadness is inescapable and so is the damage caused by them. Doors are also of glass-- shiny and transparent which are there for the namesake. They stand their beautifying the threshold and inviting inlet either through soft and careful openings or through rough and raging smashing which lays scattered the broken pieces of glass ready to hurt and pierce. Then there are doors which are present and yet not there. You don't happen to see them yet they stand in your way blocking the in and out. They pose the greatest threat-- as they are invisible. You have no idea of their shape, size or colour; not even their built and texture. You stand clueless as you know not what next-- how to approach the door? Open it or break it? All essence of physical presence go null and void there.

Umaprasad Venktesh
Chemistry Teacher

When Students Lead The Discussion

When Students Lead the Discussion A few years ago, my colleague Brenda Whitney spoke at a workshop about how class discussion can take on many different forms, each with its own style and descriptive moniker. Paraphrasing and borrowing language from her handout, with a few revisions of my own, these discussion styles include: The Tennis Match – teacher and student lob questions and responses back and forth, with the rest of the class as spectators. The Whirlpool – participants circle around a subject, moving slowly toward a deeper penetration of it. The Eclectic Beaded Necklace – students contribute independently, sequentially, without much interconnection. The Tour Bus – travels from destination to destination, with passengers trusting the tour guide to explain each point of interest. Urban Sprawl – a discussion that begins with a tight center but soon spreads unchecked to uncharted and unpredictable locations. The Life Raft – everyone is drowning in either a difficult text or in difficult questions, so that when one answer is offered up, the class grabs on for dear life and won’t let go of that idea for fear of getting swept to sea. A teacher at the seminar, Sam Hamilton, added another one: the Wild West Train, where the conductor must get his precious cargo to the train station, despite efforts by bandits to derail and rob the train. And if I might add one to the list, I’ve noticed that this quarter my class has become a Spoked Wheel: each student is a spoke, each spoke never touches the others, and my job as the hub is to connect the spokes. This is my doing, an effort to move away from the Eclectic Beaded Necklace (which I easily fall into) toward a conversation where each contribution connects to the others. But I now want to find an alternative to the Spoked Wheel, a way for students to talk to each other, to not rely on me to hold together our conversations. I’d rather the class discussion be a Construction Crew Without a Foreman, that is, a crew that works toward a goal, together building something that each member could not have built individually—but they do this on their own, without oversight. We had just read Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” I asked the students to circle up, get out the Anzaldúa essay, and then to do a bit of writing. First, they had to go to a passage they found provocative and write a paragraph about what draws them to that specific part of the essay. Second, they had to write three discussion questions based on the passage and their response to it. After 10 minutes of writing, I told the class we had 15 passages with 15 responses and 45 possible discussion questions. That’s a lot of material. So, I said I would not be talking for the next 10 minutes. I explained that the class would run the discussion, and I would grab my notebook and pencil, take a seat in the circle, and listen. Which is exactly what I did. The students looked at each other and back at me. Narelle was the first to speak. “What do you think Anzaldúa means by copping out?” The class was confused. They did not have a context for Narelle’s question, a passage to work with, or a sense of what prompted the question. Narelle picked up on this. She elaborated, mentioning the part of the essay that provoked her question and explaining why she thinks the question matters. Still, the class needed more. “What page are you on?” Molly asked. Narelle responded. Gabrielle asked, “Can you read us the passage?” This—two minutes into my silent period—was the pivotal moment in the discussion. The class began to do the work I normally do, setting up the context for a discussion question, pointing us toward the text and reading from it. Zaq offered an answer to Narelle, a response Jillian then paraphrased: “So, you’re saying that …” Ten minutes into the discussion I was hearing phrases like “To go back to your question …” and “Going back to what Max said, that connects to what Narelle asked.” The students were synthesizing their comments. When Laura said, “I agree, because when I lived in Italy…,” she was making a “yes, and …” move, placing her own story against and among the comments from her classmates and then building upon what they’d said. Even though I had follow-up questions to ask, even though I wanted to comment on—and correct—a few things they’d said, even though I wanted to press against how they were reading Anzaldúa, I stayed silent. It would have been foolish to interrupt. Remaining silent Twenty minutes in, Ella voiced resistance to Anzaldúa: “I have a problem with this essay. It makes me mad.” Max elaborated: “The part that bothered me was” and here, he went to the text, reading aloud for his classmates. They’d moved from questions clarifying Anzaldúa’s claims to synthesis to now, late in the conversation, their responses to the essay. This surprised me. I expected them to begin with their responses and take their time getting into the argument itself. They did the inverse, making their way through Anzaldúa’s essay while incorporating comments from across the classroom, reading aloud from the text, paying close attention to the way Anzaldúa’s words fall on the page, the conversation building to Ethiopia’s question, a question I was going to ask had I led the discussion: “If you have multiple languages, how do you know what you really are?” I’ve tried not speaking in class once before, about five years ago, and it failed miserably. Perhaps it worked this time because I tried it midway through the term, once the students knew each other and each other’s names, once the students had established a classroom rapport. Perhaps it worked this time because the students wrote in preparation for the discussion. Perhaps it worked this time because they all had something to say in response to Anzaldúa. Perhaps it worked this time because I’d been more deliberate since the first day of class to splice together their comments during class discussion, modeling the synthesis I’d hoped they would eventually do on their own. But questions linger. That the students talked so well on their own, that they did not need me to salvage the discussion, that I was not the hub holding together the conversation, has me wondering when I should speak in class and when I should remain silent. I think about how often I could attempt the teacher-less discussion and what pedagogical purpose it might serve at various points in the course. I think, too, about what teacher-less teaching might look like in other contexts—a teacher-less essay assignment, a teacher-less reading list, a teacher-less syllabus—and what preparation would need to happen to make these teacher-less efforts both pedagogically sound and productive. And I think most about the teacher-student relationship, about how much of a presence I should have in my students’ learning, and at what point (and how) I should step back, giving them space to work, to read and write, to stumble and fail and succeed on their own. My silence that afternoon leaves me uncertain what teaching looks like—which is a good place for a teacher to be.

