Always Center the Students

Always Center the Students January 8, 2018

It’s the 1st day of the spring semester! Well, at one of the universities I teach at, anyway. Here are 2 blog posts that inspire me to center the students.

Selfie with a conference purchase, Teaching with Tenderness, a book that's been giving me great ideas to implement in the classroom.
Selfie with a conference purchase, Teaching with Tenderness, a book that’s been giving me great ideas to implement in the classroom.

In the last-minute rush to finalize my syllabus and get that first lesson plan ready, I tend to revisit my reasons for teaching in the first place. It shouldn’t be about me sounding brilliant up on the podium, no matter how inherently fascinating I think my subject matter is. It should be about the students’ learning experiences, and meeting them where they’re at, without compromising academic rigor and my activist bent in teaching the subjects I do.

As my colleague Sharyn J. Emery writes in Learning is More Important Than Teaching, “If you are so wedded to what you are TEACHING rather than what/how students are LEARNING, you have a problem.” I completely agree with this!

Dr. Emery goes on to summarize a particularly engaging lecture she attended about active learning, acknowledging that the term has become a bit of a buzz word recently. However, attending to the concepts of intrinsic load (how inherently difficult the material is to learn) vs. extraneous load (all the factors impacting a student’s learning experience, such as environment and lecture style) can help. We can’t always impact the difficulty of the material involved, but we can change how we teach it. One of her main takeaways is:

The instructional methods used should be geared to ensuring student learning rather than reducing your prep time or allowing you to cover vast amounts of material quickly. I’ve found that working on your learning outcomes/objectives/goals/means/whatever is a great way to help you see if you are being learning focused. If you set out specific objectives and the students meet them, then you can safely say you are being more learning focused.

I like to think I’m always striving towards these goals, though I still catch myself thinking about how much material I “need” to cover in a given lecture.

Returning to the notion of difficult topics, I’ve written about my strategies for teaching taboo topics already. I also found some important insights in the blog post Teaching Difficult Subjects: Lynching by Maia Butler. Dr. Butler writes:

I want to reiterate that (after burning a considerable amount of calories on frustration in my first teaching years) I make the conscious decision to meet students where they are at. We must make the best use of our time and energy doing the work that we all show up to do together. Students do know a lot of things[…].

This is incredibly important for the folklore classroom, since it’s a topic that’s relevant to everybody. As teachers, we do well to emphasize the relevance of our topics, and to highlight what students know about it, even while meeting them where they’re at in the gaps (the relevant example for Dr. Butler is that, while teaching lynching, she encountered students from the South who knew practically nothing about it). Further, Dr. Butler gives this advice about addressing student resistance to difficult subject matter:

1) allow them to take the lead in teaching themselves through a variety of material; 2) by modeling (using technology to access information, thinking and responding out loud) finding, approaching, and engaging with material, as well as producing a variety of questions as a response to that engagement, 3) and to provide narration of classroom discussion and support with factual information.

Yes to all these strategies. I know I still have room to improve as an instructor, such as slowing down and remembering to breathe, but I also like to read about these strategies that my colleagues implement, in order to be more conscious moving forward about making those connections in my materials that help the students see the relevance to their lives, and to also see that I care about their learning experiences, even as I maintain rigorous academic standards for my field(s).

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