Friday, December 2, 2016

Students These Days

A long time ago, half-way into my first semester as a faculty member in the Biology Department at Lincoln, I realized that to be an effective teacher, I have to meet the students where they are. In other words, I cannot expect our students to be anything other than who they are or know anything more than they do. To fail at this basic tenet is to set our students up for failure.
I was reminded of this thought as I read a blog-post titled “Ugly Consequences of Complaining about ‘Students These Days’” by Maryellen Weimer. The link to the blog can be found below. Here is an excerpt:
Sometimes we do need to vent. It isn’t easy teaching students who don’t come to class prepared, seem to always want the easiest way, are prepared to cheat if necessary, don’t have good study skills, and aren’t interested in learning what we love to teach. Venting, especially to a trusted colleague, helps us put things in perspective. At some point, though, venting morphs into complaining, and what we say about students becomes what we think about them. And that’s when it starts getting dangerous, because it affects how we teach.
By meeting the students where they are, we may stop complaining and instead put energy into designing effective and engaging learning experiences for our students. If we keep expecting students to have background knowledge or skills that they simply never acquired, we are helping them fail.
You can probably imagine what this approach has meant for my teaching; I constantly assess my students’ prior knowledge to make sure that they have the background knowledge or skills that I expect; more often than not they don’t. Often, our students are unable to transfer skills from one class to another. Other times they simply have never learned a concept. Either way, I try to find ways to help them gain the knowledge so that they can succeed in my class. It doesn’t take more than a quick reminder sometimes, maybe a worksheet or two, or an online reading quiz that requires students to review previously learned concepts.
You may call this coddling, or hand-holding, maybe even enabling – and I admit that it would be if I never raised the bar but kept expecting them not to acquire knowledge. However, I have found that teaching my students how to swim before I throw them in the water helps them succeed. I am doing my best to meet them where they are – and then moving on to new experiences so that they can become lifelong learners.
Do you find yourself complaining about students? How do you think it effects your teaching? How do you meet your students where they are? 
Link to the full blog-post:

Friday, November 18, 2016

Sensitive Topics in the Classroom

Guest Blogger: Heather Bennett

November 8th 2016, a day that will live in infamy.  We elected Donald Trump as our next president. While some celebrated, many people were terrified.  For months the world watched as Donald Trump reduced races of people to negative stereotypes, marginalized many minorities and women, and indirectly promoted hate amongst American citizens.  For many, the election of such an individual to the most powerful position in the country brought about fear and terror. 
For many of my students, 60% of them international students, 98% of them women, and all of them African American, the election of Donald Trump instilled a deep fear, anger, disappointment and an overall lack of confidence in the workings of our government. My students seemed a little more discouraged the day after the election when they walked into class. It seemed awkward not to mention the election, as I could clearly see that my students wanted to discuss what they were thinking. I was hesitant to open up for discussion such a sensitive topic. I did not want lecture time to be consumed with discussion on the presidential election or the topic to lead to a hostile environment. However, I did not want to minimize their feelings, or fail to acknowledge the validity of their emotions. Simply not mentioning the election, I felt sent a message that I did not care how my students maybe feeling. I wanted to give students a safe space to share and elaborate on these feelings of fear and disappointment. I also wanted to encourage and support them.  I decided to address the “elephant in the room” and encourage students to disclose their feelings. I asked for students to take a few minutes and to quietly write down what emotions they were feeling after learning the results from the presidential election.  I then left it open for students to share, if they felt comfortable, their feelings with the rest of the class. I stressed that students must be respectful and listen to their classmates. I challenged them to try to understand each other’s views. After sharing, I had students ball up the paper with any negative emotions and throw them like a snowball at the front of the room. I then challenged the students to share how they could use these negative feelings for something positive. The activity only took 15 minutes of class time and several students thanked me for giving them an opportunity to voice their feelings. One student said prior to my class no teacher had mentioned the election results and it seemed as if no one cared how the students may be feeling or perhaps they too should just get over it.     
For many of us our performance on any task is tied to our emotional well-being. As an educator, I think it is important to realize that our students will be greatly affected by what may be happening in society.  We must learn how to engage students in meaningful discussion and try to understand how the emotions of our students may influence their learning. I am curious, how do more experienced educators discuss difficult and sensitive topics in the classroom? What are some techniques or strategies teachers use in the classroom to help students handle emotional topics?