booksneak said: I'm starting a job as a teaching assistant for a class that introduces the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences to college freshmen. As a former teacher, do you have any tips for lesson planning, promoting active learning, public speaking, keeping them engaged in class, etc.?
This is really important; thank you for asking.
I think being conscious of shifting away from what Paulo Freire described in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as the ‘banking concept of education’ (the rote memorization of decontextualized and irrelevant facts for the explicit purpose of reiteration) and towards an engaged, critical pedagogy which seeks to educate by exploration, reciprocity, and relevancy is crucial.
I highly recommend bell hooks’ work on education and pedagogy, which were very illuminating and useful for me. I particularly recommend Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, as well as Namulundah Florence’s analysis of bell hooks’ work in education, bell hooks’ Engaged Pedagogy: A Transgressive Education for Critical Consciousness.
My own pedagogy was framed around the above, as well as influenced by professors who enacted critical pedagogies in their own classrooms and had a great influence on me. According to my students, and from other faculty in the World Languages department where I taught, my style was really engaging and effective.
For promoting active learning and keeping the classroom engaged, here are a couple things that I did and found most useful:
- Ask a lot of questions. Instead of clearly positioning yourself as the only available source of information in the classroom, open up the process of learning by including everyone in the classroom—their own life experiences, readings, and impressions. Ask questions. Ask what students think of what you just said. Ask them to elaborate, and be specific. Compel them to confront the limits of their own knowledge and thought until they find that it no longer stands, or until they “stumble into the garden” of an epiphany as a result. This is immensely transforming, and also leads to the next point:
- Be vulnerable. Never ask or expect your students to act, think, or say anything that you wouldn’t also do, think, or say. If you’re expecting your students to be open (and you should really try to encourage, as much as possible, for students to be as open as possible at all times), you have to be open as well. If you’re expecting them to confront the limits of their knowledge, you should openly and visibly confront the limits of your own, as well. One of the best things a student truly interested in education can hear from an educator is “That’s a great question. I simply don’t know. Let’s explore that together and find out.” Admitting that you don’t know helps to erase the myth that educators are no longer students and have nothing else to learn and involves everyone in the process of learning.
A combination of being really open with your students (asking lots of questions, being vulnerable), using humor (I often used self-effacing humor to make students laugh, to further the whole “vulnerability” thing, and to make students feel more comfortable with their own “learning egos” which can often be a crippling thing to deal with), and being relaxed (instead of teaching in front of the classroom, teach from within and among; walk through the rows of students, engage them individually, re-arrange the chairs into a circle so there’s no clear student-teacher delineation, sit on your desk, be generally comfortable and relaxed) were the things I found most effective in keeping the classroom engaged and active in the learning process.
When it comes to lesson planning, everybody approaches this differently. Much of it will revolve around how well you know your subject material. You will, of course, be required to meet particular standards, which include teaching a set amount of material across a set amount of time. And that requires planning. But also, personally, I found the diurnal task of planning out each day’s lesson to be not just exhausting but also detrimental to my own pedagogy. Since I know Arabic grammar so well, the extent of my lesson planning was having a general idea of which topics I wanted to cover in class the following day, and what sort of activities would be best towards this end. Some educators meticulously plan out every minute of their classroom, while others, like myself, often ended up with something like this:
I obviously don’t recommend that to everyone, but it worked best for me. I’m really good “off the cuff,” and it gave me the room to be exploratory in class, to shape the lessons around the students’ questions, proficiencies, and so on.
Public speaking has always come fairly natural to me, and I’ve always tended to feel more comfortable in front of large groups than in small groups, or even one-on-one. I received a question about this before, though, and walked through some of the best public speaking tips that have helped me. You can read through that here.
The simple fact that you’re asking these questions and thinking about these ideas suggests that education, for you, means more than the “mere depositing of facts into the passive depositories of students’ minds,” and I have no doubt that you’ll be able to craft your own pedagogy in a way that honors what you believe is important.