Join 3,432 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Resources and suggestions needed for improving my teaching skills
April 3, 2013 6:37 AM   Subscribe

So I've been doing a little bit of teaching of free adult classes in my erstwhile academic specialty, an area of literature. (I am not an academic and do not teach except for community stuff.) I have trouble with big group discussion and balancing my role in the class.

I used to be just a godawful teacher with no idea how to structure a class; maturity and some activist trainings have given me enough skills that I am competent. I feel like I'm pretty good at choosing readings and planning small group activities (even creating discussion questions for small groups). But I feel like I break down when I need to work with the group as a whole. Sometimes we need to do whole-group stuff because the class size is too small for small groups; sometimes it's because I want to see where the whole group is at; and sometimes it's because I want to give the group specific information.

But I feel like I have these problems:

1. Things get rambly easily. I have trouble following up on and linking comments to comments.
2. I often feel undirected - like, I can think of an initial discussion question but I can't help students get to a deeper or more complex level. If the question confuses students (not because I've phrased it poorly but because it's difficult) I have trouble getting past that. In small groups, they can work some of this stuff out for themselves and in any case, I am less responsible for directing the outcomes.
3. What do you do if there is a point that you want students to get and they are not getting it? I find myself veering into "just tell them already", which skews discussion more toward "lecture". In big classes where we're alternating between small group, pair and whole group work I don't mind about this, but in a small class, it bothers me.
4. How do you write really good discussion questions, especially when students have various levels of familiarity with the topic and academic background?
5. How do you stay "teacherly" and not get too chatty? I am really excited about this topic and can easily get derailed into sharing My! Views! Of! Literature!

Basically, I feel like we don't get deep enough into the material and I feel like that's because I am somehow failing to direct the class right, but I can't seem to fix it. There isn't massive student unhappiness but I would really like to provide more to the students than I am currently.

I am teaching people who either are doing, have done or are capable of doing college-level work, virtually all of whom are older than twenty but most of whom are younger than me.

Any suggestions from your experience or materials you'd recommend would be useful.
posted by Frowner to Education (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've seen some teachers sort of wait for a point that gets closer to the direction they want the discussion to go, and then nudge that point. "Bob makes an interesting point when he suggests that John doesn't really love Jane. In chapter 2 he ignored her all through dinner and wouldn't pass the salad. Now that doesn't seem very loving. But if John doesn't love Jane, why did he propose?"

At the time I was mostly unaware of it, but looking back it was a "you're getting warmer ... warmer" type of game.
posted by bunderful at 6:57 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Frowner: What do you do if there is a point that you want students to get and they are not getting it? I find myself veering into "just tell them already", which skews discussion more toward "lecture". In big classes where we're alternating between small group, pair and whole group work I don't mind about this, but in a small class, it bothers me.

There's a reason you are the teacher. It's great to try and let students try to grasp stuff on their own, but I'd suggest that it can be really frustrating for them to just flail around when it would be much easier for you to just explain it to them. It's OK to lecture a little, even in a small group.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:57 AM on April 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Things get rambly easily. I have trouble following up on and linking comments to comments.

As an activist, you surely must be familiar with this technique from facilitation: acknowledge a comment, write it down on the board, and move on.

What do you do if there is a point that you want students to get and they are not getting it? I find myself veering into "just tell them already", which skews discussion more toward "lecture". In big classes where we're alternating between small group, pair and whole group work I don't mind about this, but in a small class, it bothers me.

It is what it is. 2,3, and 5 sound really related. If they were students for whom a lecture-style format was not appropriate, they would not be taking the class in the first place. You're supposed to be expanding their minds regarding how they think about literature. Sometimes that involved picking out a passage and showing them what the author is trying to do with language, rather than breaking them up into small groups and telling them to discuss it amongst themselves.

What you're doing (I assume) is trying to teach students about "the power of language." The thing is that they likely don't have the toolset to understand what they should be looking for, so you have to teach them those skills, which sometimes is going to involve clearly explaining what an author is doing (eg, dedicating a class or two to Fitzgerald's use of time in The Great Gatsby, symbols of rising up as reaching towards heaven which comes up in Milton, etc.). That builds skills so that students can learn to see things as they progress.
posted by deanc at 7:01 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, I also used to be just a godawful teacher too! What I found helped with the rambly and the students just not getting it was that the more I taught the SAME thing, the easier it was to direct the class and stay on topic. It's easy for me to get multiple cracks at the same lesson because I teach several sections of the same class, but if you don't, you're going to have to rehearse alone. Teach your pets or your plants. Try to think of every possible distraction the students could come up with. Refine your language so that you end up being a guide and not a fount of The Real Answer. PowerPoints have helped me immensely - do you have a projector and computer in your classroom?

