Monday, November 16, 2015

The Best Laid Plans: What I'm Doing NEXT Semester

It's the time of year for reflections, both personal and professional. I reflect gratefully on all I have to be thankful for, which is an abundance. It's interesting that this time of reflection coincides with the point in the semester when all of the things that could have been done better seem to be staring me in the face.

Final papers are being written, final projects are underway, and final grades are being tallied. I take every success and failure to heart, and I'm proud to report that the successes have grown with my experience and collaboration with colleagues. But, of course, there's always something you can change.

And now is the time that the change seems easiest. The next semester is still months away, and declaring these changes doesn't feel like a commitment just yet. Next semester is a mirage, one that I can cast idealistic visions onto until I get closer and have to grapple with the messy reality of it all. But that's later. Today, I can plan.

Is that you next semester? So full of promise! 
I read this post from James M. Lang about small changes in the classroom, and the planning feels even easier. Lang writes about using the few minutes before class begins more productively, and he has good ideas, including posting an image or phrase to get students talking about the class topic informally before the formal class begins.

With this time of reflection and Lang's suggestions in mind, I've thought of three things I want to do differently next semester, and they're all small enough that they just might actually happen. Sometimes you can make the mirage match reality, if only for a moment.

1) Fix Syllabus Day
I have a pretty snazzy syllabus, if I do say so myself. I've updated it using visual rhetoric design concepts and made it very visually appealing with a much clearer daily schedule than the old table design I used to use.

But it's still a syllabus.

And listening to me talk about it for an hour the very first time we meet is still boring.

I've switched to using a single, full-length nonfiction text instead of a traditional composition textbook in all of my classes, so I'm going to use the beginning of the first day to dive head-first into the theme of the class rather than straight into the syllabus.

Honestly, while the information on the syllabus is important, there's no reason we can't go over it in stages over the first week. We really don't need to use up the prime real estate of first impressions on it.

2) Implement One-Minute Note Cards

I read this post from Tom Sura after this semester was underway and toyed with the idea of implementing it anyway, but I decided to hold off and make it part of a fresh start so that I could be more intentional with it.

Sura uses a one-minute reflection in which he asks students to turn in a notecard with 1) the most important thing they learned and 2) a question they still have after each day's discussion. He says it makes the class more focused with a stronger conclusion and ensures that the last minute of class is reflective and quiet.

I can see how cards like this could be used as a participation tool, particularly for students who are hesitant to speak up.

3) Find Ways for My Students to Share More

I teach developmental writing, and most of my students do not see themselves as real college students, let alone as scholars. It's often hard to get them to share their own perspectives in either discussion or in their papers. Most of them want me to tell them answers I want to hear so that they can repeat them, a practice that has served them well in the past.

I've tried to choose themes (money and protest songs for next semester) that are broad enough to have room for personal insights and experiences. These come up informally in class discussion, but I want to find ways to make student-provided examples a much more concrete part of the class.

NaBloPoMo November 2015I'm hoping to use something like Lang's image at the beginning of class but combine it with asking for contributions. I think that it would be very affirming for students to see their selections shared as the discussion piece, and I hope that it would make them look at the world around them more critically as they consider everything they encounter as a possible shareable moment.

If you teach (or are a student or have been a student) what small changes have made an impact in your classrooms? 

Photo: Michael Gwyther-Jones

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