Reflection after Nine Weeks

The last nine weeks have been something of a blur. It’s been one of those semesters with too much to do and too little time to do it. But, I think what we, collectively, have done here is exceedingly important.

One of the most unfortunate things about teaching is that we rarely have time to sit down and reflect upon our craft. So many of us run helter-skelter during the school year, and, then, when the breaks finally arrive, we often wish to turn to (or finally return to) those aspects of our personal lives (unrelated to work) that suffer such neglect as we prep, teach, grade, and do the mountains of paperwork that are part of the job.

But we should reflect on what we do. Passing on knowledge and skills, insights and advice, may be one of the most important tasks of the older generation of any society. We should talk about how to teach well. And we should share the pitfalls. We should talk about that to which we have dedicated our lives.

My biggest regret these last nine weeks has been the lack of time and energy to properly read most of the other posts written by all of you. I see these as a treat for me when the semester is finally over. I look forward to the wisdom you have all shared.

Of the eight blogs that I’ve written to date, only two of them have proved satisfactory to me. The rest, well, I needed to get them done, so I did. They were hack jobs.

That said, I don’t regret writing them. Those were the topics that came to mind when writing time arrived. The thoughts were honest and heartfelt.

Of course, on some weeks, my primary thought was reluctance, followed by “What the heck can I write about?” But, then, when it came time to actually sit down and compose, the words and ideas (however sketchy) flowed.

In the end, there are only two kinds of writing: that which is done and that which is not. I like the finished kind.

I stand amazed by the quality of instructors here at Yavapai College. And I remain impressed by TeLS and all that they do. When Todd asked me write these blogs, I readily agreed. And this was not just because I love my job and love to talk about it. It was because I hold Todd, and all the folks at TeLS, is the highest regard.

Kudos for Todd for corralling the cats. and kudos for everyone who wrote down their thoughts and feelings about one of the most important jobs in the world.

Communitas Rather Than Merely Community

I had the chance to discuss the idea of community in the classroom with a couple people this week. As I’m sure you are aware, the studies show that, for many students, an educational community helps with retention and academic performance. I know this to be true from my own experience as a student and a teacher. We often thrive when supported, and held accountable, by our peers.

So, I looked up the definition of community, and here are the top three (and most relevant definitions):

Community: noun, plural communities.
1. a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
2. a locality inhabited by such a group.
3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually preceded by the): the business community; the community of scholars.
http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/community

Being something of a word geek, I went ahead and looked up the Latin root, which is communitas. Much to my surprise, the following appeared:

Communitas: noun, Anthropology
1. the sense of sharing and intimacy that develops among persons who experience liminality as a group. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/communitas

I had never seen this definition before. It was utterly new to me, and it immediately dawned on me (in my excitement) that THIS is exactly what I strive to create among my students.

It is not enough that students simply gather in groups, inside and outside of the classroom, and learn and review knowledge.

I want them to change, and I want them to change together. I want my classes to be liminal experiences—that state of existence between entering one person and coming out a different, better person. I want each class to be an intellectual (and, if possible, an emotional) rite of passage, where the students emerge with stronger minds and stronger hearts. This is my ideal, and the word communitas precisely defines what I desire for my students.

I haven’t taken even an informal poll, but I suspect more than a few of you have had classes, or periods in your lives, when this has happened to you. I was fortunate enough to have experienced this “sense of sharing and intimacy that develops among persons who experience liminality as a group” a number of times in my life. In graduate school, both at the University of Arizona and the University of Kansas, communitas developed into academic cohorts with individuals who have become life-long friends. We transformed into better people, better scholars, and better educators together.

Yes, I know there are a lot of factors involved in making this ideal a reality as teachers in our own classes. Once in a while, we get groups of students who, for whatever reason, have horrible group chemistry. In these cases, it seems that no human alive can raise the energy of the class to allow communitas to develop. But, in my years of teaching, I have found this particular dynamic to be fairly rare. And if you are one of the instructors who believe that it happens frequently, or it happens more frequently with “this generation” of students, then I propose that you are not trying hard enough.

So, here are a couple of questions for you all. How and when has communitas developed in your classes? Was it similar to a personal experience you underwent within the framework of your own education? And, lastly, in this digital age, we should ask: how do online classes change the potential for establishing communitas?

Meta-Learning

As teachers, we’ve given a lot of thought about learning. And, with years of college under our belts, we often have a solid sense of how we best learn.

