Trust the process

“The Process.”
We should print it in big, bold letters because that’s how this idea rolls:

The Process.

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I’m teaching this semester, and despite all of my emotional hand-wringing in my last post, I genuinely enjoy it. I’ve got a good class and so far they’re working to do what I ask and stay engaged. They keep showing up every day, an effort that I genuinely appreciate.

I’ve got goals – big, lofty ones and realistic, smaller ones – that I’m working to achieve in my students and in myself.

One of my goals is to improve my own pedagogy by unpacking and implementing some of the ideas I’ve learned in the past few years about active learning, student-centered learning, and critical pedagogy.

Active learning happens when teachers choose learning activities that engage the student in participating meaningfully in the learning process. This reduces the time given to passive receiving of information (lecture, watching videos, in-class reading) and gives that time instead to a variety of techniques which demand involvement, ranging from basic discussion to group projects, collaboration, thinking activities, improv, building, prototyping, communicating, creating.

Student-centered learning is a similar concept; it probably involves a lot of active learning but each occupies a different axis within educational practice. I like to define it as the broad attempt to move the student to the center of the classroom experience, usually by pulling the teacher off the center stage. This doesn’t mean that the instructor is less important, but it does raise the value of a student’s voice and it implies that students have agency over what they learn and how they go about it.  A student-centered classroom puts the questions raised by the learners at the center of lessons, and teachers who pursue this model invest a lot of work into teaching students how to ask deeper questions, research for more than a pat answer, and fuel their studies through internal motivation (what the student wonders, loves, wants to know).

Critical pedagogy is a term that could take weeks to define. If you go forth into the wilds of the internet searching for an explanation, you may return scarred and terrified — yet, at its heart, critical pedagogy offers us an important focus for human education. Let me compress these ideas into something straightforward: critical pedagogy builds on the work of legendary Brazilian educator and lawyer Paolo Friere, who worked with the poorest of the poor in his native country. He realized that literacy means nothing to people who own little and feel they cannot control much in their lives. Their relationship to “power” is totally broken as they live out the realities of social injustice. Yet even “uneducated” people are rich with experience, and if someone takes the time to teach them how the world works, how power structures work, how they can step aside and critique the way their world is working, even the poorest people can begin to take charge of what agency they do have and turn it into something useful to make their lives better.

Friere recognized that whether a student comes from poverty or privilege, he or she can be enriched by learning how to critique power structures, act as agents as change to achieve greater justice in their social structures, and enjoy the freedom and joy that comes from being someone who understands better how the world could work.  Friere’s writings are infused with explosions of joy and theological presuppositions that I find quite refreshing. He might be one of the most “Christian” educators I’ve ever read.

So.  For me, this means changing the following about my habits of teaching:

  1. I want to move my students into the center of my classroom experience. That means less talking from me, and more work on my part to generate strong questions or learning prompts to drive students deeper into their own inquiries.  Believe me, it’s a whole lot easier to just lecture….
  2. I want to master the skills of facilitating better discussions, both as a class and when students are working in small groups on tasks. That means sharpening my own critical thinking and analysis skills, but also shutting up and listening more than I talk.
  3. I want to be more aware myself of critical perspectives on texts, toward the daily news, of national crises like the Ferguson / Charleston shootings so that I can model for my students what it looks like when we step outside of our contexts and critique those contexts through a variety of lenses.  My lens tends to be shaped by what I believe are biblical concepts of human dignity, social justice, economic systems, power relationships, etc.
  4. I want to resist stepping in too early to rescue students as they labor—often with great anxiety—to give birth to a new idea or understanding of the world mediated through their reading or writing or experiences. Being able to give “the right” answer feels very heady, like drinking from an authority fountain. I think professors and instructors secretly love that feeling.  But our drinking comes at the expense of our students’ growth.
  5. I want to facilitate better relationships among my students, forming us into a discrete learning community that displays love and care for each other as well as concern for the broader world. This is much more difficult, I’ve found, in college where my contact hours are much fewer and students in my class may see one another only during my period. If teaching is relational (and it IS), then I need to also acknowledge that learners are related to one another. Asking them to step into difficult, challenging spaces with a group of strangers will never do.

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I titled this post “Trust the Process.”

The thought hit me recently as I walked down the hall from the day’s lesson that I’m gambling a lot on my insistence that teaching writing be grounded in teaching students better thinking skills.  I think a lot of us find it easier to grind through grammar exercises and assign writing prompts that focus on the pedantic, nit-picky final stages of the writing process.

Those stages are structured and codified.  I can easily recognize a comma splice. I can mount an argument to defend the Oxford comma or criticize overuse of linking verbs.  I can quote handbook sections in response to unclear pronoun referents, and dump the responsibility on the students to figure out how to fix those broken sentences in their latest papers.