Umaprasad Venktesh
Chemistry Teacher

Five Lessons Online Faculty Can Learn From The Irs

Five Lessons Online Faculty Can Learn from the IRS Another Tax Day is upon us.I’ll keep this post brief, just in case you haven’t yet filed. The Internal Revenue Service is good for lots of things, but it’s not usually viewed as a source of sound teaching advice. In 2016, however, the government agency created anonline publication called the Behavioral Insights Toolkit. At just 72 pages, the toolkit is a relatively short guide for IRS employees and researchers to help promote compliance and improve taxpayer engagement by leveraging strong communication practices. Much like the relationship between IRS administrators and taxpayers, online faculty guide students through a classroom system in which the students are asked to comply with assignment instructions and engage in the online classroom. In this respect, the IRS has some suggested approaches worthy of adoption in the classroom. 1) Simplify messages, but provide access to detailed information Education is known for its use of jargon While it can be fun to play around with the Jargon Generator,  jargon is not particularly helpful for communicating with your students. At a minimum, assignment instructions should be direct and straightforward. It’s worth pointing out that while simplified messages improve compliance, some users want more detailed information. To ensure transparency, the IRS recommends providing easy access to further information for those who seek it. 2) Promote positive behavior with a signature box The IRS has found that online signature boxes improve integrity and accountability in the taxpaying population. Online instructors can adopt similar tools for classroom use and apply them not only to matters of academic integrity, but also to promote timely submissions of student assignments. 3) Separate tasks While the IRS suggests separating mathematical tasks from reading tasks, its advice can be applied outside the mathematical realm. In a well-designed online classroom, due dates and deliverables are available in a designated area for students to locate easily and where they will not be lost in a sea of reading assignments. 4) Build a sense of progress towards a goal The IRS found that it’s helpful to provide a progress report as taxpayers work toward completing a process. In the same way, a well-designed syllabus communicates to students the work that must be accomplished for success and helps keeps them motivated by tracking their progress.   5) Use social norms The use of social norms to incentivize behavior is one of the more eyebrow-raising techniques in the guide. The IRS suggests that issuing reminders that compliance is normal and common are is an incredibly persuasive tool. Within the online classroom, an instructor might consider data related to student success. For example, access data may indicate that students who access the online classroom more than five days before deadlines are more likely to perform well on assignments. Disclosing such findings to all students encourages behavior that leads to student success.