But, I’m not sure that’s true for most of our students. Indeed, I’ve heard complaints about how they don’t think about the own learning. They don’t see the big picture. They just keep moving forward, lesson after lesson, until they are done with the semester, the program, or the degree.

I’m not sure this is entirely fair. I believe our students to be much more reflective than many instructors know. For example, some of them understand that sitting and listening to a lecture is not always the best way to learn. And, for most of our students, that would be true.

But, let us assume that our students are not meta-learners, or at least to the extent to which we wish them to be.

So, then, let’s teach them. For years, instructors and students alike have been complaining about the “pour-knowledge-into-their-heads” method of teaching. Yet, the vast majority of our teaching is just that.

Nevertheless, one of the great things about Yavapai College is the willingness of instructors to experiment and expand upon the lecture model. Writing poetry in the sculpture garden (M. Carter), recreating Stonehenge with clay (B. Andres), and a host of other activities, including a plethora of field trips, such as seeing a Shakespearean play on stage (J. Fisher) have all been part of classes that I’ve taken here.

While I understand that Gardner’s model of multiple intelligences is somewhat controversial, I still try look to it as a way to expand my teaching repertoire. Unfortunately, I don’t do enough.

Many of our students appear to relate to learning through physical activity, at least as I’ve seen in the multiple intelligence survey given to them. So, what can we do to get our students to move and to learn?

How can we help them understand how they learn best? Surveys are a good start. But, we, and the students, need to experiment. Will they find a way to learn math and science formulae by walking to a beat and reciting them? Will they better understand a story in English class by listening to it online with musical accompaniment?

And we need to talk to our students about their learning. Sometimes, it seems that, as professional educators, we hold out on them. We devise a clever learning activity without adding a meta-learning dimension.

Let’s discuss learning with our learners.

Go Find Me a Poem

So the theme for last Tuesday’s First Year Experience course was resilience and decision making. I had a lesson on hand, including a Power Point presentation. But, by the time I got to the classroom, I had changed my mind.
Have you ever done that before?

Did it go well? Sometimes it does, sometimes . . . well . . . not so much.

Last Tuesday went fairly well.

After handing out graded papers and dealing with other logistical issues, I turned to the class and said, “Go find me a poem, and print it out, and bring it back by 1:30.” Except for letting them know that I had WEPA card available for their use, so they wouldn’t have to pay for the printing (and only two students used it), I gave them no further instructions.

Much to my pride, most of them got up and disappeared, heading off for the Learning Center or the Library. I remember only one student asking a question, which I didn’t answer because it would have damaged the lesson. They came back one by one, dropped their poems on the table next to me, and waited for everyone to return. I must confess that some of my students have excellent taste in poetry. Others . . . well . . . not so much. Seriously, though, every one of them found and printed out a poem.

In the discussion that followed, I explained the activity.

I wanted them to practice using the WEPA printers in a crunch, in case they someday needed to print out a paper for another class at the last minute (we’ve all been in similar situations). I wanted them to keep trying, or ask for help, if the printing (or anything else) was confusing. I wanted them to know the resilience and decision-making skills (and skills using campus resources) that they already possessed.

None of them confessed to having had any problems with the assignment. This may have been the case, but I doubt it. Still, on reflection, I’m pleased by their work. Yet, if I were to do this again, I would do it earlier in the semester.

A few years ago, in one of my G.E.D. classes, I tossed aside my planned lesson and had my students watch Sir Ken Robinson’s (now classic) T.E.D. video, “How Schools Kill Creativity” (http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity?language=en). My goal here was to show my high-school drop-outs that just because they failed to finish school doesn’t mean that they are failures. Sometimes (arguably, often) the problem is with the schools. It ain’t that easy to fit square pegs into round holes.

After discussing the video and having some of the students share their experiences, I broke them into small groups. Each group had to design their own school (elementary, high school, college, whatever), including its curriculum. They then had to present their educational inventions to the rest of the class, which then commented on the ideas presented.

This went extremely well. Nearly every student dived into the activity (not all that common in any class, especially G.E.D. classes). Since many of them are also parents, this gave them a chance to ponder and discuss the education of their children. And, we spent the time talking about learning. Meta-learning is a powerful skill for all students.

The “poem lesson” and the “school-design lesson” are only two examples of when I periodically dump my plans for something different. It’s as if some sort of intuitive light flashes in my mind encouraging me to try an off-the-cuff activity.

When has this worked for you? When has it not worked? I’m very interested in learning about your experiences in similar situations.

When Did You First Want to Become a Teacher?

