I had a thought while reading Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto about the purpose of teaching. It led me to make a connection to my own undergraduate experience that I had really never made before.
In Chapter 2 of the book, titled “The Things We Tell Our Students,” Gannon discusses the weed-out classes — those classes with the reputation of thinning out students and being a gateway to higher-level courses in the major. This passage really spoke to me:
Think about a particular course at your institution that has the reputation as a “weed-out” class for a particular major. Perhaps the instructor has a first-day tradition of dramatically conveying to students what the class’s purpose is. Turn to your left, now turn to your right, they intone; judging by historical averages, one of the three of you will not make it through this semester. Students who survived this gateway course talk about the demands of upper-level work in the particular program of which it’s a part. All-nighters, brutal exams, impossible group projects—there might even be an institutional lore surrounding the program, and an almost perverse pride from some of its members in being the most rigorous or demanding or intense major out there. Now ask what this type of culture is really saying to students. What’s really valued here: learning, or endurance? If students major in this program, will they embark on an intellectual journey, or a gauntlet of academic hazing? Are students being told what really matters is their readiness to submit to all sorts of draconian requirements inflicted in the name of “rigor,” rather than the specific knowledge and habits of mind needed by practitioners of this discipline? (33)
Kevin M. Gannon. Radical Hope : A Teaching Manifesto. West Virginia University Press, 2020.
I remember back to my own undergraduate days at Rice University. I did not personally take this class. In fact, I actively avoided it because of its reputation. The class was PHYS 101, the introductory physics class. As a history major, I had to choose some math and science to take. The two choices presented to me were to take one each of MATH 101, CHEM 101, and PHYS 101, or to take two classes of two of those. I chose to take MATH 101 and 102 and CHEM 101 and 102 just so I could avoid the physics class. And, everything I heard from those in the math/science/engineering pathway that took physics justified my choice.
The class was brutal, according to them, with class averages on the exams in the 40s and 50s. Yet, those who made it through the course felt proud that they had survived and could now go on to the field they had chosen. That seemed normal at the time. What Gannon talked about was in full presentation with physics at Rice in the mid-1990s. But looking back now, I have a completely different opinion on it, especially after reading this section from Gannon’s book.
At that time, the fault for not succeeding in the class was fully on the student. If they can’t handle this class, then they will never succeed in future classes. But, thinking about it, that is so perverse. They have created a course that is so difficult that many do not pass. Here’s the thing — if you create a class where the class average on exams is in the 40s and 50s, then the problem is not with the students but with the teaching. If you can’t teach the material well enough to where students have a chance to not only pass but to succeed on assessments, then you are doing a poor job of teaching. If your students cannot pass the exams you have put together, despite having done the homework and attended your lectures, then the fault is not theirs, but yours. The whole design of the class is set up to make each student work as hard as possible (and this was Rice, which was already a challenging school) for the chance that they might pass. Instead of assessments being a point where students can show what they have learned and apply that learning, the assessments were designed to highlight how little the students can actually do, despite the instruction given to them.
Now, I am guessing on much of that, as I did not take the class myself. However, I had a number of friends who struggled through it, and my memory of things they said has stuck with me. I do remember two classes I took that worked in a similar way.
- I thought I might be interested in Psychology, and so I took PSYC 101. The class ended up being in a large lecture hall with an old white male professor droning on at the front. I remember almost nothing from what he said, and I learned pretty quickly that what he said was not what was important. Instead, what was important was the textbook. We had three exams as our only grades in the class, and they were essentially over anything that you could find in the book. We had little guidance as to what to study, and were faced with long multiple-choice exams (I seem to remember about 100 questions, but that was a long time ago). I did not do great on them, but I didn’t do terrible either ending up in the mid- to upper- B range. Then, on top of that, the class was then put on a curve, which could either move you up or down. In my case, it went down, leading to an ultimate B- in the class. There was little to inspire me to be interested in anything to do with Psychology out of this class, and I the class and assessments were more like a chore to get through than any sort of inspiration to go on to further study. And, I didn’t, as I never took another Psychology class.
- I am still not sure to this day why I took an Economics class my freshman year. I did generally do well in Economics in high school, but it had never been a real interest. However, somewhere along the way, I decided to take Macro-Economics. It was hands down the worst class I had at Rice. I have talked about it many times with my family, with colleagues, even with my current classes that I teach. The way I characterize it is this: There were three aspects to the class — lecture, homework, and exams. None of those three had anything to do with the other. Attending lecture did not help with homework or exams. Doing the homework did not help with the exams. In fact, each seemed to exist completely separate from the other. Not only did I learn nothing, but I actively avoided anything to do with economics for more than a decade afterwards. Only as I have come to realize that an understanding of economics is key to teaching history have I gone back and tried to learn what I should have at the time. I ended up making my only C at Rice in this class, and those of us who survived the class had a ritual book burning of the book at the end of the semester.
