This is a somewhat common sentiment among frustrated math students…and frustrated teachers. In fact, I think this may be a common companion to frustration. Not always; sometimes we want to establish understanding. But if we’ve reached the point of frustration, then we may just want to “move on,” “make progress,” or “find a solution.”
I am reading Claude Steele’s “Whistling Vivaldi,” in which he lays out his decades-long investigation of stereotype threat. Although I have heard about stereotype threat and ways to combat it in the classroom, I am gaining a much deeper understanding from reading Steele’s book. That is making me see similarities between myself (and my colleagues) and my students. I am a very busy person. I don’t know a community college teacher who isn’t. It is only because I am on professional development leave that I am reading this book. I don’t “normally” have time to read much. But this experience is making me rethink that. We always have choices. Why do I normally feel like I don’t have time to read books—books that would constitute an on-going professional development? Maybe I can re-prioritize my time once I’m back to teaching…but I don’t feel very confident about that. It doesn’t FEEL like a choice. I’ll have to think about that some more.
I am struck by how, as teachers, we want concrete take-aways to implement in our classrooms. It is too hard, too big, too much to read all of the research and theory that would support a deep understanding of the sociological and psychological factors of teaching and learning. I want the Spark Notes, and I don’t think I’m unique that way. I want a short-cut because the long way doesn’t feel like a viable option. However, the short-cut gives less value. Lacking a deeper understanding and context, I may misapply the “take-away” or lack confidence in it.
I see this in my math students. When the challenge feels unviable, my students look for a short-cut: “Just show me what to do.” But lacking an understanding of the foundational underpinnings or the connections, they may misapply the mechanics or lack confidence in them.
How then, can I scaffold the challenge to make it feel viable? How can I structure the work to support understanding? L. Dee Fink made some concrete suggestions at a Professional Development Day Workshop at Foothill College about a year ago. They sounded good at the time, based on 21st Century Learning Outcomes. I have his book, “Creating Significant Learning Experiences” on my bookshelf. Maybe I’ll get to it next.
I am taking Professional Development Leave this year. One of my unstated goals is to reconnect with the role of student. I’ve been done with school for so long, that until this year, I really no longer saw myself as a student. Over the years, I came to see students as “the other.” That mentality is commonplace in situations of violence. It is as though our minds have to separate ourselves from the “other” in order to perpetuate a violence against them. So then, I am concerned that over the years I have slipped into a teacher/student dichotomy. That framing might be just the condition needed to not act in the best interests of my students. That is what I’m currently reflecting on.
One struggle that I’m having in my student role is connecting online with a classmate to complete relatively short assignments due a couple times per week. Last semester, I found a partner who had a lot of availability, because she was young, living at home, taking classes and volunteering one day a week. We encountered a lot of technology frustrations, but overall it felt like a positive experience. This spring semester, I have a partner who works several days a week. Submitting assignments on time has proven difficult. Sometimes I get zeros on those assignments (and others), not because I don’t do them or because I don’t learn what I need to, but because I don’t do them on time. I’m OK with that, but I wonder what effect it has on my teachers. I have a fairly complex life, with classes and family. I don’t have to earn an A in my classes. So I can take zeros without risking anything like admittance to another school. But what about the students who don’t feel they can take that risk? If their lives are fairly simple, then I suspect they can manage. But what of the students who have complex lives, with jobs and family obligations? When I set up my calendar to have assignments due 3-5 times per week, am I really supporting their workload management? Or am I condemning them to a slew of zeros based on hard choices? And when I require them to or request that they complete work outside of class in pairs or groups, am I adding to their growth and experience or am I further complicating their lives?
At this point, I have to say, “It depends.” It depends on each student and on the current conditions/constraints of their life. I find myself teaching in a system that is based on a “factory model” of education. This one-size-fits-all model definitely rewards conformity. But to what extent does it uplift and support the individual? If I were in my own class, how would I be evaluated? Do I have a system of assessment that supports growth or conformity? Maybe this is part of what is meant by the phrase, “meet students where they’re at.” I am so curious and excited to get back into the class with fresh eyes!
As a student, I loved quick-paced classes because the pace ensured I would never feel bored. And if the pace got too quick, I could always ask the teacher to repeat something or answer a question that I had. For me, school was filled with dialogue, with peers and with my instructors. So when our department started offering online classes, I was glad that other people taught them. I could not even conceive of how I could teach an online class. But a few years back, one of my colleagues asked the calculus instructors to get certified in and use Etudes as our course management system in support of a grant she was running. The Etudes certification class was an online class. And by the time I finished it, I began to see how a person could develop an online community. So when my dean was looking for someone to teach an online calculus class, I did it. I spent many, many summer hours putting that class together. It was my best work and it was really far from perfect. There was a lot for me to learn there.
Teaching online DEFINITELY made my face-to-face classes better. I didn’t anticipate that. One quarter, I had a higher success rate in my online class. I didn’t anticipate that. I asked my online students why they chose online. “I have small children at home;” “It saves me driving to campus some days.” I had anticipated those reasons. What I didn’t anticipate included: “All the other sections were full;” “It’s the only way I can fit it into my class schedule;” “I like online classes.”
“I like online classes.”
“Hmm,” I’d respond. “What do you like about them?” In general, students responded that they liked the freedom of schedule. They could go at their own pace. They could work when they wanted to. When they needed more info, they could access videos. I heard them, but I never really understood until I enrolled this year in online classes myself. The single greatest part of online learning for me is that I’m always working at my edge. If something is easy, it gets done SUPER QUICKLY (no wasted time). If something is harder, I can take all the time I need, without worrying about continuing to listen to the teacher and getting “lost.”
I didn’t anticipate liking online learning. But I like it a lot!