Not quite how I expected this to turn out…

At the beginning of a semester, I try to find ways for students to get to know each other before we begin our work together.  I often select an activity called “Where I’m From” that provides students with a template to create a poem about themselves.  After briefly introducing the activity, I ask students to work on the poem over the next week, bring a printed copy to the next class session, and upload an electronic copy to our course site on Sakai. I also let students know that sharing the poem (either in class or electronically) is optional, that if they prefer to keep the poem private to let me know.

My poem

Here’s a wee picture of my poem. Click on it for a better view.

Each semester that I’ve facilitated this activity, it has gone so well that I didn’t prepare for a time when it might not.  And while I wouldn’t say that the activity failed this semester, I would say that it didn’t go as well as I had hoped or as well as it has in the past

So, what was different?  There were more students who didn’t complete the poem, who completed the poem but forgot to bring it to class, and who said they didn’t want to share it with the larger group.  Because I work with graduate students, I often don’t share my work first. My thinking is that I want to create space for others to go first.  I had uploaded the electronic version of my poem, but thought it would be better to not be the first to share in class.  Students did share in small groups, pairs and triads, but in both classes there was an unusual amount of reluctance to share with the larger group.

When we talked about this, some students thought their poem wasn’t good enough, wasn’t poetic enough.  Students were, admittedly, feeling more vulnerable than other groups had in the past: they shared that they didn’t feel ready to write about their family or they didn’t want to share specific personal stories; for some, the recent death of a loved one made writing the poem much too emotional. I’m still sitting with these reactions, looking for ways to build connections in our learning community and pondering the differences between this semester and prior semesters.

In thinking how I might re-structure this activity for the future some things occur to me:

When introducing the activity during the first class session, (1) clarify the learning goals (that is, community building is an essential component of the classes I lead; building community provides a foundation for learning together), (2) show a video of the poem (there are lots of examples on YouTube), and (3) read my poem.

It would be helpful to remind people to try to follow the template without any judgment about the quality, without any second-guessing.  It’s easy to get in our heads and become overly critical of our work; kicking out that internal editor can be liberating.  It might be helpful to talk about the types of emotions that can surface during this kind of reflection.  Finally, I think it would be good to remind people that they can be creative with the template and that, if after completing the poem they would rather keep it private, that this is okay.

During the second session, I’ll ask students to work in pairs and talk about what it was like to write the poem.  For example, was it easier or harder than they expected?  What surprised them about the experience?  I could also ask these types of questions in the large group.

In terms of sharing their poems, in both the large and small groups, I would remind students that they don’t have to share if they don’t want to; if they do want to share they can either share the entire poem or just one line that they think will help us get to know them better.

Perhaps it would be helpful to show another video of a poem at the beginning of the second session.  It’s unclear whether students found the videos helpful or intimidating. It does seem that the videos illustrate the ways that each person’s poem can vary; at the same time, the elegance of the videos might cause some people to think that whatever they have to say won’t measure up.

And, maybe, it was just too early in the semester for the poem.  Perhaps we needed more time to get to know each other on a “safer” level before jumping into this.  I want to ask students about their experiences with the poem, but I think they need to be able to provide feedback anonymously…and I think they need some weeks to pass in order to reflect back on the experience and share their thoughts. I know I’ll keep thinking about this for awhile to see how I might approach this activity in the future.

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.

Acts of Gratitude

When my sisters and I were very young our mother instilled in us an ethic of gratitude through the writing of thank you notes. Because she was often driven by a sense of obligation and duty, her insistence that we write thank you notes was, I’m sure, more about obligation but, ultimately, did help me understand at a deeper level the importance of appreciating what others have done. As a child my thank you notes were in response to gifts I received for my birthday and on Christmas. I imagine they were worded something like:

Dear __________:

Thank you for the _______________. I really like it.

Love, Delores

At some point, and unfortunately I don’t recall when, my thank you notes transitioned from simple thank you notes for gifts to notes of appreciation for the gift where I would try to tell the giver not only that I liked the gift but something more about how I might use it, when I would wear it, and so on. Or if I received a pen, I would write the letter using that pen. Similarly, if I was given beautiful stationery, the note of appreciation would be the first thing written on that paper.

As an adult, I started writing notes to thank people for random things: to acknowledge a good presentation I attended, to share my appreciation for an extra effort someone made, to thank someone for taking on and completing an especially challenging project. In the age of e-mail I would sometimes write a well thought-out note and send it electronically, but I knew that, for me, there was something more intimate about taking pen to paper. Perhaps it’s how I felt when I received a handwritten note of appreciation that convinced me to continue handwriting notes even when an electronic note might be more convenient.