Earlier in the week, I asked my First Year Experience students, “When did you first want to become a _________ (their career choice)?” The responses proved wonderfully diverse. One student said “since I was like two or four,” and another called out an answer akin to “since last week.” The other answers fell somewhere in between.

When did you first want to become a teacher? The answer to this question matters. I’m not sure that someone who has possessed this dream since childhood is necessarily a better teacher than someone who didn’t decide until, say, graduate school. But the depth of the roots of self-identification do seem do appear to be significant. Deep roots uphold tall trees.

Some of you may have come to education later in your life, and that, of course, is perfectly acceptable. It just may have taken you a while to realize where you wanted to be in the world. It really is more a matter of intensity than time.

I’ve wanted to be a teacher since 4th grade, so that would have been about age nine. I didn’t share this dream with any of my peers at the time. Oh, no. Teachers were the enemy. It was way too uncool to want to be a teacher to tell anybody about it. I kept quiet, until, at least, high school.

4th grade really did change my life and set me on the path on which I still walk. And Mrs. Lynda Juencke (pronounced Yankee) was my first guide. She made learning fun. She made learning important. She made learning a source of personal pride. She taught me my multiplication tables, the wonders of geography (including how to memorize the capital of Iceland), and all of the presidents in order (up through Jimmy Carter, the prez at the time). This love of learning has never left me, and today, my successful days as an instructor are counted by those in which I manage to pass on this love to my students.

My personal (and, by extension, professional) Pedagogical Hall of Fame has many entries. Three more are worth mentioning here. Professor Alan Bernstein taught me how to think like a scholar, and, even more importantly, he was the one who finally convinced me that I was smart. This was no small undertaking, and I now strive to do the same with my students, for a strong sense of intelligence leads to a powerful self-efficacy.

Professor Donald Worster showed me that one can be a teacher and still change the world. Education is a powerful weapon in the fight against the many injustices of this world.

And, lastly, the character Robin Williams plays in Dead Poet’s Society inspired me to inspire others. Every once in a while, a teacher can brighten our souls. And every time I see this movie, or even a clip from it, I remember why I do what I do.

When did you first want to become a teacher? How deep are your roots? I know some of you are mighty oaks in the forest of education. Who planted your acorn, and who nourished your growth?

Four Fundamental Questions Addressed in FYE 103

As I understand it, some faculty and administrators here at Yavapai College question the usefulness of First Year Experience (FYE) 103: Success for College, Career, and Life. There are those who may see it as a “fluff” course (although the homework load is considerable). Others may argue that they got through college without such a course, so our students don’t need one. (Well, yes, so did I, but I certainly wish it had existed when I went to ASU in the late 1980s. My life would have been so much easier, and I would have learned so much more.)

In defense of FYE 103, one could cite the abundance of data demonstrating a clear increase in student retention and graduation resulting for such a course. One could also look to the swelling number of colleges that are putting similar classes in their curriculum. But, having taught this course for about nine weeks now, I prefer to see its value by looking at a different, larger picture.

What fundamental life questions does FYE 103 address?

As a caveat, every instructor teaching this course—and perhaps every student taking it—may well have different questions, since we all have different perspectives and experiences. Two of my questions below come from the excellent science fiction series Babylon 5, and the other two came to mind as we progressed through the course modules heroically developed by Nancy Schafer and Mark Shelly.

1. Who are you?
We spend considerable time in FYE 103 on basic self-awareness issues, including multiple intelligences, habits, drives, learning styles, ideas of self, and notions of emotional intelligence. While a college student can gain these insights in other courses—and I, for one, always encourage everyone to take philosophy, psychology, sociology, and other classes that lead to introspection—FYE 103 provides an introduction to these crucial concepts (which some students may never receive elsewhere).

2. What do you want?
Academic and career goals function as a cornerstone to the course. They learn more about degree options. They gain more understanding of the potential outlooks of the different careers in which they may be interested. We urge them to look at the short-term, medium-term, and long-term. As a college student, I had to learn goal-setting on my own, and, honestly, I’m not a better person for it. In short, we help FYE 103 students acquire a certain binocular vision that will serve them for a lifetime.

3. How will you survive?
Making it through college is not easy for most people. Indeed, those with a weak support network—and those who never had a chance to learn what many educated people currently take for granted—remain at a huge disadvantage in the academic environment. This holds true for life generally. So, we teach our students how to set priorities, navigate bureaucracies, handle money, take notes, do well on exams, and stay motivated in the face of adversity. If your parents or teachers taught you these things before entering college, then consider yourself blessed, for many students at Yavapai College are less fortunate.

