Challenging Assumptions

Sometimes I forget that I can go outside to work … how lovely it is when I remember!  I so enjoy being at a coffeehouse (as I am now), sitting, writing, and thinking.  As an added bonus this is time that I’ve actually scheduled to write my blog post.  How nice that I’ve (finally) given myself permission to include my blog in my writing schedule.

It’s interesting to notice how little conversations that we have with ourselves can become ingrained truths that translate to behavior.  My conversation – for a long time – has been that I could only focus on “peer-reviewed” kinds of writing during my designated “writing time” – and that if I were writing a blog post this would have to occur in a separate, additional writing block.  What I find so fascinating is that this assumption then became a paradigm for my writing life … it became the reality for how I structured/scheduled/shaped my time … and guess what I noticed?  In that paradigm I don’t write blog posts very frequently.

Sunday night while I was working on my weekly plan, I scheduled my writing time, exercise, class prep, meetings, and so on.  Like many weeks, the schedule is pretty full, but does include some flexibility, some built-in breathing room.  As I looked over the schedule I asked myself, “When am I going to write my blog?” Rather than trying to squeeze in another block of time, I simply looked at Monday and designated it as blogging day.

And just like that my hidden assumptions were revealed.  “It’s that simple?” I asked myself.  “Interesting,” I thought as I realized how my assumptions had been limiting my thinking and my behavior, and the choices I was making relation to my writing.  In this moment of clarity I expanded my definition of my writing time and today am blogging.

By scheduling the dedicated time to blogging I was also able to calculate how long the task actually takes (see Step #3 in creating a weekly plan).  This week I ended up needing two writing blocks:  One to write out the blog (which I did by long-hand at the coffeehouse and found it to be immensely satisfying; the handwritten effort also seemed to keep the internal editor at bay) and another block to transcribe the blog.  The process of transcription provided an opportunity for additional reflection and a bit of editing.

So next week when I’m preparing my weekly schedule, I’ll include my regular writing blocks of time and designate two for blogging!

Semester in Review

Spring 2013 was a good semester.  My classes were both familiar and new.  The two classes I taught, Educational Leadership and Administration of Complex Educational Organizations, change_maryanne radmacherwere not entirely new, but it had been two years since teaching the organization class and about four years since teaching the leadership course.  Although I’m pretty happy with the way I led both courses, there are some things I’ll do differently the next time I teach them.  What I want to reflect on here is how I might change up the classes, including some ways I might work with those students who never speak up and those who dominate class discussions.

Educational Leadership

I already know of one change I’ll make in relation to the assignments.  Students didn’t do as well as I had hoped on the personal case analysis and I’m not sure it’s an assignment that really requires students to apply theory to practice.  So, instead of this short assignment, I’m going to assign an annotated bibliography.  The master’s students will read and annotate three articles, books or book chapters related to leadership theory; the doctoral students will read and annotate six articles/books/book chapters.  To ensure that students are reading throughout the semester, I’m going to require the annotations be submitted at different points in time.  I’ll ask students to upload both the annotation as well as the actual article/book/book chapter.  When they complete their final project – the narrative interview – they’ll be asked to analyze the interview through the theoretical lens(es) discussed in the annotated pieces.  My sense is this will strengthen their own analyses and reinforce the importance of a theoretical framework as a tool for analyzing data.  The writing guide I made for this assignment helped clarify expectations and yielded better outcomes from students.  I’ll make some minor adjustments, but will keep the guide for future classes.

Another change I’ll likely make is in relation to the readings.  The Leadership Challenge was a good text, but probably took up too much time in the semester.  I can either shorten the time we spend on the text or use a different version that will allow us to move through the materials more quickly.  I’ll also bring in articles related to social justice, a perspective that includes Afro-centric leadership as well as feminist leadership theories.  I may ask students to create and submit more discussion questions (this worked quite well this semester) and perhaps at other times, “talking points” based on the readings.  Although most students completed the readings, there were weeks when some (many) didn’t, which impacted the overall discussions.

I brought in a lot of external resources and also *loved* it when students brought in videos, web links, and so on, to add to our class discussions.  I want to look for ways to continue cultivating student contributions – one way might be to simply assign something to different groups each week.  They could bring in a resource related to the readings and lead a short discussion, which would allow us to create an even stronger sense of shared ownership for the success of the class.

Administration of Complex Educational Organizations

Overall, the assignments for the class went really well.  The text, Reframing Organizations, was well received by students.  I’ll also bring in the new text by Kathleen Manning that will complement the Reframing text in positive ways.  Manning’s book also includes some case studies, which will lend themselves to small group discussions.  What I’ll do is assign different group leaders for each week so we can break into groups of four or so.  Having small groups may help alleviate some of the tension created by the conversation dominators.  I’ll include many of the same articles as I did this semester but I might bring in concepts related to privilege, power, and difference earlier in the semester.  I won’t teach this class again until Spring 2015; even so, the materials and assignments from this semester should continue to work well.