I love shopping for note cards. The pleasure of searching for a particular size, shape, and design combined with the thought of filling the blank cards with sentiments of thanks is an inspiration in itself. Before I write a note, I go through the many blank cards I have as I think about the person I’m writing to. Does this card fit the sentiment as well as the person? No…not quite right. Then, ah, yes, this is the perfect card. The next decision involves the pen. Which of my (many) pens fits the thoughts I want to convey?

Then the writing begins. In A Simple Act of Gratitude, John Kralik suggests writing a draft of the message first. I admit that I almost never write a draft of  a thank you note. I just start writing on the card thinking that the sentiments as they flow from my heart and head are best delivered as they occur to me. However, there have been moments when I’ve re-read a note and observed that it didn’t flow quite as smoothly as I had hoped. Still, even then I typically don’t revise it. I just go with what I’ve written. I may consider writing some rough drafts of future notes to see how that feels. There’s an art to writing a note of appreciation or gratitude. In other crafts (writing an essay, a blog, crocheting a scarf, creating a ceramic pot), we often work on a draft/first effort before creating the final one. It doesn’t seem like a bad idea to linger over the note a bit longer, writing a draft, and ensuring that it conveys the sentiment I had hoped.

Writing thank you notes/notes of appreciation and gratitude help lift me outside of myself. I like to focus entirely on the receiver when writing a note. I like the simplicity of the note.  Again as Krakin noted, it’s the brevity of the note that causes the writer to pay attention to what matters, on what one wants to say. The content of the note is all about the intended recipient. Thus, as the writer, I’m less likely to slip into a focus on myself. I like this. People like to be appreciated, this is true. And there’s something magical about putting all of our gratitude out into the universe.

A blogging dilemma

I’m using this blog to reflect on my experiences as I begin to develop and refine my faculty identity. Role identity development is an intriguing topic, one worthy of its own series of blog posts. For now, I’ll stay focused on my blogging dilemma.

This week we received student evaluations from the classes we taught in Fall. The dilemma is: how much do I share about my reaction to those evaluations? Well, I decided to forge ahead and be honest about my reaction, response, and reflection on the comments.

All the feedback is so very helpful as I refine the courses especially since I’ll teach this class again next Fall. This makes it easy to review their suggestions & ideas, note those I’ve already incorporated, and make decisions about other comments. In Fall 2011 I taught two sections of the same course with about the same number of students in each section (11 in the Stockton section, 12 in the Hanford section). Students’ grades on projects were about the same throughout; course grades were also about the same with about the same distribution (i.e., number of A’s, number of B’s, number of C’s). Their evaluations are roughly similar on most items with most students agreeing/strongly agreeing with the positively worded items, though for the first time I had a student “strongly disagree” with an item. Though our eyes (and minds) often go to the negative response, I tried to stay focused on the entire picture. What is striking about the student feedback is the difference in the qualitative feedback. Students in one group were generally positive in the comments, most indicating that the course was well organized, assignments were clear, environment was conducive to learning, etc. The other group, however, was decidedly less positive in their comments. The group was split with about half of the comments mirroring the comments of the first group and about half the group quite unhappy about the assignments. Several students mentioned they felt assignments were not clear, were often confusing, and that efforts to clarify assignments often led to more confusion.

One student noted that points on assignments should reflect the amount of effort required for the assignment. I completely agree with this observation and had actually made a note of that for next semester even before I received the evaluations. So, it’s helpful to see that my perceptions of things that could be improved match at least one student’s observation.

The comments about the assignments, though, left me confused and vexed. Yes, vexed. Like any other contradictory data, it was hard to make sense of this. Some students thought assignments were clear, others didn’t (in total about a 66/33 split among all evaluations). Of those who felt assignments were confusing, some suggested that I provide examples of model assignments, that I use a rubric, that I use a template, etc. I started thinking about why I don’t do these things. I do provide guidelines for assignments but don’t typically provide “model answers” — why is this? In talking with other colleagues they indicated that they had also received similar feedback from students and, like me, don’t typically provide rubrics or model assignments. This led to some interesting conversations among us about the nature of doctoral studies and that due to varieties in research questions, topics, and methods, there is no model answer for most assignments. We also agreed that we resist providing models not due to a lack of good examples, but because we don’t want students to imitate others’ work. Instead, we want them to be original in their work.

The middle ground here may be that I can provide examples of work others have done with caveats. I could explain that this is what this student did, this is how the student organized it, and here’s how I assessed it. The caveat being that this is not necessarily what your work will look like. My sense is that students are nervous about “getting it right” and if they see an example from someone who got it right, they’ll have a better idea of what “right” looks like. The teaching dilemma is that we want students to risk being wrong. We don’t want students to take the safe path and just copy from others who have gone before. We want them to carve out their own path, create their own learning. And, with that, comes discomfort. The desire to remain comfortable tempts one to mimic what others have done, while being uncomfortable means finding our own voice.

