Tag Archives: teaching

Worth your time to read

A few good reads to kick off your week. One should never approach Monday without a good read around.

To kick off, this piece by Kutter Callaway of Fuller Seminary really hit home with me today when I read it in a back issue of Fuller Magazine that we got at work a few months ago. (Yeah, I know, I’m behind.)  He discusses the way that chronic pain distorts our view of reality, usually attacking our sense of hope the most viciously. And how Christians dealing with chronic pain gain insight into the hope offered by the Gospel. A powerful read.

Restoring Hope: Being Weak and Becoming Well – Fuller Studio

*****
From the same issue of Fuller Magazine come two excellent pieces about Christians and hospitality. This ancient set of practices has worn very thin in our modern age, and these scholars take time to explain why Christians should pursue hospitality even more fervently now.  In fact, hospitality might create a space where Christians and Muslims can gather on common ground. 

Restoring Hospitality: A Blessing for Visitor and Host – Fuller Studio

A Moratorium on Hospitality? – Fuller Studio

*****
Time is not just money. It’s also power.  And one of the significant discrepancies between working women and working men lies in their access to uninterrupted free time to think, create, or connect.

This article by Brigid Schulte gives a name to the fragmented craziness that women experience as they try to juggle work, parenting, and marriage:  leisure confetti.  

While many working men are able to access blocks of uninterrupted time, most women — especially mothers — get their leisure time only in snatches, and even then it’s dirtied with the mental anxiety of carpool logistics, supper planning, family scheduling, budgeting, etc.

Confetti. You can’t build or create anything or even feel like a real human being if the only time you get to yourself comes in scraps.

Brigid Schulte: Why time is a feminist issue

*****
I never talk on the phone much now, and aside from my teenaged spurt of nightly phone sessions with my best friends (or calls home during my college days), I’ve never been a huge phone talker.  Texting was (and is) a god-send: concise communication that people can read when they’re ready, apart from the disruption of a ringing phone.

This Slate writer disagrees, and wonders if we’ve lost something…

The Death of the Telephone Call |Slate

*****
This next one may make some folks mad…. but that’s not my intention. In fact, I’d like to post this as much to invite critique as suggest alliance.  But I think Americans need to turn a critical (in the sense of objective / evaluation) eye on football. It’s a dangerous game – one that grinds up the bodies (and brains) of players for the violent pleasure of the masses. This bothers me.

And here, this author suggests an even more troubling link – that the US military is happy to keep Americans confusing patriotism with team loyalty, to see football as  a kind of American war.

I’m not a peacenik but it doesn’t take a 60s hippie conscience to question whether Americans can tell the difference between patriotism and nationalism, between bandwagon-riding mob behavior and common sense.

How the NFL Sells – and Unabashedly Benefits From – the Inextricable Link Between Football and War |The Cauldron (Sports Illustrated)

*****
A powerful reminder that ministry which sees the recipients as “needy” will fail to be as successful as it should be.

“Do you want to know why we love him [another missionary]? He needs us. The rest of you have never needed us.”

What’s Wrong with Western Missionaries? | DesiringGod

*****
I may not be in a classroom any more (an experience that I genuinely miss pretty often), but I want everyone to read this wonderful piece directed to young teachers.  It’s a great reminder of why I taught, and why I want to spend my life trying to make education better.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer suggests that we teach who we are and thus, no matter what we teach, our students judge us as “good” or not according to how we communicate who we are.

Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

 

I’ll be back with some book reviews soon. Currently reading 2 or 3 that have been good reads for sure.

Trust the process

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

The Process.

*****

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.

*****
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.

*****
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.

*****

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.

Back in the saddle

Y’all. I am in the classroom again.
THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER.

Teaching. It’s my jam. It’s my song. It’s what feels right.

*****
I’ve read in several places over the past couple years that one significant difference between men and women in the workplace is in how they handle insecurity. According to the received wisdom / poll data / research bits, men are often full of bravado and confidence no matter how unlikely, while women hold back until they feel “ready enough.”  So, the reasoning goes, that’s why men ask for more raises and get them, get promoted, get attention, and leave their mark on the world.

The Confidence Gap (The Atlantic)

I can’t crawl inside anyone else’s head easily, but inside mine, I must admit this research rings true.  And very little brings out the megaphone of self-doubt like stepping into a classroom in front of several pairs of watching eyes.

