Menu

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Making Your Classroom New Year’s Resolutions

Fall Quarter is over and done. Maybe it was a good one, or maybe it wasn’t so pretty. But it’s over. Time to reflect on the quarter and make some resolutions about what you’ll do in your classes in 2017. To help you get started, I’ll share some of my resolutions for 2017.

Resolution #1 – Listening with Intention

This is one of my resolutions that crosses over both my professional and personal life. Just before sitting down to write this blog post I had a meeting with a colleague. We decided to get away from our offices so agreed to meet at a nearby coffee shop. It was quite noisy (you know that sound that an espresso machine makes? It seemed to be amplified today!) which made it hard to listen carefully. But here’s an even bigger problem for me -I don’t know about you, but when I am having a conversation I tend to be thinking about my response even before the other person is finished talking. I’m sure I miss a lot of what the person is really trying to say, so I am going to practice looking at the person and focusing on them rather than my own responses. I have time to practice with family over the holiday, so I hope to come back to campus having sharpened this skill.

Can you see how this would be a good habit to work on in the classroom? I don’t think our students necessarily expect us to have an immediate answer to every question, so why not start a response with, “I like that question. Let’s unpack that some more.” That gives you a bit of “stall” time to formulate a response or to ask a clarifying question. Can’t tell you how many times I said to myself, “Oh, I’ve heard this question before” and my response was totally automatic. But sometimes I missed what the student was really asking so we had to start over again. Practicing listening with intention will be my homework over break.

Resolution #2 - Reflection

I think that building a practice of reflection is critical to good teaching and every aspect of my job. But how much time do I spend doing it, and how well do I do it? I bought myself a small notebook, and my second resolution is to make a note every day before I go home about something that happened that day. In fact, I am going to put this on my calendar so that I get a little reminder to do it!

What do I think the benefits will be and why do I think this is important? Terry Heick, founder and director of teachthought says that “reflection is a fundamental tenet of learning…to reflect means to look back at how something ‘went’ in all of its available parts and patterns.” What are those patterns? Strengths and weaknesses, comparisons and contrasts, and cause and effects among others.  Reflection will allow me to think about planning for the future (even if the future is as close as the next day) by reviewing the past. So my little black book will have a special place on my desk next quarter, and I am committing to writing every day about how at least one thing went.

Reflection #3 – Revision

I have been in my role as the Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning for 2 full years now. Most of you know that there is a steep learning curve when you start a new job, and because this is a newly created position, it seems like there is always more stuff that gets added to my position description. As it is, there are lots of moving parts, and as I begin every quarter it (almost) feels like a new job. But there are some activities or parts of my job that I feel like I have a good handle on now. So, do I just continue doing them in the same way for another year when things seem to be going well? I’m thinking about ways I can infuse some innovative practices into my work.

If you have been teaching the same class for a while, maybe it’s time to do some revision. While I do not recommend completely revising a class (especially only weeks from the beginning of a quarter), why not try a new assignment? Or introducing students to transparent rubrics if you have not been using them? Start small, and then measure the effects. If you use an assignment but create a new rubric, are you seeing an improvement in student grades and understanding of the material? Remember that revisions should not be taken lightly. They require substantial planning – even for something as “small” as a new assignment or rubric.

So if things don’t go well, reflect on what happened (see Resolution #2). Actually, even if things did go well, reflect on it! It could be that the assignment was a great one, but the directions were not clear. Ask students for feedback (using formative assessments) to help improve your work. And take a look back at September’s blog post, “What to do if you’re having an off day.” Learning from failure is an important task to master!

I hope that you had a great fall quarter, and are looking forward to the New Year, new classes, and new students. There is nothing more satisfying than the look on a student’s face when they begin to comprehend the material. I hope you have that experience many times in 2017!

- Peg Balachowski, Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning











Monday, November 7, 2016

Dear New Teacher...

