Bad Teacher: In Defense of “Winging It” in the Classroom

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This semester it feels like I’ve had an awful lot of those days where I’m just not as prepared for class as I’d like to be, and I’ve been struggling with guilt about that. I have a very reasonable teaching load, so it’s not a matter of being overwhelmed or tired. I am teaching a course for the first time, so I’m still figuring out how the course works, and maybe that is a factor. I’ve also been more aware lately of how easy it can be to unintentionally silence my students. It is stunning to me how easy it is after a decade of teaching for someone even as introverted as I am to turn facilitating a discussion into a lecture–to just dominate the discussion because I can. But whatever the reason, this semester I’ve found myself in my office a few hours before class trying to figure out what to do in class besides just sit in a circle and discuss the day’s reading. And you know what? The classes I’ve “planned” (and I use the term very loosely here) on those days have been by far the most successful. While I’ve had carefully planned classes fall flat, I’ve never had a class that I’ve improvised go terribly. So, for my final post of the year, I thought I share with you the things I’ve stumbled upon that have saved the day in case they might save your day in these final weeks of the semester.

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Worksheets and Handouts. I know it seems antithetical to not planning but if you are going to wing it, you need worksheets. Think of them as props. But pedagogically sound props. What worksheets give you is structure–and they make that structure clear to the students. In my experience, when you sit down to put together a worksheet, no matter how rudimentary, you end up planning a really effective lesson. I’ve also found that students really appreciate worksheets and handouts. We often assume that students prefer digital documents, but because so much of their lives are carried out in digital spaces they get overwhelmed by all they have to keep up with. Sometimes a hard copy keeps all of us focused a bit better than just conveying ideas orally or through a document somewhere on the course website. I know for me a printed handout or worksheet helps me to clearly walk students through activities and processes. I’d also like to think that by providing so much structure even to an otherwise typical in-class discussion or activity that I’m modeling how inquiry and critical thinking and research actually work–generally, the activities I assign in class are really just processes that scholars do in their heads without a second thought.

Student-led discussion. Another strategy I’ve used is turning over discussion to the students–again, in a structured way though.  I’ll give them a guiding question, or I’ll take a few minutes to recap what we discussed in the last class or week. Then, I make it a game: I won’t talk for 10 minutes (or 20 or 30, depending on the particular class and whether or not we’ve done this activity before). Sometimes there is awkward silence but eventually someone will talk. And, while they talk, I take notes on the board. After the time is up, I walk through those notes, pointing out to them the patterns, observations, insights, and questions that I identified as I listened. It can also be a good opportunity to point out the strategies that the students used in their discussion, both what worked and didn’t work. Usually, there are a couple strong discussion leaders in a class, and I can point to the way that they invited a classmate to contribute to the conversation or built on something that had been said previously. Not only does this strategy help students to understand the course content but also it does important work in teaching students how to participate in a group discussion and make it productive for themselves. It is all too easy to take for granted that discussing complicated and complex ideas is in itself a skill that must be practiced and learned. Giving students a structure in which to practice that skill enriches the class and the students’ experience in other classes and in their future workplaces.

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Self-Assessment. In another instance I stumbled onto an effective lesson after I forgot to fill out the assessment rubric we use in our writing program. I had graded the papers and given lots of in-text and summative comments but filling out the rubric had just slipped my mind. So, I quickly made copies of the rubric for each student and asked them to review their graded essays (that they had likely forgotten the content of after 2 weeks) and my comments (which many students don’t expect to get), and then fill out their rubrics based on that. I also asked them to parse out what mistakes they wouldn’t likely make again (typos due to proofreading late at night or citation errors because they overlooked the directions) and which they needed to keep in mind next time (lack of a thesis, too many ideas in a single paragraph). This activity, like those above, does double duty. While it provides a chance to revisit previous writing and to talk about what it means to revise, this activity also ensured that students knew where/how (and that) I had provided feedback and had time in class to ask me to clarify that feedback when needed. In other words, the activity brought transparency to my role in their writing process, and it provided the students with an opportunity to practice taking the lead in their own learning.

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Making Connections. Most recently, I realized that we couldn’t just keep barreling through the readings. I was pretty sure none of us were attending to the details like we should, and I couldn’t put any of us through another meandering 75-minute discussion where I knew that I would end up talking far too much. So, I wrote down on index cards the titles of each of the works that we’d read in the last couple of weeks and gave each student 2 cards at random. They then had to come up with 3 points of connection. The next week, each student added a third reading to their lineup, found another 2-3 connections, and then they shared with the class what they had come up with. Through the presentations, we were able to identify the core concepts and questions of the course, bringing some sense of closure to the semester. In addition, the activity has helped me to think about how I will structure and teach the course differently next time.

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Elevator pitches. I teach the writing process as a multimodal process, meaning that I design activities and assignments that encourage students to draft and revise ideas in multiple modes (oral, visual, and electronic). One of the easiest and most effective activities to promote a multimodal writing process is the elevator pitch. Basically, the students sit in a circle and each takes a turn giving a 1-3 minute overview of whatever project they are working on in this class. What are they researching or writing about? What is their purpose and argument? What is their methodology? Why should this work and their conclusions matter to us? There is never a bad time in a semester for students to practice articulating their responses to the course material, and oftentimes that can open up fruitful discussions both about their individual projects and about the course readings.

Canceling Class. Sometimes though, our students need the break. At least once each semester, I will end up canceling class and calling it “open office hours.” On these days, the students can come to class and work together or individually, and my job is just to be available to them. I always feel a bit guilty and lazy about doing this until I get about halfway through the class period. But every time I end up having a great conversation with a group of students or answering a question that really helps a student move forward with a project. Every. Time.

I hope that perhaps you might find in this list an activity or approach that helps you here at the end of the semester (or at the end of a future semester). But even more so, I hope that this list is a reminder that we should all be kind to ourselves: teaching is difficult and it is even harder when we put pressure on ourselves to be at our best every day. Sometimes, “winging it” or “making it up as we go” is actually the best teaching.

 

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