It’s possible to bluff one’s way through a lesson (I’ve done it, under duress and overwork or poor planning), but generally I think students see through ill-prepared teaching.

It’s also intimidating to consider just how talented and intelligent humans are in general. We get all caught up with analyzing test scores and IQ data and grades and crap like that, but really — humans are pretty incredible even if they aren’t burning up the grading curve. So teaching requires a lot of strategy and planning, enough to move a conversation forward or help students develop further.

There are days when I wish I could turn off the nay-sayer in my brain. I already know that I’m not the brightest or the smartest or the best prepared or most creative. If “being the best” is truly some kind of award, I’m never going to win it. Some days I just feel lazy.  After all, I have no PhD; I’m not running a company that I founded; I’m not on a fast track to high-level management; I haven’t written a book; I hardly even keep up with tweeting more than 1 day in a row.

*****
All that said, there’s an invigorating satisfaction to the challenge. I’m facing a classroom tomorrow morning where I need to lead a discussion on a chapter I assigned, prep students with a definition of argumentation, and explain an assignment well.  Will I do as well as I possibly could? No. I worked 8 hours today doing something completely different. There’s not enough time in the day or space in my brain to make this perfect.

So, like my students, I aim for “good enough.” Not in the lazy sense, where just scraping by is all that’s called for, but in the wisdom that comes from orbiting this globe more than a few times.

It doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.

Like so many human endeavors, the foundation to success in teaching is getting in there and doing it.

Nice to have the opportunity again.

Link: Helicopter parenting is increasingly correlated with college-age depression and anxiety.

The data emerging about the mental health of our kids only confirms the harm done by asking so little of them when it comes to life skills yet so much of them when it comes to adhering to the academic plans we’ve made for them.

Really. This has got to stop.  And not just “everybody else is doing it wrong” but a genuine assessment of our own attitudes and behaviors toward the kids in our lives.

Read on:

via Helicopter parenting is increasingly correlated with college-age depression and anxiety..

Discussion ideas for Ex Machina

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Warning: Don’t read this post if you haven’t watched the film Ex Machina, because 1) you really really should go see this movie* even if you don’t think you’ll like it, and 2) therefore, I don’t want to spoil it for you. 

OK?  Ok.  *N.B.: The film earns its R rating with some language (no biggie) and some shots of full female nudity. It’s a story about a female robot, so the images make sense within the narrative and I wouldn’t call them gratuitous. But I don’t want anyone to show up and be shocked (especially if they took their teen sons with them.)

from the movie website
from the movie website

Ex Machina is a cerebral sci-fi film, taking us deeply into questions about human intelligence, sentience, consciousness, gender identity, and scientific morality. A well-crafted story in its own right, the sparse cast (only 4) and single location suggest the film is closer to ‘indie” (made on a very tight budget) than anything that usually hits our screens. That tight budget still paid for 4 fantastic actors and some incredible VFX work.

I think Ex Machina is one of the best discussion films I’ve seen in a while – stories that are well worth taking apart afterward (and if I’m with over-21s, a pint is a necessity). Below are the questions and ideas that occupied our in-hosue talk the day after we saw the movie.

I invite you to see the film and talk it through, or include it in classroom discussions (on the college level) in classes ranging from gender studies and feminism to tech ethics and artificial intelligence.

Questions for initial discussion

  1. Is Nathan a reliable or unreliable narrator of his own motives and story?  What can we say with certainty that we know about him or his actions in the film?
  2. Does Caleb ever do anything we would consider truly unethical? Does he “deserve” his end?
  3. Speaking of the ending – how many legitimate storylines can you draft for the final scenes in the film? (“Legitimate” means the words and actions on screen as well as the previous scenes can support the storyline you suggest without breaking people’s expectations for story structure, honesty, or common sense.)
  4. Do you think there are any plot holes in the film?
  5. Before Ava “puts on” the skin of the other robots, do you think she passes the Turing Test? In other words, is her sentience / conscious awareness enough to allow her to exist with humans, or must she also take on the form of humanity?
  6. Kyoko is a disturbing character to watch. What do her interactions with the other characters show us about Nathan, Caleb, and Ava? And about herself?
  7. If you say it fast enough, Bluebook sounds a lot like Google. The similarities were thinly veiled. What does the film say to us about the dangers of our technophilic world?

