Observations in Teaching

I recently visited an upper level undergraduate poetry class taught by a professor of English.  This particular poetry class took place in a conference room within the English Department’s administrative office suite – it was mid-day.  The room was relatively small.  It featured a conference table that sat about fifteen students and had a stand-alone podium connected to projector equipment in one of its corners.  As you might imagine, it was impossible to not be noticed by the students who had decided to attend this particular class session.

They smiled, I said ‘Hi’ and then they proceeded to take their seats.

Trying not to call attention to myself, I sat in the back of the room off in a far corner.  From this perspective, I was able to see all the students and the professor.  I was still relatively close in proximity to the conference table that I was able to listen to the various student conversations.  As one might expect, the chatter ranged from idle talk to questions about the homework.

Classroom scene with teacher Ida Adams conducting a lesson on Alexander Graham Bell (Horace Mann School photographs, Collection 0420.047, City of Boston Archives, Boston: 1899)
Classroom scene with teacher Ida Adams conducting a lesson on Alexander Graham Bell (Horace Mann School photographs, Collection 0420.047, City of Boston Archives, Boston: 1899)

I visited this English professor’s class in an effort to observe a teaching professional outside of my own discipline (History).  It is one thing to know what my fellow peers are doing to engage students, but it is quite another to see what other colleagues across campus are doing too.  Maybe I might be able to model, for my own class, elements of teaching that I thought worked best.  At the very least, I would walk away knowing what not to do – right?

Observing such a class, one outside of my discipline, would also expose me to the range and types of engagement students encounter throughout their day on campus.  Is there not some benefit to knowing what type of instruction students are presented with in a typical day as they shuffle from History 1301 to English 2302 and then off to Chemistry 1401 before some elective course on the opposite side of campus?  If I’m the last stop on a student’s schedule for the day because I happen to teach in the afternoon, would it not be beneficial to know that half of the students have been participating in one group activity session after another since 9A.M. with a lunch break in between?

Getting back to my observation of the English professor, she began class by taking attendance and noting any on-campus events the students might find worth attending that were related to the course.  She concluded her welcome dialog by reminding students of the reading assignment due for the next class session (a point of discuss reiterated at the end of class too).  Once the administrative tasks were completed on the part of the professor, she turned the floor over to the students.  Each student went around discussing the homework reading.  As part of their homework, they each had to write down on a note card what they thought the author’s thesis was and one question they had about the reading.  These note cards were the students’ admission ticket to engage with their peers and claim their seat at the conference table.

As the class went on, I noticed two things had occurred.  The first thing I noticed was that the professor relied on the students to lead the discussion(s).  This was accomplished by dividing the class period into two sections: the first half focused on individual responses to the readings and the last half focused on group activities.  The second thing I noticed was that the professor did not draw way from engaging the students, but inserted herself to help the students’ further flush out their thoughts and responses.  She walked around the room and engaged with the groups one-on-one in the last half of the session and periodically, she would address the entire class.  In the first half, she follow up with each student and ask a specific question or two before turning the discussion back over to the class.  In this regard, the professor helped students make connections to larger social issues and shifting attitudes from the past to the present, without spending most of the class time lecturing.  She gave personal attention in spurts among the groups and brought the class back together when needed.  In this format, the focus was on the students to draw connections using their own knowledge of the source material and engagement with their peers.

I do not see myself teaching a small History course of fifteen students in my immediate future.  In a slightly larger class of around twenty-five students, maybe thirty is most realistic, which I do see myself teaching, I could still foster an environment where students are expected to engage critically in their studies much like the English professor’s small class of fifteen.  That being said, I have to think creatively about how I might apply some similar fashion of instruction.  This does not mean busy students with group activities either.  Rather, I ought to charge students will the expectation that both understanding and questioning assigned reading is their ticket to having as seat at the proverbial conference table.

By scaffolding assignments (have the work build upon itself over multiple days: require preassigned readings, give a homework activity that focuses on two or more perspectives of the readings, and require students to use their homework as a guide for in-class discussion) would I be able to 1.) challenge the students to think critically by working on activities that build upon each other and 2.) challenge myself to look for ways to engage students that draw from a variety of approaches.  In this regard, crafting a class session requires effort on both the part of the students being taught and myself as the instructor.  Like the English professor, I ought to guide and help students along as they master the skills necessary to think and engage critically.  To achieve such an end, I am tasked with configuring how I might create in-class situations that foster individual and group development for both the students and myself as an instructor.

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