And while much writing instruction claims to talk about the thinking behind the writing, much of what we DO in the name of writing instruction doesn’t actually do much to force students out of incomplete, inadequate thinking patterns into new ones.

It’s my firm belief that if I spend a lot of time shoving students into better habits of mind, proving to them that fuzzy thinking can never produce clear writing (only clear thinking can), then in the end—even if things are really rough around the edges right now in their papers—they will emerge in three months as better thinkers and therefore better writers.  And that improvement will stick, if I can fundamentally alter the way they approach thinking about a question or a problem.

And if their thinking changes, even in small ways, that brings them closer to being people who have a shot of developing the ability to step out of themselves and ask the hard questions about their situation. Why aren’t we accepting more Syrian refugees?   Why haven’t our legislators reformed the US’s abysmal Gordian knot of an immigration system?  Why aren’t Christians who claim to be guided by biblical morality demanding reforms in immigration as an outworking of the Gospel in their thinking?  Our power structures are broken.  Our economy smashes some people so that others can consume the excess. Our politics descend to angry ranting.  My friends, these things ought not so to be.

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My experiment may fail.

I’m not assessed to death like K-12 teachers are, but my day of reckoning will come when the final papers (argumentative essays) enter the pile for the committee to read in May and assess how well my students’ writing stacks up against the course rubric.

Some English professors are all about the fine points of grammar and argumentation, popping veins when students try to modify the word “unique” (pro top: unique means “the only one of its kind”; don’t tell me something is “really unique”) or misplace the adverb only in a sentence.   I’m convinced even they would agree with me that moving students toward clearer thinking is worth more.  I’m also convinced that I can teach students how to cope in a world that demands good spelling and decent sentences … but that must come alongside sharp and clear thinking.

So I guess we’ll see….

 

Self-doubt is the foundation of good teaching, right?

I don’t know whether my colleagues in the profession experience this, but teaching—at least for me—takes place to the accompaniment of a ringing chorus of self-doubt.

In fact, I’m not sure if anything makes me doubt everything about my skill set like stepping into a classroom can. [Well, acting would be ahead of teaching on that scale…. good heavens…. Emotional vulnerability? Please. Take off my fingernails instead.]

Here, let’s peek into my pedagogical process:

  • Step 1: Look at syllabus and course documents. Decide what concepts and/or skills need to be next in the sequence. Briefly worry whether this is the best sequence for this material. Panic slightly, then remember how much time I spent putting together the course sequence. Relax. I’m a professional. I even have a degree in this….
  • Step 2. Explore the concepts and skills to make sure I still understand them. Google everything.  Read stuff. Anticipate student questions. Realize there are questions I wish my students would think to ask. Remember how well Dr. Bell could do that in Systematic….ah, he was the master…. Panic that I’m nowhere good at it as Dr. Bell or most of the teachers I spent my life teaching with.  Go to bed a 1 a.m. feeling apprehensive.
  • Step 3. Wake up thinking about the course material. Stumble into the shower. Mull over ideas for making it interesting. Strike one golden idea for a good learning activity or discussion question. Promise myself I won’t forget it as soon as I step out of the shower. Dry off. Realize I’ve forgotten three other good ideas I had during that shower.
  • Step 4. Drive to work. Think about the golden idea. …This is perfect. It’ll illustrate the ideas I want to convey and challenge them to keep thinking. Awesome…. Make mental list of needed supplies. Add +3 to stress level if the class is today and I have to go buy supplies.
  • Step 5. Visualize golden idea taking place in my class. Realize I need a worksheet because that’ll make my communication of the activity much more clear. Dash off something in Word. Feel bad that it doesn’t match the design and layout of the rest of the course materials. Mental berating for failure to implement basic design standards or proper advance planning to prevent last-minute worksheet development. Pick up printout from photocopier on way to class. At least I proofread it….kinda….
  • Step 6. Walk down hallway. Feel excited.  Does my hair look ok? My eyeliner always betrays me and smudges. Pop into bathroom to look for smudges. No smudges. We’re good.  Confident walk.
  • Step 7. All eyes on me as I step into classroom. Offer a cheery hello. Get one smile, three grins, a nod, two glances, and one “fuck off” look from the assembled students. Normal day. Set out the worksheet. Worry whether it’s going to be enough. Make mental plan for what to do f the activity flops and I need to move on to something else.  Start teaching.
  • Step 8. During the 30 second transition into this learning experience, realize that Idea B would have been a better lead-in. Call mental audible and launch Idea B. Ramble about 3 minutes longer than I’d planned because I changed the setup. Remember I was going to introduce Concepts 2, 3, 4.  Forget to introduce concept 1. (I’ll remember that about an hour later.) See students looking a little dazed. Stop talking and get them working.
  • Step 9. Roam the classroom watchfully as students work in groups to brainstorm answers to the Big Question. Pat myself on the back that they’re all engaged and learning…..Wait, is that student checking out? Yes! Yes he is! He’s not paying attention! Must… ensure…all….students….engage…actively….in…..learning…..   Observe. Watch. Make mental notes. Realize I left a key question off the handout. Shout it out to the working groups. Watch disengaged student wander toward door to “go to the bathroom.” Give him the teacher stink-eye. Student slinks back toward working group and pretends to be interested. Visit all the groups. Visit his group the longest. Ask 5 questions, hoping they’ll pick up on one. They don’t. Say, “How about asking yourself this…..”  Make mental notes about followup activities.  Release students from class.
  • Step 10.  Realize that I could have done “x” and this activity would have worked so much better.  Pack up to return to office. Feel happy about what went well. Wonder, “How could that have been better?” Note the 3 things that immediately pop into mind. Realize I forgot to introduce concept 1. Sigh.