I recently read a blog post in Edutopia (if you haven’t had a chance to visit this website, it’s amazing! - https://www.edutopia.org/). I thought this “Dear New Teacher” letter with a list of ideas for making your first year great was inspiring. I have done some editing to the list and added my own comments, mostly from experience (more than 20 years in the classroom, and now mentoring new teachers!) and comments I have heard from many brand new teachers in the past few years. The blog post begins:

“Dear New Teachers,
This blog post is for you. Perhaps you’ve heard that your first year will be “sooo hard.” I want to offer you another possibility. Your first year might just be awesome. You might not only survive it but you could even thrive.”

Here’s the edited list and my annotations:

Build Community and find positive mentors.

A mentor, especially one who is going to be a positive role model, is one of the best things you can do for yourself! Your first year in a new college culture can be lonely. A mentor can be the person who helps you find the copy room, but can also be someone who can help you when things get really stressful and you just need to talk about how things are going, whether it’s going well or not. Find that person; a formal mentoring program is not always necessary. I have found many “hallway” mentors in my life, and they have been just as helpful as my formal mentors. You will be very glad you did this! Mentors also help us network in the system.


Ask for Help

Never, ever be afraid to ask for help. As I mentioned above, sometimes it’s just “where is the copy room? I’ve never taught in this building before!” all the way to “How and when do I ask my department chair if I have classes next quarter?” We always encourage our students to ask questions – I wonder why we ourselves don’t do this? Also think about asking “Why is it done this way?” or “Who on campus knows about this?”


Observe Other Teachers

This is ALWAYS a great idea! Good teachers will welcome you into their classroom. Seeing other people teach and getting ideas that you can implement (either now or later) will help you build your teaching toolbox. Ask your colleagues who in OTHER departments you should observe as well. Just because someone teaches in a different area doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them!


Write Down Your Vision for Yourself as a Teacher

This was something I never thought about before. I realize that I have changed a great deal in the 20+ years that I was in the classroom, some of it based on theory, some on practice, some on advice… If I could go back to that brand new teacher I was back then and ask what my vision of myself would be, I wonder what I might have said. Now I regularly take the time to think about my goals for the next year, the next 5 years.


Don’t Neglect Your Body - Do Something Non-Teaching Related

Yes, you probably saw this coming. Eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep – all of them are critical to our success in the classroom! We encourage students to take care of themselves, so we need to make sure that we take care of our own selves so we can be the best at what we do.


Catalogue Every Single Success in the Classroom

And why not! At some point you will have a conversation with your Department Chair or Dean about how things are going, and if you keep a journal and are able to articulate for him or her how things are going, it will more likely guarantee more classes the following quarter! And it makes us feel better when we have had successes, and you will be able to look back and reflect on what and how things went right.


Take a Day Off

Maybe it’s to watch the Seahawks play. Maybe it’s to take a hike. Maybe it’s to spend time with the family. And maybe it’s to do the laundry that’s been piling up! Just remember that if you don’t get that test graded today (even if you have ALWAYS gotten a test graded in 2 days) you can tell students “I’ll be sure to have that test back to you within the next 3 days.” I believe they appreciate our honesty!


I hope you enjoy your first year of teaching. And if you’ve been teaching a long time but are at a new college, I hope you find joy in what you are doing!




Wednesday, October 19, 2016


Developing a sense of belonging in our classroom, on our campus

This past summer I was lucky enough to be a part of a team from Everett Community College that attended the first annual Teaching and Learning National Institute (TLNI) at Evergreen College in Olympia WA. From the very beginning our team used as a guiding principle three questions that we believe all students ask (regardless of their previous experiences with education) when they walk onto our campuses and into our classrooms for the first time: Can I do this? Is it relevant? And Do I belong here? Several of our plenary sessions at the TLNI actually addressed the importance of developing a sense of belonging, so we knew we were on the right track. Since EvCC is a Guided Pathways college, we are working hard to build persistence and belonging in our students, which we hope will lead to not only success but completion as well. We also believe that as students develop this sense of belonging, they will become more engaged. Belonging and engagement are different; a student can be engaged in a class without really feeling a sense of belonging.


