Thinking about teaching 3

Having outlined my basic structure for my U.S. survey courses, let’s get down to it. What do I like and not like about how my courses work? (This is long, maybe take a break for a cup of tea in the middle.)

The lessons:

  • I love that the “flipped” structure allows us the time to talk through the material together. It’s not perfect, but I think students come away with a better understanding of the complexities of the past than they did when it was lecture-based. While some students absolutely loathe it, and would prefer a lecture/memorization approach, many have noted that this format has made them not hate history, which seems like a victory.
  • I like the daily reaction journals I ask my students to do after they complete the lessons. It means I go into class every day knowing what want to discuss, and it also means that they come to class having at least thought about what was interesting and confusing to them.
  • I love that the discussions involve them talking to each other. This has happened less at UHart than at UConn, unfortunately, because the classes are smaller, so the groups are smaller, which means 3 people missing class can really throw off the whole mix. But I still like that my students know each other’s names.
  • For better or worse, having the videos disappear when we begin class each day makes students keep up more than they would if there was a textbook. Moreover, it’s very clear in discussion who has done the reading and who hasn’t, day in and day out, which helps me figure out who needs help/attention/a pointed conversation.
  • I don’t love the format, still. I never wanted to use videotaped lectures, and the format I’ve chosen was explicitly to have students read. Initially I used Prezi, but switched to PowerPoint videos when I realized that Prezi pulled the text of your presentation and provided a transcript below. I absolutely know why they do that, but it meant that students were just copying and pasting that, instead of actually taking notes. Which leads us to the second major issue…
  • Note taking. Obviously having the lessons disappear is meant to incentivize good note taking, not to be punitive, but because reading, synthesizing, and writing are part of learning. I know that students come to school with vastly different ideas about taking notes and skills at doing so, and I know that means that students are taking really different notes which aren’t always capturing the things that are important for historical thinking. Some sub-issues:
    • When I was lecturing, I would always start with a few minutes of introduction – this is the frame for the day, these are the players, and this is the argument I’m making.  My students would watch and listen. Then, as soon as I said a name or a date, they would put pen to paper. Every so often, I would point it out, and sort of try to address it humorously, but it was a problem, and it’s still a problem. But it’s not just a problem with my course design, it’s a problem with what students think history is. They all tell me they hate names and dates, but then that’s what they copy down, with none of the connecting material. I often tell them they should never know a fact without knowing why they know it; what does that fact help you understand and explain? But how can I get that to stick? Can I frame/teach notetaking in a different way to help my students understand and value the arguments of history, rather than just the facty bits?
    • Some students really don’t take notes, and many of them realize a few weeks in that this is a mistake, which means that later in the semester, anything that connects back to those first few weeks is so much harder. I didn’t even know this was an issue because the journals were great, so I figured “Hey, they’re doing the videos, that’s great!” What I didn’t realize was that they watched, did the journals right away, but never wrote anything down. How do I make it really, really clear early on that notes are vital?
    • I work hard not to hold students too accountable for minutiae (while reminding them that putting a gloss on their notes during discussion is always a great choice.) But students often tell me they want that detail later, in a way that they never did when they were listening to a lesson rather than reading it. I think they’re more aware of what they didn’t write down after we discuss it the next day because they realize they made choices about significance that they now disagree with. Is the solution just making my own e-book somehow? Is it simply putting the lessons up again later in the semester? Is it building in some kind of collaborative glossing of notes? I’m really stuck with this one.

The think-alouds:

  • I absolutely love what they have done for me as a teacher thus far, and since I know they are continuing to teach me lessons, I am sticking with them.
  • I love that they make students read closely. For many of them, this is closer than they’ve read anything in a very long time. And I love that we can read one half page of text and talk for 50 minutes and still not get to everything.
  • I like that they lead into the exams that I assign. The two exams, which are worth less than 25% of the total course grade, present students with a brief primary source they have not seen and a series of questions about content, context, and larger historical connections. The second exam then asks them to compare and contrast the new document with one of the other documents we’ve read in the course, which is attached for them to read. I want the exam to test them on the exact skills they’ve been practicing, and they haven’t been practicing essay writing and IDs, so I’m pretty happy with how the exams are framed. Now, there are serious issues with in-class exams, and I recognize them, and I’m not sure how how to reconcile what I like about this assignment with anything approaching universal design.
  • Grading think-alouds is a beast, and I try to give very explicit feedback, and I know that many students don’t read it and continue to make the same mistakes and then tell me I’m not telling them how to get better. If they’re not reading the feedback, does it even matter how much I’m giving? I try to get students to take notes on their think-alouds during discussion, and one of the benefits to that is that if they’ve already written it down, I don’t have to comment. But again, if they don’t, what can I do? All of this leads to the biggest struggle…
  • Improving at these takes effort on the part of the student in a very particular way. The reflections they do help them identify what they personally need to improve on, and I try to impress upon them the fact that I can’t just tell everyone the solution to getting better. Some students have a bigger struggle with historical empathy than others, and they need to work on that before anything else. Others need to remind themselves to slow down and not skip parts that confuse them. I use the idea of being both the gullible and skeptical reader, and some students seem to naturally find one role more comfortable than the other. But they all need to look at their thinking and work to improve it.  One thing I’ve considered: would it be helpful for them to see me do this? I am afraid that modeling is intimidating, but maybe it’s instructive?
  • The last frustration is with the fact that the doing of history that I’m aiming for is really really hard. In particular, the thing that students struggle with so much is, as my friend Casey would put it, identifying and applying relevant information. When asked to tell me stuff from lessons that helps them understand the document, students are often unable to do so even in the final weeks of the semester. Without my students being able to make these connections, historical thinking is not happening the way I want it to. Virtually every semester, about six weeks in, someone pipes up “I just realized that the lessons of the week and the document for Friday are kind of connected!” I have, of course, been making that explicit all semester, and when I hear that I’m just thinking “Of course they are! I selected the documents carefully and then crafted bespoke lessons around them!” but for some reason, the thought of using their notes to help them understand the document is consistently foreign to them, regardless of the school I’m teaching at, the grade level, or the major of the students.  As you can see on the second of my think-aloud guides, I’ve tried to incentivize this through grades, which I don’t love, but it hasn’t made a bit of difference. Clearly I need to teach this skill better but I am stumped.

So, in case any of my course design looked interesting to you, now you know what’s good and bad about it. Over the summer, I’m going to try to do some reading and thinking and float new ideas for fixing these issues, but I’m open to suggestions. Comments are love, as they say.

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