As to being "teacherly", I have given that up entirely. I love Spanish grammar and I simply can't pretend that I don't. But I try to take a step back after a few sentences of me gushing about direct object pronouns, check in with the students' reactions, and ask myself, "Are they really interested? Is this helping them learn to construct sentences in Spanish or is it helping them learn about me?" Answering those questions in my head helps me go back to, "OK, now you guys need to create, not me."
posted by chainsofreedom at 7:17 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


You have the passion to teach, you just need what most first-timers need-- better classroom management skills. The best all-around resource to teach you this is Harry K. Wong's book The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher. I know it is geared towards public school teachers, but it really is fantastic. If I could only tell you one thing it would be to read that book. If I could tell you a second thing, it would be to do some research on the differences between teaching kids and teaching adults. The techniques your teachers used when you were in school may or may not have been effective with children, but when you are dealing with people in their 20s and older, you definitely need to change your approach and adapt your style to fit the demographics of your class. This is why there are entire graduate programs devoted to adult education-- it is a specialty in its own right. Like Henry James said, you need to bait the hook to suit the fish. Good luck!
posted by seasparrow at 7:31 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is a really great thread on Something Awful that's been going on for four years now with an English professor who has shared a lot about how he teaches literature to undergrads. Different population, but I would expect a lot of the advice still applies.

And don't be afraid to be excited about your topic. Enthusiasm is definitely a plus when teaching. Students respond to you obviously wanting to be there, even if they aren't all as into the topic as you are (but some of them will be!)
posted by Kosh at 7:35 AM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Overall, I think you are already on the right track and you just kind of need to reframe your perceptions of how you are running the class.

1. Things get rambly easily. I have trouble following up on and linking comments to comments.

To avoid rambliness (which I am prone to, too), you need to develop a good sense of awareness of when you are talking too much. Maybe limit yourself to a certain number of sentences or amount of time, and then cut yourself off. To improve following up and linking, maybe write the point on the board as a reminder to get back to it?

2. I often feel undirected - like, I can think of an initial discussion question but I can't help students get to a deeper or more complex level. If the question confuses students (not because I've phrased it poorly but because it's difficult) I have trouble getting past that. In small groups, they can work some of this stuff out for themselves and in any case, I am less responsible for directing the outcomes.

I don't think there's any reason that you can't have the large group do the same thing. You don't say how big the class is, but if it's still small enough that small groups are not useful, then you should be able to bring the same dynamic to the whole class, IMO.

3. What do you do if there is a point that you want students to get and they are not getting it? I find myself veering into "just tell them already", which skews discussion more toward "lecture". In big classes where we're alternating between small group, pair and whole group work I don't mind about this, but in a small class, it bothers me.

As far as I'm concerned, there is nothing wrong with bringing up points that you want to make. Depending on the students level of background knowledge and performance, they might not be ready to make those conclusions on their own. You can keep your points brief and then let them build on that.

4. How do you write really good discussion questions, especially when students have various levels of familiarity with the topic and academic background?

I don't know if "really good" discussion questions exist. You can develop different questions based on Bloom's taxonomy, which will keep things going and will support learners at different points in the learning process. However, the discussion will make the learning process interesting and engaging, not necessarily the questions.

5. How do you stay "teacherly" and not get too chatty? I am really excited about this topic and can easily get derailed into sharing My! Views! Of! Literature!

In my experience, students tend to enjoy it if you openly show your excitement about a topic and share your knowledge with them, especially the students who are less experienced with the topic. For me, I really liked having teachers that were excited about the topic, even if I wasn't. It didn't make me enjoy the topic more, but it made me enjoy the class itself.