What is my point in all of this. I teach differently. Not because of these things necessarily, but those lessons resonate with my own approach. I teach now with the aim of working with my students, engaging with them, teaching and learning with them. My class is demanding, but it is demanding because I ask the students to be active participants in their learning. They are not just told the history, but they work with it, question it, challenge it, make links, and apply the history to their lives today. As I say to my students every semester, my goal is to have my students succeed. I will do everything I can to help them succeed. They just have to meet me halfway – by doing the work. If they can do that, we will all learn together, and I promise them a much more engaging and interesting history class than they have often found in the past.
Posted every semester in my class is a short biography of me that includes my teaching history, my teaching philosophy, and a section I call “My Goals for the Class.” I am going to paste that part in full here, because I think it reflects exactly what I am saying here while also attempting to not be what those courses above were to me as an undergraduate:
My Goals for this Class
My goal for you and this class is to help you succeed. This does not mean that my goal is to guarantee you an A or a passing grade. Instead, my goal is to provide you with all of the material and guidance that you need to achieve what you want to in the class. For this, I promise you these things:
- I will do my best to be open, fair, and available to you throughout the semester or summer session.
- I will provide a working classroom that contains all of the information that you need to succeed.
- I will be an active participant both online and in person throughout the semester or summer session.
- I will hold all office hours that I can and notify you when I will not be around.
- I will answer emails and Canvas messages as soon as I can, but no longer than 24 hours after you have submitted them to me.
- I will do my best to complete all grading within a week from when the assignment closes. However, I will notify you of my progress throughout my grading and will let you know if it will take longer than a week.
- I will communicate with you regularly through Announcements.
- I will grade your work fairly and will give you the grade that you deserve based upon your effort and skill.
Beyond my specific goals for the class, I hope to help each of you develop skills that can help you succeed in your future college classes. I aim to develop three basic skills that will help you in future classes. These are critical thinking, critical reading, and critical writing. Again, the hybrid class is more aimed at these skills than the online class, but I am working on developing the online class more in that direction. I am also available for academic advising and counseling to all of my students, so if you want to discuss college planning, scheduling, majors, transfer, degrees, programs of study, life issues, or anything else, please come by my office at any point where I am there. You can also contact me via email or Canvas messaging at any point.
I hope you can see from that what I try to bring to my classes. I am interested in any feedback or thoughts on this.
OK. So, the topic for today is not actually about reviewing a textbook, although that is what I am doing right now. For those of you not in the academic business, we are often approached to review textbooks and materials, and I am reviewing one right now. In doing so, they often have you write up something about your own approach to teaching, and I thought this was a good opportunity to share what I wrote with everyone else. So, my apologies to the textbook company that put the questions together for using them here, but here is what they asked about my own teaching and what I had to say about it:
What are the main goals of your course? What should students understand and retain after taking the course?
My course is about teaching my students the skills that they need to be successful in college, using the field of American history as the background material for that purpose. I focus on three primary skills in my course: critical reading, critical thinking, and critical writing, and I use the course material to emphasize and further the development of those skills. I use a lot of primary source documents, as well as a department writing assignment that has the students use historical evidence to relate an aspect of the past to the modern day.
I also emphasize the idea of what I call the “American mythology,” the simplistic history that students are often taught in their K-12 education, and especially in K-8 education. There is an element of Lies My Teacher Told Mein my course, where I show them how what they have been taught in the past is not the full truth or sometimes even the truth at all.
From this, I hope that my students will come out of the course with a better understanding of the world and their place in it. I hope they will have an appreciation of what history can tell us about who we are and where we came from. I also want them to be successful students from this point forward, as I am typically teaching first-semester college students, many of who are first generation or nontraditional students. I shape the course in such a way as to emphasize the skills they will need both in my course and in future courses and help them to gain or improve those skills in my course.
Your Course Today
Are you currently emphasizing any new topics, themes, or skills in this course that you were not covering or emphasizing in the past few years? If so, what are they?
Most of what I am doing now is different than what I was doing 5-6 years ago. I teach online and hybrid, and I use the flipped classroom model for my hybrid courses. I do not lecture in the traditional sense, and I have largely abandoned the idea of teaching the narrative of what happened in my courses. Instead, I am emphasizing what I said above, mainly in the use of the history that we do cover in teaching them broader skills that will make them better students and more informed citizens.