4. How will you excel?
Once a student has some level of self-awareness, some sort of plan for the future, and some basic skills of survival in our modern world, he or she is ready to excel at something. FYE 103 uses a book by Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske called The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success (Harvard, 2010). Despite its rather dramatic, even cheesy, title, the book is a gold mine of neuroscience, psychology, and common sense. It sets forth numerous role-models of success and analyzes how they achieved their remarkable goals. Who among us won’t benefit from gaining multiple perspectives, and plenty of advice, on how to excel at our life’s work?
Now the answers to these four fundamental questions will change over time; truly, they remain in constant flux for all of us. That’s the beauty of introducing them to college students early on in their academic careers (and personal lives). This endeavor helps them enter new worlds equipped with some basic (if early) answers to questions that will endure for the remainder of their lives.

Unless our mission as educators at Yavapai College is merely to teach our students how to make a buck (and it’s not), then we would do well to employ every tool at our disposal, including FYE 103, to help them become multi-dimensional and successful human beings.

Teaching Widely (Part II)

I was trained as a historian, but I don’t teach much history. Most of my time in the classroom is spent teaching as much of the high-school curriculum as possible to high-school drop-outs who are attempting to get their G.E.D.’s (and, if all goes well, attend college).

Last week, I wrote a few thoughts about my new-found joys in the field of mathematics. This week, I’d like discuss the other dimensions of teaching widely and how this diversity has affected me.

I teach a fair bit of writing, such as how to construct an essay, how to use proper English grammar and punctuation, and how to relax when it comes to putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboards. Having long enjoyed words, teaching this subject is less burdensome than, say math. Still, I was not trained as an English instructor. Like many who receive a decent liberal-arts education, I learned how to write papers and essays, and I usually knew when a sentence looked wrong and needed some change in punctuation or grammar.

But when it came to explaining why we write in certain ways, I needed to investigate the particulars. Purdue OWL and the Little-Brown Handbook became my allies in these efforts. In my own undergraduate and graduate years, I learned a great deal more about Latin and French grammar that I did about English. Luckily the processes dovetailed; yet, it did show me that my education in English was far from adequate.

Nevertheless, as the learning curve became less steep, I discovered that I had become a more confident writer. Now, most mistakes result from sloppiness rather than ignorance of the language. This literary security produces positive results each and every day.

Despite this confidence, a deep sense of humility persists. While teaching writing has made me a better writer, I still have so much more to learn in this field. As a result, I take writing courses here at Yavapai College. Kudos to the creative writing staff for helping me as a writer AND as a writing instructor.

Indeed, I regularly take a host of classes here. I learn subject knowledge, skills, and (by watching my colleagues) more effective methods of instruction. I’m exceeding pleased by the quality of teaching at this institution. I’ve absorbed knowledge in art history, literature, psychology, philosophy, physical education, communications, education, the humanities, and more, as well as creative writing and mathematics, as mentioned earlier.
I now see science courses on the horizon.

I take these classes for different reasons, but since I need to teach widely, I need to learn widely, and, as a product of the modern American educational system, I do this best as a student in a classroom, or, if necessary, online. I pour as much of this knowledge as possible into my G.E.D. classes.

And, just as important, I keep learning how to be a better teacher from other instructors (those both more and less experienced than I). Without hesitation, and with credit whenever possible, I adopt ideas and tools from my colleagues. If I’ve ever been a student in one of your classes, then I’ve probably picked up at least one pedagogical technique from you. I feel blessed by how much I’ve learned here.

So, strength through diversity is not only true in our communities but also in our own minds, and, by extension, our effectiveness as teachers. If you get a chance to teach widely, do so. If you get a chance to take courses from your colleagues, do so. Such personal and professional variety is humbling and exciting. And, over the years, I’ve become fully convinced that it can make you a better teacher.

9x9x25 Post Two: Teaching Widely (Part I)

