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It looks like I’ll be teaching my very first course next summer. This will be my chance to experiment a bit and get some practice on what kind of teacher I want to become. I have my role models but ultimately, to be successful, our teaching has to agree with our personalities. I have an inclusive personality so I tend to focus on giving everybody a chance to participate and get engaged. The key is to get students to participate. And as I’ve mentioned before, this is where I think blogging can be useful. Blogging has made me not only more aware of my surroundings but also more politically and socially engaged. If that sort of dynamics can be reproduced in the classroom some real learning can be achieved.

But how to do that? How exactly do I get 45 students to actively participate in a course blog? Do I make it an assignment? Do each student has to post something? How often? Under what criteria? How do I integrate it to the curriculum and what goes on in the classroom?

In order to get some ideas, I registered to a workshop last week on blogging offered by the Resource Centre of Academic Techonology, at U of T. I was very excited but unfortunately, unable to attend. A more urgent academic engagement came up and I had to miss it. So today I went by RCAT to ask if there were any handouts from the talk. They gave me not only a copy of the ppt presentation but also the presenter’s blog address where I could find further resources.

Her name is Michelle Mazar and her blog is subtitled Diary of a Subversive Librarian, which I think it’s quite brilliant. She wrote a very inspiring reflection about blogging and academia on the day of the workshop.In it she says:

(…)Which leads me to something that bonked me on the head yesterday while reviewing for Learning Inquiry. I read this fantastic article that used some extremely bang-on terminology: productive failure, and unproductive success.

Here’s what I’m currently considering: we tend to reward unproductive success more than anything. If a student walks into a class knowing the subject material, that student will probably do extremely well. If a student spends 3/4ths of the class struggling with the material and getting things wrong, not understanding, struggling with concepts, and then really gets it, that student will probably not do as well. But that student is actually learning, and demonstrating learning. We don’t have an effective way of rewarding real learning.

Which is the key reason why I object to switching out the word “student” with the word “learner”, though I know it’s trying to get at the same idea. We don’t know whether we have “learners” or not, on a grand scale. Often we have a group of already-knowledgeable students who will unproductively get As and we feel good about it the learning experience. How do we measure learning? Real learning? Going from confusion to understanding? How do we even see it when undergrads often don’t even open their mouths in class? Do we really have a “Learning Management System”? Really? How do we really support and reward learning rather than merely unproductive success?

So I think blogging done well, set up with good expectations and with a fostered honesty, can reveal the actual learning going on, and can give students the option of displaying the learning they’re doing. And we can reward it that way. If a student struggles for the first half of the course and demonstrates that struggle, and then suddenly GETS IT, you’ll have evidence of their learning. You can reward that, you can grade them according to how they learned and how articulate they can be about the way in which they learned and why. At the moment we grade them based on whether or not they get it fast enough, for the most part. So you can use these tools to support and encourage productive failure as a means toward productive success. I’m not saying it’s enough to just try. Unproductive failure isn’t the goal either. Failure that builds into understanding is productive.

I’ve began to consider this very process lately. I’ve had students who have clearly benefited from the class and through informal interaction with me showed me they “got it” at the end of the course. Yet, I could not reward their learning since these didn’t translate into their first assignments. I think there should be some room for that.

In her powerpoint presentation, Michelle gives some useful tips on using blogs effectively. My favourites are blogs as reflection paper and blogging as conversation. She suggests four possible ways to use a blog as a reflection paper:

  • Pick a quotation from the reading and relate it to the lecture
  • Pick a CC-licensed picture from flickr and relate it to the readings, lecture
  • Pick a comment from a fellow student, agree or disagree with its content
  • Ask a question that remains after the lecture and the reading

I think these could be easy to implement and would create a connection between readings and lecture as well as conversation among the students.

Her powerpoint doesn’t specify what she means by blogging as conversation but I’ll definitely ask her directly. This is very exciting stuff.

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Tomorrow I’ll lead my first set of tutorials. In history, a tutorial (aka a conference session at Concordia) is dedicated mostly to discussing primary sources and teaching students how to read critically and how to get their points across. If done properly, I see it as also a venue where the students will learn most of the skills we expect of history students – the ability to write a variety of assignments based on secondary or primary sources and to question those sources with good analytical skills.

Teaching was precisely what first attracted me into a degree in history. Ironically, however, my career so far has been heavily focused on research and I have had no opportunity to teach so far. It’s only now, in my fifth year, that I’m finally getting to do what I came here to do: to teach university students. Although I haven’t taught, I’ve certainly never stopped thinking and preparing myself. I have taken a number of teaching workshops, I have had endless discussions with colleagues and professors about their teaching experiences, I have even helped organize a series of teaching history workshops in my department. But now the time of truth approaches: tomorrow at 9AM I’ll hold my first tutorial. I hope it goes well… I’ll come back and tell you about it…

Update…

Well, it’s done. I had two tutorials this morning, one from 9-10 and another from 10-11.  Both of them were great! From the 19 students that showed up today, only one hadn’t done the readings . I guess things will change once the semester gets busier and they start having midterms in other classes. It was a very good introduction to teaching since both groups were made mostly of good, eager students. I still need to work on my general pacing – parts of the first tutorial went a little faster than I anticipated – but I can say that I got every single student to participate today. So I think I fulfilled my duty 😉 I’m curious to see what the groups I’ll have on thursday are like…