My hybrid course takes a largely case-study approach to history, using the method of a deep dive in to a few topics to illustrate the broader trends of American history. As well, I helped design and devise our common writing assignment in the department, with its emphasis on using historical evidence to make an argument and in relating the past to the present. I have turned my hybrid teaching from a traditional lecture class with traditional assessments into an active learning classroom that works to engage the students with historical skills, many of them aligned with the AHA’s Tuning Project.
My online course is more in development in its changeover to this new mindset. I have spent years getting the hybrid course together, and It is the turn of the online course now. I am also going to be moving it away from the narrative lecture and into a more case-study approach. I am also introducing things like the Crash Course Digital Literacy material into the course, both to help the students in their own lives and to provide them with a questioning framework for understanding history and its evidence. I am also going to be including more interaction, especially with more self-assessments and inter-group cooperation.
What are your teaching challenges and your students’ learning challenges in this course?
The biggest challenge remains the lack of the skills that I am trying to teach. As I stated above, the students at my community college are heavily nontraditional and first generation. We have our share of the traditional studnets just out of high school as well, but, at an open-enrollment institution, even those students often come to us because we are relatively inexpensive and close. Even the traditional students often lack college-level skills, which is one reason why I have been transforming my courses. I got tired of sitting and complaining each year that my students could not do the work and blaming them for it and decided that it was time I started working toward helping them with the skills gap. The gaps that I see are:
- Lack of understanding/ability to read a college-level textbook
- This is because they often have never had to do it before and have not been taught how to do it. Seeing my own children go through in high school (I have one in high school and two entering college right now), I know that reading is a small part of the overall curriculum these days, as my kids rarely have had reading assigned outside of class and are not provided with any textbooks to bring home at all. So, for many, my own requirements that they read and understand a college textbook or primary sources more generally simply is a skill they have had little practice at.
- Poor understanding of how to think critically in an age of multiple-choice tests
- The increasing reliance on multiple-choice assessments here in Texas means that most of my students have an understanding of history and academics in general as a curriculum of memorization for the text. There is not as much emphasis on the higher thinking and reasoning skills, especially in the non-AP classes. When presented with history as a field of study without concrete answers and where the questioning of sources, interpretations, and understandings comes out as a key aspect, they have a lot of trouble with it.
- Lack of effective study skills and academic skills
- Again, to use my own children as an example, I rarely have seen them ever study outside of school for anything, and my twins entering college now (one coming out of AP in high school and one who pursued the International Baccalaureate plan) seldom did homework, even in relatively rigorous high school course work. The students I generally see have little idea of how to do homework, how to plan out an academic semester to get work done on time, how to study for a test, how to write a paper, and just in general how to navigate a college environment.
- Poor writing skills
- The students I see have trouble creating an argument/thesis, understanding evidence as it applies to a paper, using evidence to support an argument, drafting and editing a paper, and effectively using citations and a Works Cited. I cannot rely on my students gaining those skills through our English classes, as there is no requirement they take English before my class, and so I have to create assignments that help them with this process.
Notice what I have not said here, which is that I do not have any problem with their knowledge of historical facts and figures. While they often do not know very much that is not in the very broad canon of US history, my approach allows them to gain what they need along the way, as the teaching of the skills along the way are based upon using the knowledge that is necessary to succeed. In an era of smartphones, the memorization of history is no longer a necessity, and the broader skills will allow them to understand the history much more than just knowing what happened in the traditional narrative. As well, a focus on understanding the American mythology as it is generally taught will make them more critical thinkers in evaluating evidence and using it to prove an argument.
I was at a 5-year-old’s birthday party this past weekend, and a parent asked what I do. When I responded that I teach history at a community college, he proceeded to tell me about his own experience. He came to this country as a senior in high school and had to take American history to graduate. He then went off to college and took American history there the next year. His comment was that he thought it was a waste of time to take college-level history, as it was just a repeat of what he had been taught in high school. That further convinced me that my approach to teaching college-level history is heading in the right direction, as I know that my class is nowhere near just a repeat of what the students would have gotten in high school. In fact, the top comment that I get in my discussion forums is how the students have not heard much of anything that I teach before coming to my class.
That brings me to the first part here of what I do in the online teaching environment for history. For a long time, teaching history has been focused around the narrative, with the feeling that, if you do not speak about every single detail of American history that you can squeeze in, then you are failing to do your job. I hear that from my colleagues here and elsewhere that, every time we are asked to do something besides teaching the narrative, we are taking time away from what we are supposed to be doing. When I get to Part 2 of this series, talking about my hybrid courses, I will talk about a course where I have started the break with the narrative approach to history. However, for Part 1 here, my online course is still largely a narrative course.
What makes my course different from a high school course is: What narrative are you teaching? My students have to cover the material in multiple different ways online, getting the narrative from multiple sources and perspectives.