In grad school, no one really taught me how to teach college-level courses, so I ended up doing mostly lectures for my first few years of university-level teaching. Creating Significant Learning Experiences was a book that really changed the way I look at teaching. I also found How Learning Works to be interesting and useful, too.
posted by puritycontrol at 8:23 AM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


This may seem pretty basic, but I try to note and keep track of points or facts that really resonate with students, so that when I teach the same materials again, I know more about what will grab their attention or what will make a point clearer. I've also had to keep track of phrasing or discussions that really haven't worked well with students in the past, even if I think the topic is really important or clever.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:40 AM on April 3, 2013


Ask leading questions to steer students toward the point you want to make.

And maybe you could make up some sort of survey to give your students, where they can give you feedback about your teaching, how they feel your doing, what they'd like to see from you, things you aren't doing that maybe you could, etc. the people you actually teach might have the best ideas for you on how you can do it better.
posted by catatethebird at 9:20 AM on April 3, 2013


1. Things get rambly easily. I have trouble following up on and linking comments to comments.

Use the board. Put important topics/questions/keywords up on the board as they arise. Use a mind map or some other graphical organiser if appropriate. I find this helps develop flow and linkage, as the students find it easier to draw on the earlier discussion when they make future contributions.

2. I often feel undirected - like, I can think of an initial discussion question but I can't help students get to a deeper or more complex level. If the question confuses students (not because I've phrased it poorly but because it's difficult) I have trouble getting past that. In small groups, they can work some of this stuff out for themselves and in any case, I am less responsible for directing the outcomes.

Again, use the board to help stay focussed. This is where "put the learning intention on the board before you start" can really help. Let the students know where you're headed before you start the journey. If the question is confusing, just rephrase it, or slow down and break it up into smaller parts. If it's a difficult question, ask the students to write their answer down, and give them some thinking time before calling on people. Or use think-pair-share to get some of the benefit of small group work in a larger group.

3. What do you do if there is a point that you want students to get and they are not getting it? I find myself veering into "just tell them already", which skews discussion more toward "lecture". In big classes where we're alternating between small group, pair and whole group work I don't mind about this, but in a small class, it bothers me.

As I said above, give them thinking time, or let them discuss it with the person next to them. Don't be afraid to give clues. Even if it's a big clue, I find that they still get satisfaction from making that final connection, and it doesn't feel like a lecture. And if it is genuinely a very important point—just tell them already! Then you can work backwards and have them apply the concept, identify evidence that supports it, or whatever. In other words, do the interactive part in reverse.

4. How do you write really good discussion questions, especially when students have various levels of familiarity with the topic and academic background?

Draw on their experiences. Frame the questions so that you're going to get different perspectives from the class, and then make sure everyone feels comfortable sharing their views. The best classes are the ones where students have different backgrounds and can all benefit from each other's knowledge/experiences/values. And one question doesn't have to cover all angles—just make sure that each discussion question includes (a) different group(s), so that over the course of a couple of lessons everyone feels like they've contributed something.

5. How do you stay "teacherly" and not get too chatty? I am really excited about this topic and can easily get derailed into sharing My! Views! Of! Literature!

Being really excited about the topic and sharing your personal views and being chatty with the class is the best damn type of teacherly there is. You can't substitute for enthusiasm, and nothing would harm your students more than an attempt to stifle it and become some kind of teacher drone with no passion or personality. Keep doing what you're doing!
posted by robcorr at 5:08 PM on April 3, 2013


I really like robcorr's suggestions and comments above, especially his point #3 about the importance of giving thinking time and/or talking it over with the person beside them. Think-pair-share works amazingly well (students have a minute to think about your question and jot a few notes down if they wish; they pair up with a classmate and talk about their answers; then you call on a few pairs to share their ideas with the whole class). I'd also reiterate that it's great when students can see how passionate you are about your subject! I don't think I'd worry too much about being chatty and not "teacherly" enough unless you are never letting your students get a word in edgewise or you're off-topic all the time.

Some additional thoughts:

1) People understand material much more quickly and easily if they can put it in context and connect it to their own experiences or prior knowledge. I encourage this in a few ways: After they've done some reader response writing at home, they're much better prepared and will have a lot more to say during the discussion.

2) You don't need to come up with all the discussion questions--you can get your students to be responsible for coming up with some. After doing the readings, everyone brings one or two questions to class for discussion. You may want to tweak them to make them more effective, but it really gets the students involved in the discussion when you're using their questions.

