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What I learned teaching this semester

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

At the end of each semester, I am already thinking about my approach for the next semester. The beautiful thing is I have all summer to ruminate. The problem is I have all summer to ruminate. I would like to close the book on this semester and settle into 12 weeks of only being a writer instead of being a teacher who is struggling to find time and space to write. However, the students linger during the summer months -- especially because I come up with radical changes to my classroom that are neither practical nor feasible long term.

Transitioning from teacher mode to non-teacher mode is a struggle for me. It often takes me at least a week to come down from all the end-of-semester grading. I am still having anxiety dreams where I am constantly herding teenagers into their seats or it's Sunday night and my lecture for the next day isn't ready.

I have gone on record -- students are exhausting. It's not their fault. What makes them exhausting is the fact that I can't make assumptions about what they know. They all had different writing instructors who told them in absolute terms what writing is and what writing isn't. One of them in their final reflection wrote "I never realized that someone could teach writing based solely on their opinion." I'm still not sure what that means. Perhaps they are trying to say that writing is subjective. Which it is. In contrast with the students who write in their reflections, "I don't see how we can be graded on this class because writing is subjective." The word can both be used as a compliment and a weapon.

This semester I encountered many of the same challenges as in previous semesters, primarily in regard to my need to establish firm boundaries. When I started teaching years ago, I was on call to my students 24 hours a day. I answered online messages and emails as soon as they came in. Since then, I have set up boundaries -- stopping answering student questions after 5 pm and no contact on the weekends. At times I have caught myself breaking these rules this semester. I struggle with feeling the need to assure my students that they are okay all the time. I worry about them, and they sense that because they tell me things about their personal lives -- their housing issues, their struggles to stay in school, their feelings about their families, their injuries (when they fall off their skateboard they will send me a photo), their doubts about their abilities. And I carry that with me; it's difficult to wash that off at the end of the semester. Right now, I am fretting about the ones who dropped off the grid mid-semester, the ones who will need to retake the class over the summer or next semester, and the ones who did fine but are dealing with family issues or housing insecurities. It is difficult for me to turn that off at the end of the semester. For the next week or so, I will feel lost, restless, anxious, and unsettled.

In the meantime, it helps to focus on the practical and consider what I learned teaching this semester.

Here are a few different things I tried this semester that helped me:

  1. I went back to a manual, physical attendance book. In the past, I took attendance via D2L (which is a program like Blackboard and Canvas) in the classroom while the students participated in a freewriting assignment. The problem with that is I have to log onto D2L during class, and because of security measures, I have to do a five-point verification process before I can access my attendance tab. Once the lecture begins, it's difficult to switch back over to D2L from my presentation to make note of the students who wander in late -- as they so often do. This semester, I carried a notebook with me and marked attendance and late walk-ins. Then later I would enter those stats into D2L.

  2. My outline lesson is not working. Of all the frustrating things I experience as a teacher, watching students try to put together an outline is the most. Each semester I give them an outline, and I explain how they should fill it out. It is basically a template. It provides instructions that say, "Repeat as many paragraphs as needed" and despite all that, I always end up with basic five-paragraph essay formats or a first draft. I feel like I need to rebrand the outline so they are not so dismissive of it. Call it "The Information Edit" or "Boxes of Joy" and prepare them for it by watching a season of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Basically, organizing a long research paper is like turning a hoarder's den into a sleek, organized celebrity home. The only time they "get" the outline is when I do it with them. I put it up on a whiteboard and somehow seeing it on a non-digital screen clicks certain things into their brain.

  3. I am a huge lover of using tech for teaching. However, this semester I used many off the screen exercises. And I think they were incredibly helpful. I started some of these in the fall but I turned it way up in the spring. I passed out index cards for practicing MLA-style citations. I asked them to freewrite with a pencil or pen to warm up each class. Many of them hated it, but even they would admit how useful it was. When we got to editing week, I bought whiteboards, highlighters, and physical copies of their second drafts. I set up stations and asked them to apply a different editing approach for 10 minutes each. Many of my students have a sense that the traditional, fastest way to do something is the only way, and I want to shake that idea up. Especially for students for whom that top to bottom typing on Google docs then skimming before turning it in doesn't work.

  4. Two conferences for 1102 students. The ENGL 1102 class is for writing the Research Paper. In the past, I only conferenced with students to provide feedback on their first draft. However, in previous semesters, students struggled so much with coming up with a research paper topic that many made office hours appointments to help while others simply pushed ahead with bad topics and eventually dropped the class. To counter that, I scheduled an initial conference with students and helped them develop their topics. Often what was happening was they would Google "research paper topic ideas" and end up with a generic topic idea -- capital punishment, smoking/vaping, obesity, eating disorders. And when I was a little baby teacher, I allowed students to write about these things. However, often after I read their proposal, I could tell they didn't want to really write about these topics either. I would have students tell me, "I gotta be honest, I just picked a topic so I could get the proposal done." For those students, I asked them to brainstorm with me -- on the whiteboard -- about topics they actually care about, either something related to their major, something they are reading about right now, or something that's caught their interest. As a result, I ended up with topics like The Decline of Carpentry Workers, Sacred Geometry and How it's Used in Architecture, Freelance Gaming, Drug Rehab Programs in Prisons, and more.

  5. I provided food. I firmly believe that when people have food, they are in a better mood and more apt to be sociable. I often have students work on their projects in groups -- brainstorming, presentations, editing, etc. In the past when I would set these group activities up, the students would be reluctant to talk or engage at all. I would see them sitting in a circle reading their phones. It always frustrated me. This semester I decided I would feed them. Muffins, Trail Mix, little bags of Oreos, Peanut Butter and Crackers, I threw in a few protein shakes one day, bagels and cream cheese. And from what I could tell, it worked. They ate and they talked. They pitched ideas, they heard each other -- and even if the conversation started with "I love these Costco muffins" or "I'm trying not to eat too many carbs" it's at least a start. I have also come to realize how many of my students are currently dealing with food or housing insecurities. My particular campus has limited housing, which has placed many students who live far away on a waiting list. In the meantime, they are catching Lyfts, living with relatives they don't know well, crashing on the couches of new friends, and spending all their money on gas. When students are confronted with eating vs anything else in their life, they will skip the food. I watch them load their bags with crackers and other snacks on their way out. I don't mind. However, I am not sure how much longer I will be able to keep this up. The rumor is my office is about to be moved from the building where I teach to a different building. This means hauling enough snacks for four classes from one building to any other -- or even having the time to run between classes -- will be too much to manage.

When the next semester rolls around, I will likely have more radical changes that I want to put in place, but overall I have to remember, that these are just kids. I'm not their mom. Or a cop. Or need to create a policy to stop them from streaming TikTok while I lecture. The second you establish a rule, they will attempt to get around that rule. I try to give them grace because much like everyone else, they are simply trying to get by.


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