In the old style, the narrative came from two sources — the instructor and the textbook. The instructor presented the “true” content for the course, and the textbook covered all the cracks where the instructor either did not have enough time or did not present on topics he or she wasn’t all that interested in. These two sources largely matched in approach, and student success in class came in how closely they could match the instructor and textbook approaches on their multiple-choice and essay exams.
I have so many different perspectives in my class that there is no single source of information. As well, throughout all of it, I do not insist on a coverage model at all, as we will have some material that we will spend a lot of time on and others that we will not. At the base, here are the sources that my students have:
- My lectures (presented in both a Word document and as audio podcasts)
- The textbook (1-2 chapters each week)
- 7-10 primary sources with detailed assessments on each through the semester
- Crash Course US History videos from YouTube
- 10-20 additional resources on the web each week.
- These are basically anything I can find for free on the web that has a stable link that covers some subject related to that week. These include:
- newspaper articles
- magazine articles
- journal articles
- online museum exhibits
- These are basically anything I can find for free on the web that has a stable link that covers some subject related to that week. These include:
The only part of the above that is not required are the additional resources, but I know that students are reading them because of what they talk about in the discussion forums (which will be a later post). I will have one student post what they find interesting in a resource, and then another student will say that inspired them to read/watch/listen to the resource. Then, they post about it, triggering another couple of students, and so forth.
It is a lot of material, but, of course, in an online course, I can ask for them to do that material and hope they do it. I try to have assessments tied to all of it except the additional resources, whether it be in textbook quizzes, assessments on primary sources, or broad-based essay questions that cover the lectures and Crash Course Videos. The evidence overall shows that students are definitely accessing some of it, with the better students accessing all of it.
I feel that the coverage that I give them works well, as I hear from them regularly. I have a lot of avenues for students to talk to me about their progress in the course, and they find the material manageable and interesting, which means I am meeting the goal I am looking for.
As I move forward in developing material, I do want to do more.
- First, I am looking to redo my lectures. They are the ones that I first developed in teaching American history almost 15 years ago, and I know they are dated. They are largely still on the coverage model, and updating them would allow me to have the lectures be more of a deep dive into the interesting material for the subject and allow the textbook to remain as the one source still tied to the coverage.
- Second, I would like to diversify my assessments to focus more on the skills that I am looking for students to learn rather than just their memorization of the material. I have been fairly successful so far in doing that, but I know I could do more (which I will discuss in the assessment part of this discussion of what I do).
For right now, I am moderately happy with my content coverage, and, if I could do that first one, especially, I think I would have my online history course in a very good place.
Do any of you who read this teach history or another introductory subject? What do you remember from when you took introductory history?
I have been trying to ease back into working toward material to do with work as the summer continues to move on. I have an 8-week break this summer, as I am not teaching again until the second summer session. What that means is that I have a number of weeks to take off completely, which is largely what I have been doing to this point, but now it is starting to be time to think about academic work again.
I can’t say I have done a whole lot to this point, but I have made a few starts. For one, I completed a textbook chapter review yesterday, which was something on my agenda for the early part of the summer. I have also participated in a few activities with McGraw-Hill as part of my role as a Digital Faculty Consultant with them. And, in the past week or so, I have been trying to catch up on some of the blogs and e-newsletters that I read, as well as dabbling with some of the academic podcasts I listen to. Shortly, I will start working on my summer class, although I still have about a 3-week window before starting. I am not planning any major changes from last summer, so it will really just be a case of changing up the dates and making sure everything is in there. There are a few changes that I made last semester, including adding screencast videos for the online class, so those will need to be created for the summer session. Otherwise, summer prep is not too bad.
One interesting discovery I have made is the Student Caring project (studentcaring.com). I was turned onto the project from either a Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed blog about podcasts that we should be listening to. I came to this site through the podcast, and I will certainly make it part of what I am going to be looking at in the near future as I get back into thinking about my own job. The project is designed to help professors with all of the issues that we face in an environment that is aimed at helping us teach better, live better, and think better. I have only dabbled in it so far, although I have probably listened to about 15 of their podcast episodes so far. The general professor part of the site has both curated and guest posts on issues related to teaching in higher education. The podcasts (which are what I have accessed so far), are aimed at talking through issues on teaching in higher education. I have thoroughly enjoyed them so far and would recommend them to anyone teaching at a college or university. I am currently in the middle of the series titled, “What Your Students Probably Don’t Know,” which has been interesting and already given me a couple of ideas for my own classes, especially in formulating syllabi and course outlines for our students. I accessed the podcasts through iTunes, but I am sure they are available in multiple places.
