On asking more questions

I’ve been trying a lot of new things in my two classes this semester. Last week I wrote about some changes I’ve made to the way I handle in-class performance work in my 20th century theatre course, which is primarily for English Lit students. This week, I’ve been thinking about just how many other changes I’ve been juggling these past two months. I’ve been trying new exercises in classes – including, for example, Lois Weaver’s terrific Long Table, which requires students to take complete responsibility for a discussion as well as responsibility for when to jump into and out of that discussion. (It’s harder than it sounds!) I’ve been bringing guests like Hattie Morahan and Tara Beagan in via Skype and asking students to build the questions we will ask them, thereby taking some ownership over the quality of the visit and the information it yields. In my smaller performance studies class (“Performance Beyond Theatres”) I’ve been requiring a lot of ad-hoc presentations and participation from students, partly in order to match the class’s more intimate seminar shape and feel, and partly in an effort to “lower the stakes” around anxiety-inducing things like speaking in class.

A couple of days ago, though, I was reminded by a student that sometimes the things that I think will be a breeze and a treat are neither; sometimes the things I suspect will lower the stakes only cause panic. I am, to state the never-quite-obvious-enough, not my students, and there’s a limit to what I can guess of how they are feeling. I’m better at this guesswork than I used to be, when every single thing that happened in classes or in office hours got filtered through my new-teacher impostor syndrome, in which I imagined that it was All My Fault For Sucking So Much. But even now, with a decade in the classroom behind me, I’m still a bit quick to imagine either that I’ve screwed up big time, or that I’m a Teaching Genius, depending on the mood of the day.

There’s not a lot of half way in the classroom; it’s a performance, after all, and performances are full of heightened affect. It’s exhilarating when you fall in love with how well things seem to be going, and taxing, very very taxing, when things seem to be going rather wrong. Sadly, it’s hard to feel the more obvious, likely more accurate thing: that stuff is mostly fine and could also be better, and that it’s mostly nothing to do with you, the teacher, at all.

This evening I sat down to read my latest Tomorrow’s Professor posting, which features a “throwback” book review by Roben Torosyan, director of the Office of Teaching & Learning at Bridgewater State University, about Stephen Brookfield’s landmark 1995 text, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. As is often the case with TP postings, this one was exactly what I needed, at exactly the right time.

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Torosyan talks about his longtime debt to Brookfield’s book (hence the nearly 20-years-on review!), and particularly to Brookfield’s fondness for short, qualitative questionnaires that encourage both students and teachers to take regular stock of what’s going well, what’s not going so well, and what has been surprising, pleasurable, rewarding in the classroom.

This is what the book means by critical reflection, then: simply taking regular time to reflect calmly, sincerely, and without judgement on mundane classroom stuff.

Here’s Torosyan’s version of Brookfield’s “critical classroom incident” questionnaire for students:

1. At what moment in the class this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening?

2. At what moment in the class this week did you feel most distanced from what was happening?

3. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in class this week did you find most affirming and helpful?

4. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in class this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?

5. What about the class this week surprised you the most? (This could be something about your own reactions to what went on, or something that someone did, or anything else that occurs to you.) (p. 115)

And here’s the questionnaire Brookfield recommends as a weekly debriefing exercise for any teacher engaged in a new prep:

1. What moment (or moments) this week did I feel most connected, engaged or affirmed as a teacher–when I said to myself “This is what being a teacher is really all about”?

2. What moment (or moments) this week did I feel most disconnected, disengaged, or bored as a teacher–when I said to myself “I’m just going through the motions here”?

3. What was the situation that caused me the greatest anxiety or distress–…[one] I kept replaying in my mind as I was dropping off to sleep, or that caused me to say to myself “I don’t want to go through this again for a while”?

4. What was the event that most took me by surprise–where I saw or did something that shook me up, caught me off guard, knocked me off my stride, gave me a jolt, or made me unexpectedly happy?

5. Of everything I did this week in my teaching, what would I do differently if I had the chance to do it again?

6. What do I feel proudest of in my teaching activities this week? Why? (pp. 73-74)

There are, I think, two key things to note about both of these questionnaires.

First, respondents needn’t respond to everything. The idea is to write about what’s especially compelling in this class, this week – but to get it out, whatever it is, because whatever it is can only then become a teachable moment, a chance for learning something important about class dynamics or about the way students are receiving particular kinds of material or exercises or formal innovations. Students should be encouraged to talk about the good and the not so good, honestly. Teachers should be encouraged to do the same.

Second, these tools are designed to help teachers, in particular, to get past the urge toward extreme classroom affect. If you’re anything like me, you probably feel either pretty/really good, or pretty/really crappy after most classes, and it takes a lot of effort to detach from those feelings of profound investment and even responsibility for what I often imagine is a shared feeling of good/bad/awful. It’s really tempting to assume that students feel exactly the same way I do. But what if that’s not true? What if that excessive affect is actually completely personal and subjective, and more importantly not that useful in its raw form? Brookfield’s prompts for teachers are meant to help us objectify, as anecdotal evidence, what we might otherwise ingest too fully (and generalise too abstractly) as subjective feeling. His prompts for students are, likewise, designed to help teachers recognise broad patterns but also outliers in the classroom, so that we can learn from the former and learn not to over-invest in the latter.

I’d already decided, before reading Torosyan’s review, that Madison and I should poll our class about the effectiveness of our recent thesis-building workshop. I now thing I’m going to poll both of my classes at the half-way point to find out what kinds of “critical moments” in class – both good and bad – are shaping their experiences, and how we might improve the good and manage the bad better. I’m also going to do the teacher questionnaire next week, as our October Study Break hits, for both of my classes, and I’ll invite Madison to do one too. (Madison, you are hereby invited!)

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I’ll let you know how it goes.

Kim

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