The way I approach teaching is a product of my upbringing and my experience of education. I am a first generation college student, and education provided me the opportunity to escape poverty and to expand my world beyond the confines of the trailer park. Teaching is an opportunity for me to further pursue my love of learning, and to give back to others the gift I received. My ultimate goal as a teacher is to give students the tools they need to navigate and survive in the world. This is a learner-centered approach, and I strive to strike a balance between course structure and individualization. For each specific class, I orient learning goals according to what tools will serve the needs of the students in the class. We join together for a specific leg of the learning journey, but we will part in various directions at the end of the course, and I want students to be well prepared for the next leg of that journey. This perspective orients my teaching toward a decentered pedagogy that emphasizes the learner rather than the teacher. As the teacher, I have an accumulation of experiences and a collection of tools that help me along; I am on no less of a journey than the students. I learn alongside students as they learn.
I define my teaching philosophy by the goal of creating “strategic learners,” as defined in McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (Fourteenth Edition, Belmont, CA: 2014, 292). According to that text, strategic learners exhibit four primary traits. Strategic learners have confidence that they can complete learning goals, and they have knowledge of how to go about accomplishing those goals. They are diligent and resourceful when they reach a point of difficulty beyond their previous training. Strategic learners also recognize that they are in control of the learning process, i.e., the student’s learning takes place through their effort, and not primarily through the effort or intervention of their teacher(s). At the same time, students understand their resources and where to turn when they reach an obstacle. It is my goal as a teacher to encourage and develop these traits in my students. While these are long-term goals that should likely take place over the entire course of a student’s undergraduate career (and beyond), I believe it is possible to make significant strides toward these goals over a single term and a single course.
As an example of this strategy, I like to include a number of short, low-stakes activities to build specific skills and approaches. Such activities include “Thesis Statement Training,” wherein students learn over time to identify, evaluate, and produce thesis statements. At the beginning of a course, students read a text and attempt to select a sentence or two that best illustrates the text’s primary argument. Students then discuss their attempts, either together as a class or in small groups. As the course progresses, these readings get more difficult, and/or the activity changes to an evaluation of the theses and the broader arguments (How could the statement be improved? Does the author compelling support the argument?). Toward the end of the course, students begin developing thesis statements that present their arguments about a text. Students practice making a claim in a concise, one to two sentence statement. The entire training serves as scaffolding for their final papers or projects for the course. These activities therefore serve the goal of the course, but also develop skills that extend well beyond the singular course and subject. Students gain experience and improve their skills of critical reading, parsing the structure of arguments, and building their own arguments.
I also value the pedagogical approaches that emphasize the “flipped” classroom, which emphasizes the learning time outside of in-person or synchronous class time. I like to take advantage of “hybrid” class structures, wherein students participate in both in-person or synchronous (if online) participation, along with individual and small group activities. The hybrid approach encourages an active-learning role for students. As an instructor, my goal is not rote memorization of content, but of active engagement that constitutes real learning for each student. The hybrid approach allows for online interaction between students and the instructor outside of class time. This builds the necessary social engagement required for learning, which can then be reinforced and expanded during face-to-face interaction. Relatedly, the time students spend in the online portion of the course allows them more time to grapple with new ideas and relate it to their existing knowledge prior to face-to-face interaction. This is crucial for students who like to contemplate and deeply consider their ideas before presenting their thoughts in the public context of a classroom. There are also ample opportunities for students to ask questions, to the instructor as well as to classmates, without expending valuable classroom or synchronous time.
One way that I exemplify the hybrid approach is through “interactive lectures.” Students read the text(s) outside of class, and participate in some form of online discussion prior to meeting. While traditional lectures force students into a passive role, interactive lectures involve students in the lecture by encouraging questions and interaction with the concepts and ideas presented. I may start the class with discussion and ask for thoughts on particular passages that seem important to students. We may even close-read a few passages together in class, guided by specific questions that orient our reading. My role as lecturer consists of drawing out specific structures or details in the text and, if necessary, simplifying those points so that students can better grasp their meaning. I typically supplement the lecture with some type of printed handout in order to engage students who prefer more tangible stimuli in addition to listening and looking at a board.
As a teacher, I approach classes as an opportunity to further my own learning as a serve students and provide them tools for their learning journeys. The perspective ensures that I always remain open and receptive to new ideas and practices that will accomplish the goal of learning, both for myself and for my students.
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