Otherwise, I am just starting to do some thinking on my classes for the fall. I already do a hybrid American history class, and I am thinking of moving it to be even more thematic in approach so that the ideas hold together even better than I think they already do right now. I am teaching both halves of the American history survey this fall, and I am thinking of reworking the second half one. I already have a general set of themes, but not everything fits in with those themes right now. I am considering using a race/ethnicity/immigration theme, as over 1/3 of what I already have works with that theme, and I would have two writing assignments already ready to go to aim at that theme. It would help me feel more focused in what I am doing in the class and make it more apparent for the students how everything fits together. So, that is what I am thinking about.
Anyway, I just wanted to hop in here for a few minutes and update. I’ll be back for more later.
So, hello again. Yes. I know. I have not been on here in a while. In fact, if you look back at the posting history on this blog, I have not been posting regularly since the fall of 2014. Here it is, the summer of 2016. So, what happened?
We had our fourth kid in the fall of 2012, and by the time I stopped posting regularly, she was up and running around the house. In fact, if I look back at my extracurricular work (blogging, Coursera courses, and the like), a lot of it stopped around that time. I was able to keep going through the first couple of years until she was very mobile and demanding on time. I can’t say it was a conscious decision, but it was something that my wife and I had conversations about. We discussed the constant pressure that I felt to be on all the time in my job. With a teaching load that is at least half online, there is pressure to be doing work 24/7, and, to a certain extent, I was. However, since that point, I have tried to incorporate more family time and more free time into what I do, so that I am not constantly expected to be working. I am not saying I was constantly working, but I was always work-aware, checking email, looking at my courses, and trying to fill my free time with relevant activities. That all changed around the spring of 2015, when I changed how I balance my work and my life to be biased more toward life. And, this blogging has been one of the things that has dropped off.
Another decision that affected the blogging came straight from this decision. I had always had Sunday evening online office hours, even though few students ever attended them. I took two hours out of every Sunday and sat in front of the computer in my office on a video-conferencing program to be available to my students. That was an ideal time to also sit down and write a blog entry, as I had to be in front of the computer doing work for that time. Of course, since almost no students ever came on, I had the time for blogging as well. After the fall of 2014, I dropped these hours because they were so poorly attended and because they were more of an inconvenience that a help to my own work-life balance. While occasionally productive, it brought work home even more directly than I do now, and it was something that became harder and harder as the toddler got more mobile. Dropping those hours is not something I regret, and it has again moved me more toward the life side of the work-life balance, but it has had an impact as well.
In looking back on it, I have mixed feelings about the change. I miss blogging regularly, and I feel more disconnected from my work at times. It also has made my actual work time more stressful, as there is more pressure to get things done in the time I am working. As well, when work does poke into life, as it did in the last semester because of a committee I was chairing, it is that much more stressful as well. However, the overall effect has been good. I do spend more time with my family than before, I think, and I am not as tied into work as I used to be while at home. As well, I have been reading more than I used to, especially of fiction, which I love. I have been using Goodreads to keep track of the books that I read, and during the last school year (September-May), I read 39 books. I consider that a success as well.
Lately, however, I have been feeling the need to get back into pushing myself more academically. I need to find a balance, and I have not yet figured out how to hit that balance. I do not necessarily think that I have leaned too far toward life at this point, but I do think that I have not committed myself to as much of the extracurricular work activity that I should be doing, such as keeping up this blog. I would like to take more continuing education-type courses. I would like to read more in my field (yes, of those 39 books, not a single one was a history book). I would like to work on course redesign, lecture rewriting, and new teaching methods. And, I want to do all of this without disrupting the balance too much. So, we shall see how it goes.
I guess you will see this result directly. If I am regularly posting on here, then you can see that I am working more outside of just teaching. So, keep me honest and let me know when I fall behind. Also, do you have any thoughts on this?
Well, the first week of classes is drawing to a close. I went from not at all ready as of the middle of last week to making it through the first week with minimal problems. I can’t really complain about that, as I know many people have many more problems come up in the first week of classes.
I found out about midway through last week that I, once again, have a double overload this semester, with 7 class sections on my schedule. I did not ask for the seventh, and I had specifically said that I did not want a 7th class. But here I am, teaching this semester with 2 hybrid sections and 5 online sections, and there’s not much I can do about it at this point. Luckily, I only have two actual preps, as I am just teaching sections of each of the halves of the American history survey.
It has been a bit of a rocky start so far in what should be my least problematic sections, the online ones. I had recycled the class from last year, and I neglected to remove one link that had the students going to the textbook website. I did not realize this until the second day of classes, meaning that I have a bunch of students who initially got into the wrong section (the one from Fall 2013). So, I have had to deal with the issues of getting everyone to the correct place, which takes time and patience. It would be easier if students actually read the announcements that I posted rather than me having to deal with each of them separately, but, considering this was the most problematic thing I had to do in the first week, I really can’t complain too much.