Themes for discussion

Scientists never work only for the benefit of objective “knowledge.” There’s always an element of personal interest.   Nathan is a rich and disturbing character. We don’t know whether he’s lying about himself or being lied about. But one thing seems to be clear: He created these robots, so he does not view them (or treat them) as human. But Caleb doesn’t fare much better in his attempts to assess Ava “objectively.”  She nails that when she asks, “What will happen if I fail your test?”

We create in our own image. I think Ex Machina is, at its core, an “image of the Creator” story. There are plenty of these – the Avengers: Age of Ultron film is exploring some of the same ground. But Ex Machina does this theme really well. The ending leaves us with many questions.  One of them (to me) is to wonder whether Ava is merely acting out what she learned from the only two humans she’s ever met. (He who sets a trap will fall into it, as the Proverb says. Maybe that explains her actions toward Caleb in the final scenes?)  If so, is she morally responsible for her choices?

Parallel reading: It’s hard to beat George R. R. Martin’s short story “Sandkings” when you’re looking for an example of just how bad an idea it is for humans to “create” in their own image.

It’s extremely difficult to define human-ness, or even consciousness. The film forces us off-balance, constantly observing (just like Caleb) and assessing Ava. Is she “human enough”? What would that even mean? Scientists keep changing the rules of the original Turing Test as our AI’s get smarter and more useful. We’re struggling to define the edges of consciousness.

Alex Leadbeater wrote an excellent discussion of this theme on What Culture. I recommend checking it out and adding his article to your discussion material.  He also delves into some of the nuances of the characters’ actions and choices, and offers a few explanations for the ambiguous ending.

And, of course, for those who view humanity through the lens of Christian theology, the questions get even more interesting. Can humans create an intelligence that’s “better” (morally, ethically) than we are in our brokenness? If we hold to the idea that the imago Dei principle must extend to our own creative efforts – that we cannot escape making an intelligence in the shape of our own humanity – does that intelligence have any chance of choosing a higher moral ground? Or will an AI drive us all to extinction or termination (as nearly every sci-fi story seems to fear)?

To put it another way, would it have made the story stronger or weaker if Ava had shown mercy to Caleb in the final scene and released him from what seems to be a death trap?  His own trap, but one he set on her behalf. (Leadbeater suggests an alternate reading of the ending that makes Ava less of a cold blooded killer.)  Anyway, I’m glad the film doesn’t send Caleb and Ava off into the romantic sunset to live out some kind of weird AI – human relationship.  But I was a little stunned by her actions in the ending. That was disappointing too. Must all of our AI’s be dragged down by original sin, too? I s that the fate of human creation?

Ava’s journey also reminds us that true sentience must involve self-will, and that means (from the perspective of the human creator) loss of control.  Is that what we fear most from the idea of artificial intelligence – that we will lose control? Why don’t children terrify us the same way?

Perhaps – if humans ever do create a genuinely conscious AI – we will begin to understand much more about the paradox of free will vs determinism (especially when that question rolls into theological realms and takes up the mantle of “the problem of evil“).

Ava’s final scenes show her applying “skin” to her frame, examining her appearance, putting on clothes, and blending into humanity. Her conscious intelligence cannot take her into the realm of humans safely. There’s a lot of feminist imagery in those final scenes, as she is “born” into the world of men through her rise to the surface. Worth discussing.

Cross-Posted to Teaching Redemptively 

Article: Teaching Human Evolution at UKy: Some students I’ll never reach

This is a fascinating read for many reasons, and I commend it to you on this rainy Monday:

Teaching human evolution at the University of Kentucky: There are some students I’ll never reach.

The author, James Krupa, details his experience teaching non-major biology at University of Kentucky, a state where the tussle over teaching evolution as part of biology has been roiling since 1921. (Beat that, Tennessee!)

The article interests me epistemically – both his accounts of angry Christian students shouting at him from the back of the room, and his own epistemic certainty as a scientist.

I also think it’s interesting how creationists tend to separate evolution into “micro” and “macro” (to acknowledge the incontrovertible evidence of microevolution within species like fruit flies or moths but reject evolution as the origin of humanity) while evolutionary biologists use micro as a proof for macro.

Anyway, interesting read.

Regardless of anyone’s position on the topic, I’m stunned that we’re producing a generation of kids who’ve been taught that a theory is, itself, satanic. And how this exemplifies the problem in all civil discourse these days – a lot of shouting of positions, not much listening, and definitely no allowance for differing opinions.