Now that we’re at the end of our semester break and classes start again next week, it’s time to write down some of the thoughts that I’ve been stewing over the last few weeks. Having finished my first semester teaching at the university level, I want to take the opportunity to be a “reflective practitioner” and write about what went really well and what I want to change in my classes.
My goal is not just to give students more information, but to cultivate a deeper understanding of American thought. So, I design my classes around a constructivist learning theory in which students must construct meaning out of the materials they are given in class. I am primarily there to guide the meaning-making process through lectures, leading collaborative discussions, and evaluating projects or writing assignments. Dr. Robert Marzano’s research emphasizes the importance of identifying similarities and differences for increasing student understanding and raising achievement. Although Dr. Marzano is one of the hot names in education right now, many of his ideas are not new (which is probably why many of them work). The idea that students should make connections across themes, subjects and disciplines is a major theme in Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. In fact, Socrates was certainly “identifying similarities and differences” in the Meno when he teaches a geometric proof to illustrate his theory of knowledge. When I talk about getting students to identify similarities and differences, I’m not talking just about two column “compare and contrast” charts. What I am talking about is making deep, meaningful connections across cultures and across disciplines.
My most successful classes centered on subjects that I could easily connect to the experience of my students. For example, I taught John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity with Ayn Rand’s Anthem and excerpts from The Virtue of Selfishness. These texts generated lively conversations and provocative writing from students, because the similarities and differences between socialism, communism, and capitalism speak to many of the policy issues Romanians deal with today. I also had them read Chief Seattle’s 1854 Treaty Oration with John Muir’s essay Man’s Place in the Universe and Theodore Roosevelt’s Conservation as a National Duty. These texts combined with my lecture on the US National Park System and the Hetch Hetchy dam sparked considerable debate , because Romania is having its own conservation crises with the Roșia Montana mining controversy.
Lastly, I also taught a few classes on slavery, the Civil War, and racism in class. While our texts were from Frederick Douglass and Aristotle, the conversation really picked up when we related my history lecture and the texts to ethnic relations with Roma (Gypsies) and Hungarians. Ultimately, I believe using a constructivist learning model requires an understanding of the life of dialogue. The teacher must see himself in the student. Music is a powerful tool for creating meaning and opening dialogue. During our unit on slavery and the Civil War, my wife Anne Elise, came to class as a guest presenter. We played Follow the Drinking Gourd together with the students joining in on the chorus. Many people believe this song was an oral map of how to get North to freedom. Here is a video a student took:
Although we had many amazing class discussions, there were still too many students who were silent. I understand that some folks are not comfortable speaking publicly, but it is still important to be actively engaged in class. This is especially true for American Studies majors whose degree emphasizes speaking and writing skills. Several of those who did not speak as often as I would like were still able to get a good grade because I provided plenty of other opportunities such as papers and a written final exam for them to demonstrate what they had learned. I also need to spend more time this semester workshopping how to develop a good thesis. Most students have a strong command of the English language, but have not learned the kind of writing we value and expect in the United States. However, I will be speaking on this at a “Language for Specific Purposes” conference in Bucharest next week. So, I guess I’ll write more about it then.
Both the music Anne and I led in class as well as some review games for the final exam were very successful in engaging students who tended to be more silent; so I’ll definitely be doing more of both this semester. I still wonder how I can change my teaching style to invite participation from students who are less willing to volunteer their ideas openly. I’ve thought about just calling on folks whom I haven’t heard from, but I don’t want embarrassment or discourage anyone. I’m going to be looking for some good small-group-oriented cooperative learning strategies for next semester. Popular activities like “Think-Pair-Share” and the “Jigsaw Classroom” seem a little juvenile to me, but if anyone has had success with them at the university level, I’d love to hear about it!