I’ve got the online courses fully ready to go for the semester, with just having to open up each thing as it needs to open. Of course, I also have to grade the things as they come in, and, since I am a grading masochist, that is three papers and three essay exams from each student this semester in my online sections. The hybrid classes are planned out for the first 5 weeks. I set up the class last fall, and I am doing things a bit differently this semester, which is why I can’t just run things as they are. I have actually added more class meetings where I will be having activities for the students to do. That means that I am actually doing some real creation of materials and assignments. Thus, in the time that I was working to get ready for the semester, I had time to get the first five weeks ready. So, over the next four weeks, I will be preparing the rest of the material for the later ten weeks.
So, this semester, I am teaching 195 students. Of those, about 45 are high school students. We are teaching a lot of high school students in dual credit sections, and almost all of mine are in my online sections. There are 4-5 in my hybrid sections, but the 9:30 in the morning start makes it hard for many more high school students to make those classes.
Week 5 in my hybrid class was the final class of the first Unit of the semester. So, we have essentially finished a third of the class to this point. In wrapping up the Unit, I tried to do two things. First, I took some time out to talk about research. Second, I set up a discussion about what united and divided the colonies in the lead up to the Revolution.
For the first part of the class, I started what will eventually be a three-part series on how to write a history paper. This is something that I find we do not do at the college level. (And, based upon what I see, is never taught before college either.) The only class where we actually teach students how to write is the introductory English class, and the only class where we teach students research is the second English class they take. Since my students are often taking my class concurrently with the English classes, they may or may not have any of these skills by the time they are writing for me. And, in the past, I have generally assumed that my students will be able to write effectively for me without ever teaching them how. In fact, I think that is how it is generally approached in most non-English classes — namely that we give them a paper topic and the next time we see anything from them is when they turn in the final draft. We just assumed they could do that without any guidance. However, the quality of the writing from that method was always rather poor, and the opportunities to teach them how to fix their problems only came in the comments left on their writing, which most students never read anyway.
So, I have embarked on a mission to try and teach them what it means to write a history paper and what it means to use historical sources in a paper. Some of this comes from my college’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), where we are to teach research methods throughout the college. But it has also come just because I have grown sick and tired of never getting what I am looking for from my students. This first presentation, which you can see below, concentrates in on two things — the need for an argument and the method for reading and understanding primary sources. I started with the failings of high school education at teaching students how to make a historical argument, and I talked about what it means to make an argument. I showed them the difference between what I call an information dump paper, where you try to get everything you know down on the paper in the hopes that you hit the points the teacher will be looking for, and an argument paper, where you have an organized and coherent argument that runs throughout the paper. Then, I took them through a 9-point method for reading primary sources. This is key because students have very little experience reading documents from the past. They generally pick them up, read them, find them incomprehensible, and then put them down. Thus, when we assign them to read something, they come away seeing it as unnecessary torture to read something that they are not going to understand anyway. So, I take them through how they should be approaching a document, especially in getting them to think about the context of the document as a way to see why it might be something important. I stressed to them that I do not assign things out of spite or sadism but instead assign things that emphasize the ideas I am trying to get across in the course. I also talked about how it is important to try to read the document as if you were there in the past rather than as someone from today reading something in the past. This is a difficult thing to do, but it can help the students understand why I would assign something for them to read. As an example of this, I talked about William Penn’s “Plan for a Union” from 1697. That was something I had assigned for them to read, and it is something that is difficult and largely opaque to the students. What I pointed out to them was that if you considered the source and context, it could be a very interesting document, since it is a document that calls for political union among the colonies many decades before the Revolution.
Here is the PowerPoint that I used to hit these themes in my class: SourcesPresentation1. I don’t know how successful it was to talk to the students about these ideas, but I think it is important.