While my colleagues and I share this approach to teaching we also agreed that we need to work on making this more evident to students. We want to lay this out for students the first night of class. One colleague described how she has integrated these expectations and values into her first-class conversation with students and also into her syllabus. For me, I also want to acknowledge students’ efforts when they do take an unexpected path, when they risk being wrong & end up surprising themselves by how things turned out. I also want to share with students that doctoral studies require curiosity, a tolerance for ambiguity, and a willingness to discover their own model answers. As teachers we can equip them with the tools and support they need to take the necessary risks.

In a class last summer I used the Iditarod race as a metaphor to illustrate to students that they were about to embark on a journey they’ve never been on before. When I asked them how they would prepare if they were joining the Iditarod for the first time they said they would need to study the route; they would need good support systems; they would need good equipment; they would need resilience, stamina, and a sense of wonder. They also said they would need to take some risks, be willing to fail, and be willing to get back up and keep on going. While the students in that summer class were about to embark on their dissertation journey, the metaphor holds up quite nicely for describing the doctoral journey. There’s a beginning, middle, and end with checkpoints along the way. Sometimes we think we’ll never make it, other days just seem to fly by. And we do it all with roadmaps, guides, and partners but with the understanding that each journey will be a little bit different…and that while there’s a common route, there’s no one right way to navigate that route.

Making Next Year’s Class Better Because of This Year’s Learning

This semester I taught two sections of a course called Applied Inquiry II. This six-unit class includes 3 units of intermediate statistics and 3 units of Introduction to Educational Research. I teach the Ed Research component of this course and each time it’s a different experience. In Fall 2010 I taught it for the first time and was pretty nervous about it. It was my first time co-teaching a course, the class was large for a doctoral course (about 27 students), and I had all the jitters associated with teaching a new course. At the end of the semester students provided a lot of feedback which my colleague and I incorporated this semester when we taught the course again. Essentially students in 2010 request that we not teach this as a blended case but instead more clearly delineate the content. So, in Fall 2011 we essentially taught this as two three-unit sections: stats starting at 4:10 and ed research at 7:15 (with a 30-minute break in between).

In general, I think this went pretty well and we plan to follow this model again in 2012. But…there are some things I’ll change in my portion of the course. First, after seeing the electronic portfolios students created in Applied Inquiry I in Fall 2011, I’m going to continue building on these portfolios when these students enroll in Applied Inquiry I I (AI II)I. Their portfolios include blogs and it will be easy to provide additional blog prompts in AI II. In addition, they can use their e-portfolios to build their research proposals, including their topic, research questions, methodology, etc. As they continue through the program the e-portfolio will nicely document their journey and learning.

In AI II students complete 4 major assignments: article critiques (analyses of articles), a qualitative research proposal, and a quantitative research proposal. This year students prepared solid proposals, yet also shared some areas that could use additional development. Next year I’ll spend more time with students to help them solidify the topic of the study. This sounds simple, yet it takes some work to clearly identify an area one wants to research. Once students have identified the topic, I’ll ask them to locate 10 articles/books (peer-reviewed) and create an annotated bibliography of the 10 references. This will then allow them to better see what has been studied in relation to their topic and identify what needs to be studied. Based on this information, they’ll be in position to describe the “problem” or “issue” that needs to be addressed — one that can be studied using qualitative methodology, one that will use quantitative methodology.

The next step in formulating the study is to identify in one sentence the purpose of the study. This is an extremely difficult sentence to write for veterans and novice researchers. This semester when students worked on the quantitative proposals we actually worked together on the statements. By working together the students were able to strengthen their statements and since the research questions & research design emerge from the purpose of the study statement, getting this right is critical to the success of the entire proposals. Students provided such positive feedback about the experience that I knew right away I’d incorporate this into class next Fall.

As I reviewed the proposals I noticed that many of the students are still making errors in relation to APA formatting. To help address this next Fall I’m going to create some quick assignments that I can integrate into the beginning of a class session to check APA. It can be as simple as posting a reference and asking students to identify and correct any errors. It would be also easy to use “clickers” so students can vote on whether or not the reference is correct.

As I read through the papers I made notes on the assignment guidelines especially if there seemed to be one area where several students could have improved. I looked to see where I could clarify the guidelines and also added information to fill in gaps that were consistent in the papers. Making these notes as I worked on the papers allowed me to keep reflecting the assignment as I was working on it rather than waiting until next summer & relying on my recollection of the papers.

This has been a fun class to teach because I’ve been able to engage in a process of teaching, reflecting, improving, teaching, reflecting, improving … this has made it possible to continuously assess my teaching, the course  learning objectives, and extend my own thinking about the craft of teaching. Teaching the class a few times has also made it possible for my colleagues (who teach the other courses in this Applied Inquiry series) and me to connect the learning objectives for one course to the others in the series. We see students’ work improving as they engage in their own reflective practice & scholarship — and we see our teaching improving as we engage in our own reflective practice.