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It’s all a journey.  We improve by doing; we all keep learning and growing and developing in our fields.  Maybe I’m a freak, but I imagine that many of my colleagues could write a post like this too.

Because I define “success” as “provoking my students to be better versions of themselves after interacting with my course and with me,” I really care whether my students are learning and growing. It’s classic: I worry because I care.

 

So if you happen to see a teacher today, give them a word of encouragement. It’s a demanding job, one that requires a lot of intellectual and social energy and rapid-fire flexibility.

+5 to Karma if you tell this to someone who taught you.

Accidentally awesome pasta

 Accidentally made the best pasta ever. Here’s the mojo I followed:

On a rimmed baking sheet in a 425 degree oven, I roasted a few garlic gloves, half an onion I found in the frig, a pepper, and about a dozen cherry tomatoes from the farmers market. Drizzle with olive oil before roasting for about 25 min. The tomatoes will burst and char while the other veggies soften and caramelize. 

Remove roasting pan. I deglazed with a bit of sherry. (You could use wine or broth instead. Just be mindful of the overall sweet-sour balance in the recipe.) 

Put pasta water on to boil. I used rigatoni. I think penne or shells would have been great too. 

Dice the roasted onion. Peel the roasted cloves and see if any garlic survived. (Keep it.) Remove the skin from the pepper and dice the flesh. 

I then sliced two leftover grilled Italian sausage links and added those to the pile of prepped veggies on the baking sheet. 

Meanwhile, heat a large skillet. Add olive oil or butter. Throw some fresh garlic into the pan (diced) along with a couple pieces of the onion and any roasted garlic you rescued. 

Once that got going, I put in the juice and pulp from an overripe tomato and let that cook down a bit. By now the pasta water was ready so I started cooking that. 

Add 1/4 cup cream sherry and 2T balsamic vinegar to pan, simmer. Add punch of red pepper, fresh ground pepper, flaky salt, and Italian seasoning. 

Add all the vegetables from the baking sheet, scraping in the toasty bits. Add the sliced cooked sausage. (If I were making this with uncooked meat, I would have started that in the pan first.)

And the winner: add a small round of soft goat cheese, around 3oz. Mine was flavored with Italian herbs and balsamic. Stir through the pan until the cheese melts and a thick sauce forms. 

I then added a couple handfuls of fresh baby spinach leaves and let those wilt slightly as the cheese melted and the sauce formed. 

When the noodles are done (I did this just before they were al dente), strain noodles straight into the pan with the sauce. You don’t want much cooking water but you do need a little. I scoop mine with a slotted pasta server so I get piping hot noodles and a little extra water.  Keep stirring noodles into the sauce as you add them. 

Serve with a sprinkling of parmasean and some fresh basil if you have it. 

Magnifique!

A dim glow

If you’re a regular reader [shout out to the 2 or 3 people who fit that category :)] you may have noticed my writing has slowed to a dribble.

In this year when “you do you” is the mantra of every magazine, I’ve found it easier to enjoy my fellow writers who produce posts nearly every day even though I rarely even measure up to my once-a-week goal. Our connected world certainly curses us with aspirations while it blesses us with encouragement.

I’ve been analyzing a few reasons why my well of words produces little these days. For one, I’m tired. It’s the natural combination of the beginning of a busy school year, including some additional mental power thrown toward the class I’m teaching.  Tired people aren’t creative people, and I’m terrible at putting down the book or screen and just going to bed.