Going through those parts took between 30-40 minutes in each class. That left only about 35-45 minutes for the rest of the discussion. I put two columns on the board — Unites and Divides — and had the students talk about what they would put in each column to show the things that united the colonies and the things that divided the colonies. This is part of the bigger Semester Project that the students are working on, where they are asked to eventually write a long paper on the subject of whether we can consider the colonies/United States as united or divided. The main goal, and one that was met in all of the classes, was to get the students to see that all of the major issues could realistically be put in both the unites and divides column. As a specific example, I took the topic of religion. I wrote on the board the statement that the American colonies were founded on the Christian religion. Then we talked about how that could be seen as both true and false. The true part, of course, comes from the fact that 99.5+% of the people who formed the colonies were Christian, all of whom believed in the same God and read the same Bible. Colonial society, politics, and the like were all taken from a context of a people who shared very similar beliefs. Then, we talked about what might make that statement not true, namely that, despite all being Christian, the colonists were all from vastly different sects and backgrounds. In fact, many of the dominant sects very explicitly opposed each other and found the beliefs of each to be quite abhorrent. In fact, the varieties of religion could be considered to be so vast that calling them a common group of Christians basically elides the reality of religion in the colonies. As one of the students put it, it is not really a question of Christian values, but of which set of Christian values. I was rather pleased with how the students grasped this concept overall, not just on religion, but on the broader idea that most major ideas could be both uniting and dividing.
The other thing that I wanted to cover in some detail, but largely ran out of time on, was the question of who we were talking about. When we consider the question of what made the colonies united or divided, we are mostly considering the white, European colonists. I raised the question at the very end of the class about whether we should also consider the slaves and the Native Americans. We ran out of time to talk about this in any detail, but I was happy that I, at least, got to put the idea in their heads.
Today was the first week of discussion in my hybrid class. I have reoriented this American history class on a more dominant theme throughout the semester. I will write about that in a later post, but the short version is that we are looking at the overall question of whether the American colonies/United States could be considered a united group at any point in time, with the definite connection to our sense of unity today. But, I digress from my main point today.
This discussion was really set up to get my students started in the class. I had them read two chapters in the textbook and access one lecture that I had written in preparation for the class. I had no other major assignments for them to do before class, except that I provided them with a series of questions to think about to prepare them for the discussion.
These were the questions I gave them to think about as we approached the discussion:
- what the Americas were like before the Europeans arrived
- what the Europeans were like before arriving in America
- why the Europeans chose to colonize and settle in the manner that they did
- why we do not generally talk about the non-English origins of the Americas
- what we can learn about the United States today from this era
I started off the discussion with a quote from the book that influenced my thinking on this topic more than any other — 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. This is what I wrote on the board: The idea that the natives “had existed without change in a landscape unmarked by their presence. Then they encountered European society and for the first time their history acquired a narrative flow.” I had the students first take apart the quotation, and then we delved into what the societies looked like. I worked both from having answer questions and draw conclusions on their own, while also imparting new information. In addition to 1491, I also referred repeatedly to Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. That book has been highly influential to my own thinking of the period, and I talked a lot about the differences between the European and American societies and how they encountered each other.
The underlying theme, however, was that of civilization, namely, how do we define civilization in the interaction between these two societies. I will be the first to admit that I did not go as far as that as I would have liked to, but the level of knowledge of the scholarly articles is low with my students, and much of the day was filled with imparting information, even though it was a scheduled discussion. This is something I get into trouble with repeatedly, in that I fall into lecturing too easily still. I try to have it a discussion, but I still talk too much. Still, I think it went pretty well today.
As to the students, about half participated, which is not bad for a first discussion. The responses were varied in quality, but a number of people said at least 3-4 things in a 75-minute discussion, which is really not too bad overall. They seemed to understand the general ideas, but I would have liked to delve more, as well, into why they are not taught these things up to this point. Namely, I would be very interested in their ideas about why we hear so little about what really happened in history and are more often taught a simplified and sanitized version of history. We will definitely hit on that theme as we go through the class, but I would have liked to have brought it up more explicitly today.
Anyway, that was today, the first full discussion day. I run the same discussion in the next three class days, and the cool thing is that the exact same topic can very likely go three more different ways. We shall see.
I’ve been meaning to do this post for a bit, but my grading has distracted me from other things.
I attended a webinar last Thursday on the subject of blogging in the classroom. It was led by two authors of blogs and attended by several others running blogs in the classroom. In this case, the focus was history, and I found the fantastic blog Teaching United States History through the chat. We bounced around ideas among the 15-20 people active in the webinar, and I found it productive and academically stimulating. The primary discussion centered around how blogs could be used and how they could be evaluated as part of an assignment. I can’t say we came to any profound conclusions, but I enjoyed the time there and hopefully have made some contacts in the broader blogging community out there. I wish I had more time to devote right now, but I’m just able to get out these short posts right now.
So, here are some of my thoughts on blogging.
- As I’ve been exploring the “flipped” classroom idea, the question keeps coming up of how to evaluate the students. Weekly quizzes are an obvious way to get the students to do the work, but I’ve never really felt that quizzes truly evaluate much more than basic recall. LearnSmart through McGraw-Hill is a bit better, but at its heart, it is still a quiz. I also don’t really want to get weekly papers from the students, as I’m the one who then gets to grade them. So, something ongoing like a blog could be ideal.