As a group we also read a paper that was published by Don Wood and Gregory Williams from Odessa College in Odessa TX. Odessa College suffered one of the lowest retention/dropout rates in the state. After talking with faculty whose class retention rates were the highest at the college, the researchers noted that there was no consistency across what type of course (STEM vs Humanities, for example, where the STEM classes are perceived as being more difficult and would suggest a lower retention rate) and the type of pedagogy (lecture vs group or team learning, where lecture classes were thought to have a lower retention rate and group learning would suggest more student engagement and therefore a higher retention rate). But they found that there were inconsistencies in their hypotheses. So what was is that certain instructors – those with the highest retention rates – were doing? Don Wood told me it boiled down to four basic (and pretty simple) ideas that he called the 4 Commitments:
  • Interact with students by name from the first class,

  • Closely monitor student behavior and progress and intervene immediately if anything should go amiss,

  • Have one-on-one meetings with each student early in the semester to ensure a connection with the student is established, and

  • Become a “Master of Paradox” meaning develop highly structured courses with clear and understood penalties for missed exams, late assignments, etc., but be flexible with the penalty when appropriate.

When faculty began implementing this in their classes, retention began to improve across all disciplines and all instructors. Not only that, but many of the equity gaps began to disappear. Now Hispanic males began to succeed at the same rate as their white counterparts. We believe that by addressing the three questions above and implementing one or all of the 4 Commitments, we can help build those important relationships with students that are a part of developing a sense of belonging. Your Professional Development person on your campus can help you develop small changes in your classroom that will lead to greater student success and higher retention!

Want to know more about how to improve retention in your classes? Here are some of the references from Wood and Williams’ paper:

References

Dunwoody, P.T.  and Frank, M.L.  (1995) “Why Students Withdraw from Classes,” Journal of Psychology, 129(5), 553-558.

Harris, D. and Sass, T. (2009) “What makes for a good teacher and who can tell?”  National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER). Working Paper #30. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Tinto, V. (1987) “The Principles of Effective Retention,” Paper presented at the Fall Conference of the Maryland College Personnel Association, Prince George’s Community College, Largo, MD.

Developing a sense of belonging in our classroom, on our campus

This past summer I was lucky enough to be a part of a team from Everett Community College that attended the first annual Teaching and Learning National Institute (TLNI) at Evergreen College in Olympia WA. From the very beginning our team used as a guiding principle three questions that we believe all students ask (regardless of their previous experiences with education) when they walk onto our campuses and into our classrooms for the first time: Can I do this? Is it relevant? And Do I belong here? Several of our plenary sessions at the TLNI actually addressed the importance of developing a sense of belonging, so we knew we were on the right track. Since EvCC is a Guided Pathways college, we are working hard to build persistence and belonging in our students, which we hope will lead to not only success but completion as well. We also believe that as students develop this sense of belonging, they will become more engaged. Belonging and engagement are different; a student can be engaged in a class without really feeling a sense of belonging.


As a group we also read a paper that was published by Don Wood and Gregory Williams from Odessa College in Odessa TX. Odessa College suffered one of the lowest retention/dropout rates in the state. After talking with faculty whose class retention rates were the highest at the college, the researchers noted that there was no consistency across what type of course (STEM vs Humanities, for example, where the STEM classes are perceived as being more difficult and would suggest a lower retention rate) and the type of pedagogy (lecture vs group or team learning, where lecture classes were thought to have a lower retention rate and group learning would suggest more student engagement and therefore a higher retention rate). But they found that there were inconsistencies in their hypotheses. So what was is that certain instructors – those with the highest retention rates – were doing? Don Wood told me it boiled down to four basic (and pretty simple) ideas that he called the 4 Commitments:
  • Interact with students by name from the first class,

  • Closely monitor student behavior and progress and intervene immediately if anything should go amiss,

  • Have one-on-one meetings with each student early in the semester to ensure a connection with the student is established, and

  • Become a “Master of Paradox” meaning develop highly structured courses with clear and understood penalties for missed exams, late assignments, etc., but be flexible with the penalty when appropriate.