Divya Mathew

Three Ways To Promote Student Ownership Of Reading Assignments

Three Ways to Promote Student Ownership of Reading Assignments\ There’s no arguing with Ryan’s observation that “coming to class prepared and with some background knowledge transforms students from passive to active learners”. But how to get our students to this state of “transformation readiness” is an age-old issue challenging most instructors throughout their careers. I’m sure the struggle also extends to my own students, who are aspiring or practicing language-teaching professionals juggling multiple personal, academic, and professional demands. Research shows that reasons for not completing reading assignments also include factors such as reading comprehension, low student self-confidence, and lack of interest in the topic. Reflecting on my own teaching, I find this is an area I continue to ponder and experiment with to attain desired learning outcomes. If you’ve been thinking about the same things, a quick look at Faculty Focus will turn up many excellent posts by instructors sharing how they get students to do the reading. Beyond that, however, is a paucity of research in this specific area; moreover, that which does exist seems to focus mainly on extrinsic-oriented ways to enforce “compliance,” such as giving pop quizzes, adding extra writing assignments, introducing extra discussion credit points, or providing optional reading guides or questions. From the instructor’s perspective, such strategies don’t sound particularly motivating, nor are they likely to get our students excited about reading or developing a perspective that values learning. As we all know, grades do not necessarily reflect students’ engagement, and engagement is much more than mere compliance. Through giving more tests and assigning more papers, might we inadvertently be “helping” create more disengaged achievers?When students choose a reading in which they will assume the role of discussion facilitator, they tend to approach the reading differently. In response to Weimer’s question “Are there any other alternatives?” , I find the following three strategies have worked, with acceptable varying degrees of success, among my graduate, undergraduate, and diploma-level students alike. Although different instructional, contextual, and learner variables may affect how well they work for you, the level of frustration arising from unproductive discussions because students haven’t read the readings is likely to be reduced. 1. Providing choice to promote student ownership. Providing choice deals with “students’ perceptions that their teachers provide opportunities for participation in decision making related to academic tasks [and] allow for student input into class discussion”. In all my courses, students are always given options to (a) select a topic within the course’s scope where they’d like to develop expertise, (b) select from a list of two or three readings for consideration to assume the role of discussion facilitator, or (c) propose a relevant reading or readings to share with the group. As I have repeatedly discovered, when students choose a reading to assume the role of discussion facilitator, they tend to approach the reading differently and, in so doing, advance their own knowledge of the topic more deeply than they would in the role of discussant. This approach leads to greater engagement with both process and product of the reading exploration. As Chan et al. noted, “Asking for input on and giving students choices about helps students understand that their input is valued, which sets the stage for successful student ownership”. More importantly, the way we think about how such a sense of ownership emerges must go beyond what lies within the student; we need to consider how the different components within the entire learning system of a course interact. When our students can voice an opinion and make decisions about readings, they feel “ownership” because suddenly they have a personal stake in the content, process, and product of that choice. Granted, not all courses can offer such options, but where possible, you can ask yourself, Is there a way to add student choice about readings into my course that promotes a sense of ownership? 2. Providing different ways for students to demonstrate they’ve done the reading. How do you assess whether your students have done the reading? Through quizzes, exams, discussions, a summary or reflective writing piece, or final paper? I teach mainly upper-level courses, and so smaller classes make it easier to consider various “informal” ways students can demonstrate their engagement in and understanding of the recommended/chosen readings. I also don’t require students to purchase textbooks, because there are plenty of level-appropriate, interest-matching articles, either open access or accessible through the library. Over the past decades, I have tried, for example, the following approaches: Have a sign-up sheet for two to three students to self-select a time/topic for facilitating a warm-up discussion as a team for each week. Members of the facilitating group may also work together to come up with questions to share with the class by posting them at least three days before the discussion. Sharing questions provides everyone a chance to mull them over and request elaboration if they’re unclear. Alternatively, invite students to contribute questions to the discussion to be facilitated by the scheduled team. I require that these questions be posted to the group’s private website at least three days before the class. This allows (i) the session to address questions of concern and interest to the students, (ii) the questions to be thoughtfully integrated into the discussion by the student facilitators and the session to be planned by the instructor as a whole, (iii) all students to have an opportunity to think about the questions before class, and (iv) the facilitating team or the instructor to acknowledge contributions and channel thinking toward areas to focus on within the allocated time. Encourage the student facilitators to consider how questions from (a) and/or (b) can be grouped and synthesized in organizing/planning the discussion segment. The warm-up nature of the task necessitates they be selective of the questions they wish to share with their peers. The warm-up discussion is meant to be quite informal and flexible, and students are encouraged to experiment with different formats to get everyone