It’s Not About Me. (Well, the post is, but what happens in class isn’t)
Yesterday and today, I taught my Fall semester classes for the first time. And in keeping with my desire to record my experience (for my reflection and your um, entertainment), here’s something these “first classes” have made me realize: I have a really tough time not centering my courses around me. This will take some work
Here’s some background. For the first day of my classes, I like to start right off with activity – no reading the syllabus at ’em. So, all three face-to-face courses (despite being different courses) followed the same format. They got into randomly assigned groups of six and took turns telling stories about their most memorable classroom experience. While one told a 3 minute story, the others would use post-it notes to write down one or two words the story made them think about. Once everyone had told their story and written post-its about the other stories, they worked in groups to organize the group’s words into categories (for one class, each class had to come up with two metaphors for what school is that they can use to organize their words. The other had to organize by whether the words fell into learning, motivation, or assessment.)
So, there is a lot of me resetting the online timer, walking around the room, and standing there. I’d interact with students and listen to stories being told, but mostly, the students ran the show. And I know that is how it should be. But here’s the thing: I noticed myself getting awfully fidgety during those three minute (and eight minute at the end) segments.
I think one reason I felt fidgety – like I should be DOING something – is that subconsciously, I have picked up the message about teaching and learning that most of us do: good teaching means the teacher is doing something at all times, and maybe ideally, is the central focus of what goes on in the classroom. But when your class period is designed in a way where students can move and do themselves – and where you don’t have to be the Sun in the room around whom student-planets must orbit – the teacher (well, at least me) will be left with the awkward feeling that at that moment, he should be doing more.
Here’s the way the situation honestly felt. During each three minute segment, I’d walk around a bit, listen to student stories, and sometimes interject if I felt it was appropriate. But toward the last minute or so, I’d generally walk back to the computer so that I could be in position to reset the three-minute on-line timer. And at that point, And that minute felt like more than a minute. It was worse when I could hear that some groups in earshot were done with their stories and were just small-talking to kill the time. It felt like I was that sort of awkward adolescent who (wrongly, as adults know) feels like everyone is looking at them waiting for them to do something. Too self-conscious, I guess.
But that’s the thing. I structured the class in a way where students didn’t need to wait for me to do something. I needed to keep the timer going and give instructions periodically, but that was it. They weren’t waiting for me to do something. They were doing the activity and talking with their group.At some point, the adolescent (I guess that’s me) discovers that everyone in the room is not looking at them at all times, and frankly, may be so engrossed in whatever activity they’re occupied with that they don’t even notice the self-aware adolescent.
Maybe my experience here is unique, but I doubt it is. The way teaching is generally done and understood is quite similar across time and space. The teacher plays the main role, and the students are the supporting act. The former reads their lines and the latter pays attention. Even when there is discussion and activity, it is often done in a way where the teacher is at the center of it, calling on people, elaborating on answers before the next student can proceed, etc. But my above “first days” were not like that. And even as student-centered as I try to make my classes, I confess that this was shockingly hard not to be the center of the room.
One last illustration might suffice – and at last, a successful one. In one of my “first days,” I noticed that toward the end, I was controlling a lot of the discussion. I’d pick on a student to answer, s/he’d respond, and I’d elaborate on his/her answer, then ask if anyone else had thoughts about that. Once I recognized that I was falling into that (a tone I desperately do not want to set in my classrooms), I started remaining silent when a student would respond to something. Rather than elaborating on what the student said and asking for others, I gave the class a ‘what do you think” look and just waited for more hands, to make it closer to a conversation where the teacher isn’t the predominant voice. And after about 1 minute of silence, more students raised their hands, and I’d call on them. And at some point, students started really getting the idea and didn’t even wait for me to call on them, but would respond directly to the other student, sometimes even referring to the previous student by name. I was still part of the conversation, and would interject when I thought I should, but now there was true discussion going on, and I was no longer the Sun to the student’s planets.
But even this took some navigating and (surprising to me), it was not in my comfort zone.
I will practice.