Classroom Management/Classroom Facilitation

The one thing that surprised me during the semester was that classroom management became an issue in the doctoral class.  There were 19 students in the class – some are in the first year of the program while others are further along.  Three to four students tended to dominate many of the large group conversations.  As the semester progressed, their dominance became an increasing point of tension, in particular when we were discussing women and men in organizations.  The conversation dominators, all white male students, continuously reflected male dominance that is often found in organizations.  As the discussion facilitator, I frequently felt challenged by the need to interrupt the students and create space for others.  I know I didn’t succeed on all occasions yet I learned several things about teaching in the process.  When faced with similar dynamics, I’ll meet with the conversation dominators one-on-one to discuss their behavior.  If that doesn’t resolve the issue, I’ll be more direct in class – even to the extent of telling students that they need to hold their comments until others have had an opportunity to participate.  We ended the semester with some very challenging conversations about race and gender; conversations that were left unresolved as the semester came to an end.  Many of these same students will be in a class I’m teaching in the Fall so I plan to spend the first evening working on ground rules for how we want to be/act together as a learning community.  I want to challenge the conversation dominators to make space for others and to self-monitor their own participation so that we can create a more inclusive environment.  Similarly, I want to ask those who may not typically speak up, to identify ways that they might contribute more to our conversations.

equity sticksCreating the ground rules will have some challenges, but will be necessary for our work together during the semester.  I’ll have more time with the students during the beginning of the semester which, hopefully, will facilitate our work together and allow us to have some truly courageous conversations about inclusion.  I’ll also look for ways I might shift the dynamics in class — more small group discussions can help.  Creating some expectations that everyone will speak once before anyone speaks a second time might be a good start.  In large discussions, I might use “equity sticks” — typically used in K-12 environments, each stick has a student’s name on it, then the discussion facilitator just picks a stick to call on someone.  This keeps the teacher from always calling on the same student(s) and also lets all students know they have an equal chance of participating in a discussion.  I wasn’t sure this would work with adult learners, but recently attended a day-long workshop where the facilitators used these and they worked great.  So, I might just give these a try come Fall.

Standing between students and Spring Break …

Flower Pear Tree Spring 2013It’s February 28: Thursday afternoon before Spring Break.  The air is clear and warm, flowers are blooming, trees have blossoms, birds are chirping … and we have class.  For about half the students in class, tomorrow is the deadline to submit their written comprehensive exams for their master’s degree.  A set of scenarios guaranteed to produce a distracted group of students.

I haven’t taught on Thursday afternoons for a while so I had somewhat forgotten how this particular Thursday afternoon feels.  Not quite like the last class of the semester, but pretty darn close.  I decided to assign an in-class writing/reflection assignment that took on the air of an exam – the tension in the room was palpable as we began and I had to reassure students that this isn’t a graded exam; rather, it is part of cultivating a reflective practice as discussed in the book.

So here I am reflecting on this day and how I might organize it differently next year.  What exactly is the best approach for working with students who are distracted by a major deadline, are anxious about their comprehensive exams, are anticipating Spring Break, and then will be going to a conference to interview for post-degree jobs?

What I’ve done for today is to include the reflective writing assignment – an assignment designed to help students begin thinking about their own leadership development, including their strengths and areas they might want to further develop.  This is connected to a blog post they’ll complete in a couple of weeks, so it’s a good assignment to stimulate thinking.  I’ve scheduled time to discuss the last chapter in the book – originally in small groups, but  as I sit here, I’m second-guessing that decision thinking it might be better, instead, to have a large group discussion … yet, with a large class, the large group discussion are not as energetic as the small group ones.  I’ve also set aside time for a doctoral student seminar following the break.  I do think this is a good idea as it will give the doc students some focused time to talk about the materials from the last chapter and the overall book.

My uncertainty about the best way to approach today is causing me to doubt the decisions I’ve made; what if I look at my decisions from a more confident perspective?  What would that look like?  First, let me think about what is my responsibility and what isn’t my responsibility.  My responsibility is to create a good environment for learning, including assigning readings and asking questions that promote deeper thinking on a topic.  Hey, I’ve done this!  I have a good reflective writing assignment designed to help students focus on the ways they might apply the readings to their own professional development.  My responsibility isn’t to adjust the class for those students who haven’t finished their written comps.  Sometimes I get sucked into thinking I need to resolve other people’s issues (or what I imagine to be their issues).  As I write this, though, I’m reminded that this isn’t actually my job.  I do want to be sensitive to students’ time constraints, but, really, well, I can still lead a good class session and keep in mind that it’s the students’ responsibility to manage their time so they can complete their written comps as well as stay engaged with their class work.  Ah-ha!  I just let myself off the hook for having to take care of the world!

As I think about Thursday-before-written-comps-and-Spring-Break-2014, I think I would likely do something similar to today.  I would probably scratch the small group discussion to be sure I give enough time for the reflective writing  (students asked for 15 more minutes today) and I would set aside time for the doctoral seminar (assuming there will be doc students in the class).  I might try to find a short movie or I would focus on developing our “end of class” celebration ritual – working on this would be engaging, creative, collaborative, and fun as we wind up before the mid-point in the semester.

What I ended up doing that day:  The written reflection exercise, talking with the master’s students about the deadline & asking for suggestions for next year, and then meeting with the doc students.  I think this overall session turned out well:  Bringing students together for an in-class writing assignment gave students time to focus on their reading and stay engaged with the class materials; working with the doc students gave me an opportunity to meet with them in a small group seminar to discuss the materials.  I would probably do something like this again in Spring 2014. I will also check with colleagues to see how they have handled this dilemma in order to identify strategies that allow me to support student learning in our class while understanding the very real pressures of the master’s written comps.