When faculty began implementing this in their classes, retention began to improve across all disciplines and all instructors. Not only that, but many of the equity gaps began to disappear. Now Hispanic males began to succeed at the same rate as their white counterparts. We believe that by addressing the three questions above and implementing one or all of the 4 Commitments, we can help build those important relationships with students that are a part of developing a sense of belonging. Your Professional Development person on your campus can help you develop small changes in your classroom that will lead to greater student success and higher retention!

Want to know more about how to improve retention in your classes? Here are some of the references from Wood and Williams’ paper:

References

Dunwoody, P.T.  and Frank, M.L.  (1995) “Why Students Withdraw from Classes,” Journal of Psychology, 129(5), 553-558.

Harris, D. and Sass, T. (2009) “What makes for a good teacher and who can tell?”  National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER). Working Paper #30. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Tinto, V. (1987) “The Principles of Effective Retention,” Paper presented at the Fall Conference of the Maryland College Personnel Association, Prince George’s Community College, Largo, MD.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Thoughts on Being a "Late-Career" Teacher

Thoughts on Being a “Late-Career” Teacher
by Melody Schneider,
Faculty, High School Completion Department and Faculty Professional Development Coordinator
Edmonds Community College



This month I turn 60.  It’s hard to believe I started teaching over 30 years ago.  Recently, I was thinking back to my first “job” in education.  It wasn’t really a job but it led to a career. In the mid 1980’s I signed up with Literacy Volunteers of New York City to be an adult literacy tutor.  After a few days of training I was matched with a small group of four adults – all older than myself and all of a race different than mine.  What they must have thought of me.  I was in my late twenties.  I was an actor by profession.  I had never taught anything.  Did I really think I could teach these four experienced adults to read and write?  Did they return home after our first meeting wondering if I had any idea what I was doing? 

As I think about our group, I wonder if any of them are still alive.  Mr. Hobbs was 80 when I met him.  Mary and Dora and Cleat in their 40s and 50s.  I want to believe that on some level our community enriched all of our lives.  It surely did mine- in fact, it changed my life forever.

Twice a week for three years, we met.  We became friends, developed trust in each other, got mad at each other, grew annoyed by the slow pace of learning, and cheered for each other - amazed by our breakthroughs.

I remember at first being so afraid of making mistakes, of hurting feelings, and of being seen as a know-nothing imposter.  But in time these gracious, kind students became my teachers.  Once I opened myself up to their responses, needs, goals and ideas - I learned to teach.  Their feedback inspired the next lesson, their challenges pushed me to be resourceful - to ask for help, to investigate new techniques and different strategies.  I learned how to teach because they needed me to learn how to teach.  By the end of my three years, all the students were reading and writing, and I was on my way to the next 30 years of my life.

Today as I near the end of my career, I think about those early lessons from students.  Of course, they still apply today:

  • Listen to students’ needs; the fears, the goals, the dreams.  

  • Pay attention to how the students respond.  

  • Search for ideas, ask for help, develop new techniques and try various strategies


I know now, there is no such thing as knowing it all.  There is so much to know about teaching and learning and so many ways to apply the lessons you learn.  Students are always the best informants – the best teachers.  I experience that in my classes every day.

Although the endless bureaucracy of teaching wears me down, the act of teaching still invigorates me 30 years later.  The art and craft still demand that I create new approaches, change plans mid-course and always look for a new way to connect. 

In my job, I work with teachers at all stages of career.  What I’ve come to understand is that all teachers - no matter the career stage - need opportunities for meaningful learning.  And so it is critical that our institutional structures support and structure faculty development systems to help meet this need.  We should not assume that “late-career” teachers with years of experience are done learning.

We are never done learning.

30 years ago I had so much to learn.  Today, I have so much to learn.