involved. While some students may choose to operate within their comfort zones using the traditional discussion style, I have also been pleasantly surprised at the many ingenious and often fun, engaging ways my students have brought a discussion to life. I often stress that at this stage of their learning, I want them to feel free to explore what they’re reading, and not to worry about task guidelines to follow. Instead, encourage students to let their own and their peers’ needs take center stage during the discussion. I often weave questions that don’t get picked up during the warm-up discussion into my teaching to ensure that students see their individual questions from their reading are valued. The benefits of including a seemingly straightforward discussion-facilitation task go beyond getting the students to approach their reading in ways different from how they would if they were not facilitating. These include helping students: learn to generate questions meaningful to them and that may be of interest to their peers, and to promote dialogic exchanges among their peers—both essential skills to the work of language-teaching professionals; advance their own and their peers’ thinking regarding various topics/questions through exploring those put forward by the team and peers; achieve a deeper level of thinking and take ownership of their chosen topic/reading; and develop their skills as a facilitator or team facilitator, a life skill applicable both professionally and personally. 3. Providing a post-discussion summary post capturing key contributions. Instead of asking each student to submit a reflective post in writing or by audio-recording, which has its own pedagogical benefits and limitations, I have tried sharing a summary post. I call this my “reflective feedback,” attending to the principle of SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. Specific: highlight contributions made by individuals during the informal warm-up discussion. A side note: I typically sit in a corner, observing and taking field notes, and am not directly observable by the students, whatever the seating arrangement. This strategy helps me be very concrete in my feedback in acknowledging both specific and overall contributions made by the students individually and collectively while also highlighting the takeaway points from each discussion. It is also a way to make learning observable in that those thoughts and ideas become shared objects about which further questions and thinking can be explored and built upon within oneself or among the group. Measurable: provide a summarizing post no longer than a page. Attainable: ask one or two follow-up questions requiring students to read the post and draw on their experience. Relevant: when possible, selectively link points to individual students’ interests, experiences, and previous sessions. Time-based: I always share the post the very next day on the private class website; this time frame creates a bit of distance from the event, but it’s immediate enough that the memory is still fresh. Finally, a trail of such summarizing posts also helps students write a brief, personal reflection at the course’s end about what they’ve learned. In addition to class feedback, in my feedback to the facilitation team I usually include some guiding questions that members might consider asking themselves to help develop metacognition in learning through self-reflection. Have I gained a better/different understanding of the topic through my chosen reading(s) and discussion with my peers? In what ways can my new understanding inform my practices? Have I broadened my thinking or generated new thoughts or ideas not previously formulated? In what area(s) have my thinking and understanding reached new levels? Have I helped my peers clarify their thinking on various questions/issues that concern them, and in doing so clarified my own thinking? Contentwise, in what areas of my reading(s) do I need to clarify my understanding or follow up on? What are some ideas I can apply to my current or future work? Processwise, what have I learned about my ability to promote dialogic exchanges? What can I do differently the next time I facilitate a discussion or participate in one ? Bonus Idea: Leave one topic open. Among the key topics listed in the course outline, I always leave one open for those who either cannot figure out at least one area of interest, or who are definite about a specific topic that’s not included. Consider having an open topic option to accommodate and value personal interests in the course content and encourage developing those interests. Weave throughout the readings the central idea of teaching for relevance, where “students feel a sense of autonomy when doing work that . . . relates to their interests and has personal meaning . . . provides opportunities for self-exploration . . . and the activities provided are meaningful, relevant, and related to personal interests and goals”. I have discovered that instead of those methods commonly mentioned in articles for reinforcing reading compliance, taking an informal approach gives students (a) an option to choose readings meaningful or personally relevant to them; (b) an opportunity to take ownership of their chosen topic/reading(s) through facilitating a warm-up discussion; (c) a way to contribute input to the discussion’s process and product; (d) the experience of contributing to the success of each other’s discussion sessions, indirectly encouraging reading, collaboration, and reciprocal exchanges; and (e) a glimpse of what they can accomplish by embracing their role as facilitator, with process and product directly relevant to their interests and goals as language-teaching professionals. This combination of approaches dynamically embedded in the learning system can create powerful momentum and interest among students in what their peers have chosen to explore. As Weimer pointed out: “Few instructional strategies are universally effective, and few accomplish all learning objectives equally well”. I couldn’t agree more. As long as we do what we do, each course or instruction/learning session is a mini-adventure—a challenge requiring a unique combination of strategies. The perpetual state of change characteristic of what we do requires that we never stop experimenting by attending to the multidimensional nature of active engagement. What will you experiment with this semester to motivate your students to do the reading?