- There is a danger with a blog that is not well defined. I tried wikis that were worked on over the course of a semester, but 90% of students did them all at the end of the semester. If I did not have weekly requirements for the blogs, most students would not do them until the last minute. And, if I have weekly requirements, then I’m back to grading something from every student every week.
- I like the idea of an informal blog for the students. It would be required but be open ended in what they write. But then, would they post well? Would I get what I want out of them, or would they turn into a busywork exercise of the students?
Just a few things I’ve been thinking about. What do you think?
This week was my first experiment in something different in my classes. I have had discussion days before, so that was not the real difference here. What was different is that I had a day designed purely to explore a single topic in great detail with the students doing all of the preparation work outside of class and coming in simply to discuss that issue. In this case, I set up the material for the discussion by covering the three main tendrils of history that led into the topic — immigration, unionization, and Progressivism. Each of those had been covered in lecture in the days before this class, and so each student should have had a general idea of the historical context in which the incident took place.
In designing my “In-Class Activity” day, I had gone on the web to look at what resources were out there, as I wanted to give the students something that they would not access in a normal class. I did not want a traditional discussion where you have the students go out and read some primary sources and then come back and talk about them. I wanted something different, something that would engage the students in a different way, and yet accomplish the very goals that I always try to reach, having them connect the historical events to the modern age. As well, I wanted them to be confronted with an event that happened to people like them but 100 years earlier so that they could relate to them. Traditional “great man” history does not speak to them in many ways, but getting down to average Americans working hard just to get by speaks well to students, especially the non-traditional ones you find in a community college setting who have been out and worked in the real world.
What I had the students do was go out to the PBS website and watch the American Experience program on The Triangle Fire of 1911. They also were to access a couple of the other resources there, including an introductory essay, biographies of some of the participants, and a few informative pictures in a slideshow. The combination of that material was what they had to do before class, and it was open and available from the first day of class. To get into class on the day of the discussion, the students were required to bring a 1-2 page response to the material. I did not guide them in what they were to write specifically, but left it open to them as far as what they wrote.
It was an experiment in something new, and I really had no idea how it would go. Would they do the work ahead of time? Well, about 80-85% of the students who showed up brought a 1-2 page response. I did not let the rest stay in the class and told them to leave with a 0 for the day. Of those who had a response, I would estimate that about 10-15% of them really didn’t do much of the assigned work. On the other end, about 10-15% went well beyond the required viewings and did their own research. And, another 10-15% couldn’t get all of the resources to work for one reason or another. Of those, a gratifying few did go out and research on their own to find the information. One even told me that the same video was on Netflix streaming, which tells me I should check next time to offer that as a place for students to check.
The next question is, would they engage the material and have something to say about it? I say it was an unmitigated success in this regard. I began the discussion with the most general question possible, “What did you think about the video?” In both of the discussions I’ve had so far, people stopped having a response to that question after about 30 minutes. So, we had 30 minutes of discussion, with me saying quite little except for guiding who would speak next, on just a response to the video. I took notes during that time and did the rest of the discussion off of the topics that they brought up the most. We easily filled the rest of the class period (75 minutes total) with no problems and very few gaps where nobody had anything to say. Of course, some of that is because they were being graded on the discussion, but they really were responding well to the material and had a lot to say at all parts of the discussion. In both classes, I have the feeling that we could have filled much more time if we had it, but that we really did dissect the issues at the time well, while also relating the experiences from that time to the modern day well. I also get the feeling from the responses that I heard that they will remember this event and the discussion we had about it much longer than they probably will the individual things that I lecture on each day.
What do I take away from this? I consider it an overwhelming success on a thing that I wasn’t sure would work. The response was excellent, and students did the work ahead of time, which was something I was very worried about. But why did it work so well? I think some of it has to do with the form of media. There’s something about watching a documentary, especially when you can watch it on your own time rather than being forced to sit there in class and watch it that can be quite engaging. This was a very well done one, which does help as well. Also, it is not “traditional” history. One of the first responses I got, before I even really started the discussion was that almost all of the students had no knowledge of the incident before. They had never heard of it, but they were interested in it. The subject reflects on topics that are relevant in the lives of people who would be at a community college, in that it is primarily about working-age people, mostly women, who are struggling in a system that seems set up against them. The students brought up personal experiences a number of times as they attempted to relate what they had seen there to their own lives, and I did not have to guide them to do this. In fact, I like that word guide, as I felt much more like I was just a guide in the discussion then that I was a leader of the discussion.
I have one more section that will do the discussion tomorrow, and I hope it goes just as well. It’s days and assignments like this that energize me as a teacher and keep me going as an educator.