Tag Archives: teaching

Why Feedback Rarely Does What It’s Meant To


This is arguably one of the best articles I read in 2019, perhaps the best in a long time:

Why Feedback Rarely Does What It’s Meant To (HBR)

Every person I know needs to hear what these authors are saying: the way we evaluate others (this article addresses an employer setting, but it’s just as true for the classroom) is almost 100% wrong.  Research can show us how to give feedback in ways that promotes growth and excellence in others rather than shutting them down.

Seriously, it’s a great article. It’s so great, I’m not going to tell you anything else about it so you have to go read it. 😉

As of today’s post, the article is not behind a paywall.

Three thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Billions of words will be marshaled in support or condemnation of Star Wars Episode VIII. So of course, I want to add a few of my own. 😉


(This was me trying to avoid spoilers last week)

The Last Jedi is a divisive entry – to me, exactly the gut-punch this cultural juggernaut needed to stay relevant, but not all fans agree. At least, not on their first viewing.

My current favorite analysis is this article which details the many ways in which Rian Johnson upended fans’ expectations and franchise icons to deliver a better story. In it, the author details many important turns in Johnson’s script and their importance to breaking viewers’ expectations.  Spoiler warning, of course!  The Last Jedi Doesn’t Care What You Think About Star Wars (Slashfilm)

The following three points have stuck with me since seeing the film, along with a general awe for the gorgeous visuals and lovely John Williams score. (Do you think he hears another million $$ hit the bank every time a Star Wars film releases? haha)

Women leading like women would lead

Carrie Fisher is gone, but the film in its final form doesn’t trim her significance to this story. However, it’s not just Princess/General Leia who occupies an important role in SW:TLJ. I uttered an audible gasp at Vice Admiral Holdo’s critical moment in the film. (The on-sreen visuals alone elicited a “whoa.”) Holdo’s leadership style was not at all what Po Dameron wanted from his commander, and in that onscreen relationship, I saw the archetype of so many long-suffering women in positions of power with boys chafing underneath them because they don’t engage in the same brash, risky behavior that drives male leadership.  A good read by Vanity Fair on how The Last Jedi stomps all over “mansplaining”

All over this film we see women collaborating, arguing, debating, nurturing, leading. I relished seeing Rose confront cowardice and greed and betrayal with both her heart and her head. Of course, Rey is a central figure in the entire trilogy, a young women who represents formidable integrity and hope in the face of dark times.

The Resistance army needs brave hot shots like Poe Dameron to score the big hits, but it needs good leaders who make careful decisions more than it needs bravado. But this isn’t an anti-male story — I genuinely believe Po is being set up for a strong finish in the next film, based on the cues we get from his character presentation in the final moments of The Last Jedi.

Good leaders come from both genders. It’s just that most of my female Gen-X peers never got to see women exercise that leadership without having to “play a man” to get it or keep it.  And I’m relishing every strong, capable women I’ve seen on screen in 2017.


POV and narrator complexity

Rian Johnson offers us a complex web of stories which unite into a unified second entry for this trilogy.  One singular element of the story is the conflicting versions of why Kylo Ren/Ben Solo destroyed Luke Skywalker’s Jedi training school. Like with so much of our messy human existence, “it’s complicated.”  We’re hard-wired to assume Luke is in the right here, because he’s the hero we know and love. But Johnson’s story forces us to question why the son of Han and Leia would grow up to manifest the worst traits of his grandfather Darth Vader.  We never get the whole picture, but we do begin to see more of Kylo Ren’s internal struggle, portrayed so well by Adam Driver. And this presentation of “what happened” reminds us that history is written by the teller. The facts are malleable, depending how you interpret them, how they’ve been warped by both Luke and Ben’s memories, and by the strong emotional overtones both men bring to their versions of the story.

There’s a parallel technique happening with Finn’s experience of his part in this story. We are all invested in Finn and his growth from being “a bad guy with a conscience and a choice” in The Force Awakens toward someone we assume will be important in the new world of Star Wars. Finn discovers throughout The Last Jedi that he snaps to judgments prematurely and needs to slow down and consider that he might not be seeing everything in play. This instructs us viewers as well not to make hasty assumptions about the folks who inhabit this universe. Will this new trilogy simply give us heroes descended from now-famous families? Or will we again see the rise of “nobodys” to positions of greatness?

It’s smart script writing and I’m pretty sure I’ll notice even more masterful moments when I see the film a second time.

Failure, not success, grows us into better people

Much of the fan hate arises from critique of Luke Skywalker’s part in this tale. Those of us raised on Star Wars would love to take a time machine back to the early 80s when Harrison Ford wasn’t so wrinkly and so damn grouchy, and when Luke/Leia were the hottest characters across the pop culture spectrum (whether toys or graphic novels or Halloween costumes).

Do I want to be reminded that my celluloid heroes are now old or dead? Well, no.  Momento mori isn’t what I expect from a space fantasy. Yet here we are.

And The Last Jedi is so much better because Johnson wrote like a man who has lived in our world, not just in a fantasy land where people can wield light sabers and little fighters and score impossible victories in the face of an overwhelming superior yet evil Empire.

I’ve spent my life in education. Seeing Luke recoil from his own failure as a teacher resonates so much with me. Teaching is the most fulfilling, terrifying job I can conceive of. It’s not the work of it that makes teaching hard. It’s holding in your feeble hands the minds and hearts of people who might grow up to change the world if you can avoid screwing them up or cheating them out of the challenges that will force them to grow.

Fans didn’t ask for a Luke Skywalker who is aware of his insufficiency and his failures and fearful of the consequences of action now that he understands – as an old man – what those outcomes may be. And I, a 40-something woman who yearly gains a better grasp of my own shortcomings as my life flows through middle age toward old-ness, I grab hold of Luke’s story with all of my heart. It catches me even now. I want to drop everything to run out and watch the movie again so I can see Luke the Teacher, Luke the Failure, come to grips with his actions and their interplay with the free choices of Ben Solo that turned him into Kylo Ren.

The greatest teacher, failure is. ~Yoda

Luke is confronted in that significant scene on the island to remember that teachers labor to be surpassed by their pupils. That is the calling we were given, not to exercise control over our students’ choices and lives.

I’m a sentimental sot, but if you’re going to throw teacher wisdom at me in the middle of a blockbuster franchise film, I’m probably going to bawl. So I did.

*  *  *  *  *

I know fans will rage and argue, but I think The Last Jedi is some of the best and most meaningful Star Wars writing we’ve seen in years. I applaud Rian Johnson’s outstanding work on the script, and I am thrilled he’ll be at the helm of a new trilogy in the future, in some other corner of a galaxy far, far away.

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.