Divya Mathew

Unleashing The Power Of Examples

Unleashing the Power of Examples College teachers often enter their classrooms with thousands of hours of experience in their chosen field, and they typically face students who have little to no experience with that field of study. In this setting, teachers may take for granted all that they know and are able to do. In a sense, they expect students to “get inside their head.” One of the joys of teaching is finding ways to take complex topics and present them in such a way that students begin their own journey of discovery. Generally speaking, students learn through explanation, example, and experience. Unfortunately, teachers sometimes rely too much on explaining the knowledge, lingo, and methodologies of their discipline, all of which can sound like a foreign language to their students. Consequently, teachers may spend less time teaching with examples and encouraging experiential learning within their discipline, which is where the real learning often takes place. Examples and illustrations are powerful ways to broaden and deepen student learning. One of the challenges facing teachers is selecting the most effective examples and knowing when and how to best use them. Even if you find perfect examples, insert them ideally, and share them masterfully, it is still possible for your students to completely miss the point. It would be like asking students to go to the supermarket with a long list of items to buy, without giving them a shopping cart. They can take items off the shelf, but their capacity to retain them is greatly limited because they do not have anywhere to keep them. To illustrate this point, Dr. Kim B. Clark, former dean of the Harvard Business School, recently shared a story that has important implications for teachers, (Clark, 2019). An elementary teacher assembled a class of fourth graders and taught them a lesson about Martin Luther, the German theologian. At the end of his lesson, he gave them a short quiz to see what they had learned. Every student answered every question incorrectly. They answered all of his questions based on their knowledge of Martin Luther King, Jr., the famous American civil rights leader. The teacher then assembled a second group of fourth graders. This time, the teacher began his presentation with a question: “How many of you know who Martin Luther King, Jr. was?” All of the students raised their hands. Now that he had their attention, he asked, “Do any of you know why his parents gave him the name of Martin Luther?” None of them knew. He had their full attention, and they were ready to learn. He then shared the same information he had presented to the first group, but the students heard his lesson differently because it built on information they already understood. At the conclusion of this lesson, all of the students answered the questions correctly. The first group hadn’t learned anything about Martin Luther, even though the teacher had shared many details about his life and experiences. Why is that? It’s because the students had no context or framework to connect the information they were hearing with what they already knew. They were not ready to receive and contextualize the teacher’s new information. Dr. Clark concluded this anecdote with the following observation: “There is great power in connecting the principle to [students’] own experience and to what they already know and understand.” He further noted that drawing upon students’ personal experiences can help unlock their understanding and  increase the likelihood they will remember and integrate the new information they have received—all of which leads them to higher levels of understanding. Sharing our own relevant personal experiences (which, admittedly, may be uncomfortable for some teachers) can often be a catalyst for encouraging students to view their own experiences in terms of the topic at hand. This practice has a tendency to make our teaching more relevant, more relatable, and more understandable to the students. This can be especially true when teaching the most complex or difficult parts of your course. At those points, reach for more examples. Don’t assume that effective integration of personal examples and experiences will just happen in the moment. This can, and should, be an intentional part of our preparation. While preparing and teaching, it is important to keep our focus on the big picture. When it comes to incorporating examples into our teaching, we should frequently ask ourselves questions associated with what, how, and when, such as: What examples and illustrations would help students better understand? How should those examples or illustrations be delivered? When could those examples and illustrations be used most effectively? Integrating meaningful learning examples into our courses should take place at all levels of our teaching. When using examples or experiences to help students better understand individual concepts, teachers should not assume students can fully answer the unstated questions, “So what?” or “Why should I care?” Our job, when you boil it down to the essentials, is to help them answer those questions.The old adage says that a picture is worth a thousand words. We would suggest that a properly chosen example or experience is worth more than that. To get started, consider one aspect of your course where students consistently struggle and then search for and integrate an appropriate example or experience into your teaching.