CTL Newsletter: September 12, 2017

Things I Learned about Teaching by Spending Time outside of the Classroom: Part 2

During my recent sabbatical leave, I participated in several transformative educational experiences that have changed how I think about my teaching. I learned from incarcerated trainers about teaching college courses in prison; I did physical labor alongside Albion students as part of the Holocaust Studies Service Learning Project; I started a grassroots gathering of women interested in fostering local civic action in the aftermath of the women’s march. I’m now reflecting on what I’ve learned. In my last Teaching Reflection, I argued that focusing on the process of how students learned deserved as much attention as the focus on course content. In this one, I make a second observation: learner-centered teaching really means finding ways to share the stage with students.

On my course syllabus, I describe the method of instruction for the class. I emphasize that student attendance and participation are crucial. All members of the class have unique experiences and meaningful ideas that contribute to the learning process. For a long time, I have given “lip service” to the idea that we are all teachers and learners in the college classroom. Now, I realize that putting that into action might mean stepping back and taking on the role of a facilitator or coach giving direction from the sideline rather than standing as the instructor at the front of the room. This means abandoning the hierarchy of the classroom, loosening my control over the learning process, and truly sharing the space with my students. This means creating opportunities for students to select course topics, lead class discussions, and intervene in the learning process more generally.

Occasionally, it might require sacrificing efficiency to allow students to discover the answers for themselves through a slow and wrenching Socratic dialogue in which they weigh all possible alternatives in collaboration with their peers. If we wait long enough and refuse to fill the awkward silences, students will often come up with the answers in their own words. This has a more lasting impact than hearing us say those same things in our own. It also offers students ownership over their own discoveries rather than rewarding them for internalizing ours.

What might this look like in practice?

It might mean a hands-on activity that takes most of the class period but through which students come to internalize an important concept at a deep level. For example, I can tell my students what the immigrant experience is like in the United States, or I can create the conditions in the classroom through a role-play or in-class exercise that allows them to explore it from the immigrant’s perspective.

It might also mean following a student digression if it offers a productive learning opportunity and empowers students in the classroom. If the assigned readings for the day address the pros and cons of nuclear proliferation, it makes sense to let students express their ideas and feelings about the North Korean missile launch the night before. Sometimes it might even make sense to ditch the syllabus to talk about a consequential event for students—like the neo-Nazi and white supremacist march in Charlottesville—that can be creatively brought back to course content.

This semester, then, I’m going to plan a script but try to “do improv” when it feels right.

— Carrie Booth Walling, Political Science and Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program


Resources: Learner-Centered Teaching

Five Characteristics of Learner-Centered Teaching. Maryellen Weimer stresses active learning, explicit skill instruction, meta-cognition, student agency, and collaboration. Her book Learner-Centered Teaching is available in the CTL Library. You can find the first edition in the Albion College library (that is, as soon as I’m finished with it!).


CTL News

Lizet Ramirez meets Kathleen Gabriel! In Jennine Capó Crucet’s novel Make Your Home among Strangers, Lizet–a first-generation Cuban-American student at a small liberal arts college–gets called out for plagiarism, fails her chemistry mid-term (she was an A-student in high school), and feels like an impostor. In the book Teaching Unprepared Students, Kathleen Gabriel outlines some concrete strategies for promoting academic success. So when Lizet Ramirez meets Kathleen Gabriel, what would Kathleen do? We’ll discuss the issues over lunch on September 26 and after hours on September 27 (not on the 12th and 13th or the 19th and 20th as previously announced). Watch for details!

Talking about Teaching. You can always talk about teaching. Find a partner, trade classroom observations, and talk about teaching while having a Baldwin Cafe lunch on the CTL! To register, contact Jocelyn McWhirter by replying to this newsletter.

Teaching Reflections. Many thanks to Carrie Walling for today’s Teaching Reflection! Look for Part 3 on September 26 . . . and then maybe one from you! If you’d like to contribute a brief essay about teaching and learning, please contact Jocelyn McWhirter by replying to this newsletter.

The CTL Lounge has been recently stocked with chocolate and CTL swag. Take a minute to grab a snack, swipe a pen or a mug or a phone stand, and respond to our blackboard survey on TLOs (Teacher Learning Outcomes)! It’s all right there in Ferguson 108.


Upcoming Conferences

The Lilly Conference on Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning, October 19-21 in Traverse City. Plenary speakers include Todd Zakrajsek, co-author of Teaching for Learning and one-time psychology professor at Albion College. Off-site registration is open from now until September 15.

Teaching Professor Conference, June 1-3, 2018 in Atlanta. “There’s simply no better place to explore and celebrate the art and science of teaching.” Call for proposals closes October 31.

Teaching Academic Survival and Success (TASS) Conference, April 8-11 in Ft. Lauderdale. “The Teaching Academic Survival and Success Skills Conference is a forum for faculty, staff, student support personnel, administrators and others who help under-prepared students succeed in college and beyond.” Call for proposals closes December 15.

About Jocelyn McWhirter

Jocelyn McWhirter is the Stanley S. Kresge Professor of Religious Studies at Albion College in Albion, Michigan.
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