For another, my skim-journeys through the Interwebs remind me that pretty much everyone out there has already written on it, whatever “it” happens to be in my hopper. Want good theological writing about current events? It’s out there. Want a professor’s tongue-in-cheek review of a literary work? It’s out there. Want to rot your brain with snarky jabs? Just drop into your local social media stream. Want to watch people scream at one another about the issue du jour? You can’t escape it.  Some days I struggle to convince myself that the practice of writing is worth foisting yet more words on the rest of you.

Ideas are ephemeral….. I might dream up a great plan for a post on my drive into work but the barrage of email and tasks rapidly obliterates any energy I had for creative writing. If I do put ink to paper, it’s probably in the service of a marketing campaign. So true that there’s only so much creative power available for one day.

So this is my note to myself, reminding me it’s ok not to produce at times, not to throw myself on a treadmill just because I feel like I should.

Enjoy the Saturday, friends! I know many of you are glued to the TV for college game day. I’m going to go glue myself to a giant pile of magazines I would like to clear from my reading backlog. 🙂

Good reads for early September

Worth your eyeballs this weekend:

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I’ve seen more people writing about the closing of the young American mind on college campuses. Good intentions – driven by a desire to care for people with a traumatic past, for example – have led to a choking “identity politics” which leaves little room for the kind of dissent that allows young adults to examine ideas, tear them into pieces, challenge the assumptions, and develop genuine understanding.

Not surprisingly, this policing of speech (done by students themselves, usually under the best of motives) has skewered stand-up comedy on college campuses. Amy Schumer might be a huge hit in the ratings, but only the bravest college would have the guts to risk a lawsuit or outcries from students by having her perform live.

Ironically one of the only bastions of provocative speech left on college campuses may be the frat-houses who don’t care how disgusting and racist and stupid you think they are.  … Something’s messed up….

If your goal were simply to bring great comics to a college campus, it would be easily accomplished. You would gather the school’s comedy nerds, give them a budget, and tell them to book the best acts they could afford. But then you’d have Doug Stanhope explaining to religious kids that there’s no God, or Dennis Miller telling an audience of social-justice warriors that France’s efforts to limit junk food in schools are part of the country’s “master plan to raise healthier cowards.” You would have, in other words, performers whose desire is not to soothe an audience but to unsettle it, performers who hew to Roseanne Barr’s understanding of comedy: “I love stand-up. I’m totally addicted to it,” she once said. “It’s free speech. It’s all that’s left.” …

O, Utopia. Why must your sweet governance always turn so quickly from the Edenic to the Stalinist? The college revolutions of the 1960s—the ones that gave rise to the social-justice warriors of today’s campuses—were fueled by free speech. But once you’ve won a culture war, free speech is a nuisance, and “eliminating” language becomes a necessity.

Source: Stand-Up Comics Have to Censor Their Jokes on College Campuses – The Atlantic

By the way, someone wrote a very good response piece to the Atlantic article on Medium. I’m going to post that here as well, because I think reading both in tandem makes for an interesting discussion.

“That joke isn’t funny anymore, and it isn’t because of political correctness” – Medium / by Julia Serano

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Thinking about bilingual education makes my head hurt. How do we balance giving all American school children access to the English skills they need without making that very process one that destroys their native culture (if they’re from an immigrant home)?

I’ve got a friend who’s doing his PhD in International Education on questions of bilingual education, and we’ve talked this through a few times. It sounds like the scholars themselves recognize the “rock” and “hard place” embedded in the issue.

A quick read to catch you up on the question:

Why is bilingual education ‘good’ for rich kids but ‘bad’ for poor, immigrant students? – The Washington Post

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While we’re reading depressing things, the New York Times offered an excellent researched piece about the three British teenage girls who left their homes near London and sneaked into ISIS territory to join the movement.

In a world where Muslims are generally mistrusted and accused, the way to “rebel” against your more progressive parents is to turn to extreme fundamentalist Muslim practice and ideology. At least, that’s the guess.

Jihad and Girl Power – New York Times

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You know how everyone knows that teenagers aren’t morning people? Most of them, at least? So why do schools insist on starting so early?  Seems like a mess of district regulation, historical practice, parental convenience / scheduling, and the ecosystem of after-school activities.

Even the CDC agrees: Teens need sleep, not school, at 7:30 am:

“Social norms are at the root of this problem—most people don’t take [adolescent sleep deprivation] seriously and don’t see it as a public-health issue,” Snider said. “That kind of thinking has to change.”

CDC Warns: Early School Start Times Could Negatively Affect Sleep-Deprived Students’ Health and Academic Performance – The Atlantic

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Ten years ago, John Scalzi raged at the Katrina disaster and aftermath into a post he titled “Being Poor.” It struck a nerve and remains one of his most popular.

His 10 year retrospective as well as the original post are both worth your time:

Being Poor | Whatever

“Being Poor,” Ten Years On | Whatever