Friday, November 04, 2011

Teachable Moments: A Classroom Update

Teaching manual for next semester. Eek!
Back in September, I posted about my less-than-inspiring experiences as a brand new teaching assistant of creative writing. I realized today that after holiday breaks and special events I am only teaching TWO more classes, and so it seemed a good time to give y'all an update on my progress as a teacher.

To make a long story short: things have improved, greatly.

To make a short story a long blog post...

In those first few weeks, my biggest issues were nervous nausea before class and dealing with students who seemed to have no opinions, thoughts, feelings or ability to speak out loud. While I am still terribly nervous prior to teaching (I hear this never really goes away - yay?) my students have improved so much. We still have our awkward stretches of silence, mostly following the question, "What did you think about this piece?" but I no longer think it's because they hate writing, reading, school, and/or me. I'm pretty sure they have come to accept the fact that I will randomly call on someone and they are content to wait me out. Nine times out of ten, the person I call on gives a great answer, so I know the opinions are in there. Luckily, I'm getting better at drawing them out.

My students seem to like workshop best, which is no surprise. Workshop is awesome and in my class, we keep it pretty traditional. Students write a short story or an essay and distribute copies to everyone in the class. The class goes home to read and comment on the stories, and the following week is workshop time. First, I ask someone to quickly summarize the plot of the story and then we go around in a circle so everyone has a chance to speak, first discussing what worked in the piece, and then discussing what the writer might need to consider while revising. Finally, the writer gets to ask us any questions they might have (or talk about what gave them the idea for the piece - they really like talking about that, and honestly I like hearing it. Process is fascinating!)

Port City Java = lesson prep, writing.
In my pedagogy class, we spent a few minutes writing down our strengths and weakness as a teacher. My strengths are definitely in the workshop - I feel like I'm good at keeping everyone focused, summarizing what they've said, and phrasing things in a way that is supportive yet constructive. So far we've workshopped their fiction stories and their creative nonfiction essays. I think reading and talking about each others' work went a long way toward making my students feel more comfortable with and connected to one another. And even though they don't like discussing published works, they love talking about their own. Which, in an intro level class, the first time many of these students have ever written creatively, is definitely preferable. I've also been impressed with how much their writing, on a whole, has improved since those first few weeks. So: yay, students!

As for my weaknesses as a teacher: lack of confidence, being an easy grader, accepting too many excuses (missed classes, late work, etc), and a basic inability to ask a question and then wait for someone to answer it - if it's quiet for more than six seconds, I can't stand it and jump in, giving them the answer. Six seconds of silence in a classroom seems like an eternity. I'm okay with most of these issues - I know the bulk of them will be resolved through time and experience. I'll probably always be soft when it comes to late work and grading due to my bleeding heart, but don't tell my students that.

Overall, I like teaching. It's time-consuming and nerve-racking and frustrating, but it can also fun and rewarding. Yesterday, as she was leaving, one of my favorite students told me mine was her favorite class, and that alone made every moment of nausea worth it.


  1. This is my second year of teaching 6 classes a week for 2 hours at time. My classes involve a lot of lecture, though I do try to engage my students with a lot of other types of activities and learning. I taught so much at my grad institution as well that I haven't been nervous for a long time. Some people do always feel a bit of that nervous energy, but, like most things, it will become more and more habitual. Then it becomes a challenge to keep it fresh for yourself so that complacency on your part doesn't negatively impact your students.

    In terms of the silence thing, just think of it like yoga or going on a run. You can be silent for long periods with ease - now you just have to translate that into the classroom. 

  2. Awesome. I'm glad you've been able to experience all of this. Sounds like it's really worthwhile. :)

  3. 12 hours of teaching a week sounds intense! I will have to work up to that. For now, I only teach one class a week, which is more than enough. :)

    And you're right - I'm good at silence, in certain situations. I know that I need to give my students a chance to think about the question and work up the nerve to answer it. Next time, I'll just pretend I'm in savasana and wait it out. :)

  4. It definitely is worthwhile. Makes me look at education in a whole new light. :)

  5. I'm really enjoying your posts about teaching.  I know they're tricky to write because of the public quality of the blog, but I hope you know that the effort is worth it!  At least this reader thinks it is :-)

    Oh my gosh, I know so well the awkward silence you mentioned.  That happens ALL THE TIME in our lab meetings, and if I've already contributed once or twice, I just wait it out.  It takes patience, but ultimately it makes for a more balanced class/meeting if more people contribute.  After all, that's really the point of these group events.

  6. Silence is good. It is the sound of inspiration and the opportunity for students to focus and flesh out their thoughts and perspectives. Well done, Chrissy!. We miss you, but we are so proud of you!

  7. It sounds like things are going well, really. I have never mastered feeling comfortable cold-calling on people, myself, but I have gotten very comfortable with waiting it out. That pre-class nervous feeling eventually did go away for me, except on the first day of a new semester. I am hopeless then. I hope the semester winds down nicely for you!