I will be learning until I teach my last class.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What to Do if You’re Having an Off Day – Learning from Failure

Boy, oh boy. When I think back to my first year teaching (I was a new math teacher at a high school just outside Washington, D.C.), I wonder what kind of damage I might have inflicted on those students!! I was brand new to teaching, had just moved to the area and didn’t know anyone, and my daughter was just entering her teenage years – sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? I had a mentor teacher from a different high school - and she was a wonderful mentor - but there were lots of days when I felt like a complete failure and just wanted to wallow in my own misery. Don’t get me wrong – there were good days, too! Seeing the light go on for students (remember, it’s math!) is what kept me going back everyday. So how did I learn to deal with those off days?

My mentor teacher gave me lots of hints. The first and most important was to learn from any perceived failures in class. I still use this lens when I have the opportunity to teach a class. Here are three recommendations from Josh Stock who wrote about failure in this article on the Edutopia website:

1. Before the lesson goes wrong, always have a backup plan. 

2. Ask yourself: "Why did that lesson fail?" 

3. Come up with a plan for the next day. 


Number 1 supports my recommendation of “over prepare” in case things do go wrong. Have short activities that you can insert which will bring things back together. Remember that formative assessments “take the temperature of the room,” and you should have a few “back pocket” techniques, as author James Lang calls them, that you can whip out and check on how things are going.

Numbers 2 and 3 fall into the category of reflecting on your practice. As Josh Stock says, “Having a bad lesson doesn’t make you a bad teacher. We all have off days. It’s what you do afterwards that makes the difference.” Bring mindfulness to your teaching and make room for reflection. This is where YOUR learning takes place. Even though at the end of the day there is grading and MORE planning to do, take several minutes to review what happened (or didn’t happen) in class. Were students not engaged? Were they not responding with correct answers? Did you get looks from them telling you they had no idea what was going on?

Sometimes it’s possible to recover during the class, but if not, at the end of class – in the last 5 minutes – ask

students to do a 5-minute write on the class. I like to raid the recycling bin and find all those rejects from the copy machine that are printed on just one side. I cut them in half and then have a stack in the classroom. Grab a couple and ask students to summarize the class as an “exit ticket.” You could ask something like, “What was the most important take-away for you today?” After class it’s important to read the responses (as much as you might not like the responses, students are EXCELLENT sources of data!) and then report back to students what you learned. Closing the feedback loop will let students know that you heard them and are truly interested in their learning. Tell them what will happen as a result of what you heard. You can begin the next class with, “looks like I need to review the quadratic equation today, so let’s begin with another example.” That tells students that this is an important topic and you are willing to spend a bit more time on it. Of course, it may be the case that the class wasn’t as bad a failure as you thought! Using a formative assessment like this helps students to be more reflective, too. A win-win all around!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Mindfulness

Mindfulness – Merriam Webster defines mindfulness as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” I’ve come up with my own definition – paying attention on purpose with purpose. Mindfulness is one of those “hot topics” these days. TIME Magazine even devoted a special issue to mindfulness, and included this quote: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it” – Ferris Bueller. Who knew we could learn from everyone’s favorite high school wise guy?




It turns out that many of the problems we encounter throughout the quarter can at least be mitigated if we take a mindful approach to planning that first day of class. Here are some great ideas that you might think about from Kevin Gannon, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University:

Take some time in that first class to do a mini-lesson on one of the exciting, weird, intriguing, or controversial parts of the course material. Let your own enthusiasm for the material shine, and let it be a model for your students. If you’re teaching a new prep, use the novelty to your advantage — what are the interesting questions you’re going to cover in the course?


Sometimes an explicit discussion of your course structure — the pedagogical decisions you’ve made — can be powerful. By letting students peek under the hood and see the method and purpose of certain aspects of the course, you’re demonstrating that they’re partners in its success.

The first day can give students a taste of everything they’ll be expected to do during the quarter. If the course is going to be discussion-heavy, then a brief class discussion should be in the first day’s plan. If students will be doing a lot of the group work, then a group activity should be on the docket. If you plan on interleaving activities such as think-pair-share or minute papers, give your students an opportunity to experience that routine on the first day, and model your expectations and feedback for them.



http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mindfulness