So, I’m trained as a historian. I did my undergraduate work in European history and political theory. I have a Master’s in medieval European history, the equivalent of another Master’s in American history, and I’m ABD for a Ph.D. in American history, specifically the environmental history of the American West.
But, I don’t teach much history anymore. I do teach G.E.D. preparation courses, which does include a section on U.S. history. It also involves some civics (a.k.a. American government), for which I also have some training.
Nevertheless, I have received little formal training for much of what I teach, which is pretty much the entire high school curriculum. Now, I did get through high school, and I received a decent liberal arts education as an undergraduate. So, drawing on those (now rather old) skills, I started teaching G.E.D. preparation in 2007.
About half of all of my time in the classroom is spent teaching mathematics. Yes, some of you are shuddering in revulsion. Others are letting loose an inner cheer. And some of you may be shrugging with indifference.
Now, I took College Algebra at age 17, about 30 years ago. Apparently I remember almost none of it—I kid you not, it’s a real “use it or lose it” discipline. It didn’t help that I utterly despised math through most of my life.
Until January of this year, I taught rather basic math (the equivalent of MAT 082 here), and I did well with it. However, with the rise of the Common Core standards, high school is becoming more difficult, so the G.E.D. rose with it. Our math instruction must now include much more algebra (MAT 092 and part of MAT 122).
Drawing a blank when it came to factoring polynomials and dealing with functions, I scrambled over to Building 4 here on the Prescott Campus and jumped into some math classes (many thanks to Brian Brockert, and now Shane Gibson).
Having taught math for over seven years, and now taking math classes once again, I’ve come to rather enjoy it, despite a lack of inherent aptitude. I’m more secure than ever teaching it, and the beauty of numbers has entered my soul. Each math problem that I solve, either as a teacher or a student, brings that feeling of satisfaction one gets from successfully finishing any puzzle. Because I struggled so much when I was young, I’m able to share that “Got it!” feeling with my students.
In short, by teaching outside of my original comfort zone, I have broadened my intellectual horizons and changed for the better. This can also happen to instructors who only teach within their own discipline (the one in which they were trained). However, when I lecture on, or read, history, there are familiar channels within my consciousness that become richer and deeper. Yet when I teach, or learn, mathematics, my mind bursts with new activities and new possibilities.
And I get to say “Got it!” And that’s just cool.
So, given the opportunity, you might want to jump at the chance to teach widely. You never know what good may come of it.

9x9x25 Post One: What is the Adult Education Program?

What is the Adult Basic Education Program?
by Mark C. Frederick

This semester, I am teaching a section of FYE 103 (Success for College, Career, and Life), but most of my classroom time falls within Yavapai College’s Adult Basic Education program. There are some folks out there who know what we do (and some of you have even taught with us), but the overwhelming majority of people at Yavapai College just give me a blank stare and a polite nod when I tell them that I’m an Adult Basic Education (ABE) instructor.
In ABE, we teach courses that prepare students to get their G.E.D.’s (there should be a trademark symbol with G.E.D. now–the textbook company, Pearson, bought the test–so let’s just pretend that the symbol has been inserted to keep the lawyers from that mega-corp at bay). We also offer courses in English as a Second Language (which is now called ELAA, but, in previous incarnations, it was ESL or ESOL—it keeps changing). I don’t teach ELAA, so I can’t speak to it. All of our classes currently prepare students for college and the workforce. A fair number of our students go on and attend Yavapai College, so you’ve probably had them in your classes.
So I teach G.E.D., and even more folks know what that means (fewer blank stares, more nods of understanding). More specifically, I teach courses to help students build their academic skills in order to pass the G.E.D., and then move on to college or a better job. Our students typically attend two classes a week, for three hours each (so 6 hours a week). They can come more often, if they wish. I teach four nights a week, and some of my students come every night in order to accelerate their learning.
We teach a very wide variety of subjects (and the challenges inherent in this diversity may well be another 9x9x25 entry). Our students need to study reading (fiction and nonfiction), writing (composing essays of different sizes), math (up through intermediate algebra), science (biology, chemistry, physics, and a few others), and social studies (political science, history, geography, and economics). We spend more time on math and writing than on the others because those areas tend to be our students’ weakest subjects.
There is no typical G.E.D. student, just as there is no typical Yavapai College student. Nevertheless, generalities can be made (with an understanding of the dangers inherent in generalities). Our students are likely to be low income. They are likely to be working class in culture. They are likely to have at least one learning disability. And it doesn’t surprise me if they are in, or have been through, one of the local rehab centers. They have a fair chance of having some sort of criminal record (typically connected to a petty drug charge). And my G.E.D. students tend to be motivated, brilliant, and fun. In fact, an argument can be made that, despite their (often) low academic skills, they possess greater problem-solving skills than the average college student—in part, perhaps, because they’ve had to be so very clever to make it in this harsh world.   However, this is open to debate, and I don’t want to detract from the other students here at Yavapai College.
So, I do most of my teaching in Adult Basic Education. If you’re curious about us and our program, drop me a note (mark.frederick@yc.edu), and we can get together and chat. You’re also welcome to come to any of my G.E.D. classes.
Just give me a heads up, and we’ll make it happen.