However, before you get them to create discussion questions, it's a good idea to do a short lesson on what kinds of questions will provoke the best discussions. You can go over Bloom's taxonomy in a general way, but you don't have to call it that--you can just point out the differences between questions that check comprehension vs. questions that provoke analysis, synthesis, or evaluation. It's a good idea to provide examples of questions that will draw a lot of response vs. ones that fizzle out quickly.

Feel free to MeMail me if you would like a copy of the assignments and activities I've mentioned above! I teach literature to students in a similar demographic, and I'd be happy to send my materials to you so you can adapt and use them with your class.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:47 PM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Thanks for all the great comments! I'm especially excited to look at some of the books and readings you mentioned.

There are some challenges in the teaching I'm doing, so I will need to tweak some of your suggestions when incorporating them -

1. Because these are free classes on "fun" topics, I can't assign too much homework. In the past, asking people to come up with questions or do writing hasn't worked well - although I've been very pleased this go round with the fact that most people do most of the reading most of the time. However, I could incorporate some writing at the start of class. We often do a pair activity to refresh people's memories but alternating that with writing would be great - I also worry that I lean too much on the same few activities because I know they work. I think getting students in the habit of doing a little writing early will also help raise the bar for how the class works.

2. I often do not have a "board". At the moment, I have some floppy sections cut down from a larger whiteboard and propped on the back of the sofa where I sit (this eccentric but highly portable solution is provided by the organization that puts together the class schedule). I do write down what we're going to do during class and if we're doing a brainstorm activity I write that stuff down...but I could easily write down points that people make. I could also get myself a better whiteboard to store at the place where I generally teach classes.

3. Bringing in students' experience: One thing I did successfully in the first class - and it made a lot of difference - was to spend a lot of time on "getting to know you" type activities, even though that didn't really flow into the topic perfectly. I wanted everyone to feel heard/important and I knew from previous activist experiences that people feel the most engaged in a class when they have some chance to show their skills and experience. I realize now that I did not continue with this as well as I could have. I could have incorporated some kind of personal experience-related activity into each class.

4. Another challenge is that each class is kind of a one-off, so it's hard to really re-teach the material. But I could journal about which themes/approaches worked well, since I am teaching one kind of thing and there's bound to be some overlap in topics.

5. I really like the idea of talking about different kinds of discussion questions. I think that would be good for me as well.

I've also realized during this class that I need to understand my material better - since these are free classes organized sort of informally, I think it was easy for me to underestimate how much thought I needed to give to the materials ahead of time. I mean, I did a lot of prep of the actual stuff we were reading, and I have a good general background on the topic, but I think I would have been able to nudge the discussions in better directions if I'd done more reading of critical/scholarly/historical material (I read some, but more would have helped) and if I'd done more prep before the "semester" started. (I did a lot of prep week-by-week, so it was harder to give shape to the whole class.)

On the whole, I was excited about the class I'm finishing up now - it is the most successful one I've ever taught, so even though I can see I have plenty of room for improvement, I also feel like I'm capable of improving. I'm already planning a short "mini-course" type of thing for summer, and I'm looking forward to incorporating all this advice. Thanks again!
posted by Frowner at 6:46 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I just saw this so it's probably waaaay too late to respond, but I thought I'd throw in my 2 cents. I have taught advanced middle school lit classes (Shakespeare, Bradbury, Orwell, Harper Lee, etc.) and the two most useful tools I found for getting discussion going and sustaining it were:

Anticipation Guides - Giving students a list of big ideas related to the reading prior to actually reading gets them engaged in the overall themes and meaning of the work. It also gives them a stake in the discussion because they all have opinions that they can bring to the discussion. The teacher's job then is to wrap that into discussion of the text.

Highlighting - This works really well with dense writing where I want them to pull out imagery, symbolism, etc. I make copies of the passage/section of the text and then lead a class discussion where they highlight (or underline) "any imagery related to darkness" or whatever else we are going to discuss. Then they have a marked up copy they can refer to as we discuss. It gives them a sense of confidence that they have something to contribute to the discussion and it really helps them to notice what's going on in the text.

I hope this is helpful.
posted by usedsongs at 3:55 PM on May 17, 2013


« Older I met this guy who approached ...   |  What are the best second-hand ... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.