Thoughts on Teaching – First Week of Classes – 8/30/2014

Well, the first week of classes is drawing to a close.  I went from not at all ready as of the middle of last week to making it through the first week with minimal problems.  I can’t really complain about that, as I know many people have many more problems come up in the first week of classes.  

I found out about midway through last week that I, once again, have a double overload this semester, with 7 class sections on my schedule.  I did not ask for the seventh, and I had specifically said that I did not want a 7th class.  But here I am, teaching this semester with 2 hybrid sections and 5 online sections, and there’s not much I can do about it at this point.  Luckily, I only have two actual preps, as I am just teaching sections of each of the halves of the American history survey.  

It has been a bit of a rocky start so far in what should be my least problematic sections, the online ones.  I had recycled the class from last year, and I neglected to remove one link that had the students going to the textbook website.  I did not realize this until the second day of classes, meaning that I have a bunch of students who initially got into the wrong section (the one from Fall 2013).  So, I have had to deal with the issues of getting everyone to the correct place, which takes time and patience. It would be easier if students actually read the announcements that I posted rather than me having to deal with each of them separately, but, considering this was the most problematic thing I had to do in the first week, I really can’t complain too much.

I’ve got the online courses fully ready to go for the semester, with just having to open up each thing as it needs to open.  Of course, I also have to grade the things as they come in, and, since I am a grading masochist, that is three papers and three essay exams from each student this semester in my online sections.  The hybrid classes are planned out for the first 5 weeks.  I set up the class last fall, and I am doing things a bit differently this semester, which is why I can’t just run things as they are.  I have actually added more class meetings where I will be having activities for the students to do.  That means that I am actually doing some real creation of materials and assignments.  Thus, in the time that I was working to get ready for the semester, I had time to get the first five weeks ready.  So, over the next four weeks, I will be preparing the rest of the material for the later ten weeks.

So, this semester, I am teaching 195 students.  Of those, about 45 are high school students.  We are teaching a lot of high school students in dual credit sections, and almost all of mine are in my online sections.  There are 4-5 in my hybrid sections, but the 9:30 in the morning start makes it hard for many more high school students to make those classes.  

Thoughts on Education – Continuing Education with Limited Time and Money – 7/31/2014

One of those interesting topics that comes up sometimes is the question of how and when those of us who teach can keep our job skills up to date. Admittedly, many who teach do not care about this at all, and they are happy to teach as they have always taught because it works for them. I, for one, am never happy with where I am as a teacher and educator. To my family’s ongoing chagrin, I am always reinventing, reconfiguring, rewriting, and reforming my classes. Only rarely do I run the same course again the next year as I did the year before. I am always making changes, and I am always seeking out ways to make these changes.

The problem comes in the question of what to change and how to make changes. In this case, my own desires for continuing education and change meets the ongoing budgetary crisis head on. We do not have the money for conferences or continuing education. And, as a community-college instructor who teaches full time with overloads and summer courses (essentially a 6/6/3 load), there is little time and money on my own for going to and doing things to improve my education. One of the options is, of course, books, but I find myself with little time and motivation to read professionally any more. This is sad, as I used to read history for fun, but now, after 8 years of graduate school and 8 years of full-time teaching, the idea of sitting down and reading a historical monograph is just not very appealing. I have had to confront this in myself, as my job is history education, and I should have the responsibility to be up on the latest scholarship, while also reading widely in topics relevant to what I teach. However, much like my students, if it is not required, I am not going to read it. In the spare time I do have for teaching, I generally read fiction, as it allows me an escape from everything else. Unfortunately, that means that one primary avenue for continuing education is largely unavailable for me.

So, with no money or time for traveling to conferences and not really being willing to read the things that I should, I have turned to taking MOOC courses through Coursera. Last Spring, I took University Teaching 101, and this summer, I am in two of them. The first one, which I am in the middle of right now, is e-Learning Ecologies, which looks at new ways we can think about the online learning environment.  It runs for eight weeks, and it is week 5 right now.  The other one that I am taking now is Learning to Teach Online, which takes a more basic approach to looking at how we teach in an online environment.  I am hoping to learn more through these courses about how I teach, how I could teach, and what other ideas there are out there.  I can’t say much more about them than that, as I am still working on them.

Those of you who teach, what do you do to keep updated with your skills?  Those of you who do not, what else can you think of that could be useful?

Thoughts on Teaching – A Day in Summer School – 6/19/2014

Today was another day of teaching. What can I say. My wife always asks me the same question every day when I come home – Was work exciting? And, I really never have a good answer to that. Rarely is work exciting, but rarely is it dismal either. Going in to work is a necessary evil in many ways. I teach exclusively online in the summer, and your standard community college student taking online classes in the summer is very unlikely to make it to on-campus office hours. In three weeks so far, I have seen three students. Now, yes, if I was not there, those three students could not have come in to see me, but does tha make up for the rest of it? I don’t know. It is a 25-minute commute each way to get to work, and I stay up there for around four hours at a time for office hours. And, for the most part, I sit there and do work. Or not. It depends on my mood, my attentiveness, my concentration, my guilt, and many other things as to whether a day in the office is a good, productive one, or a bad, unproductive one.

But that’s the thing, it doesn’t matter really one way or the other. I am going to get my work done, but I am not necessarily going to get it done during the hours I sit at work. As I am teaching exclusively online right now, there is no physical bounds on my work. It can be done anywhere and at any time. And, of course, being on campus on Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10am – 2pm is probably the least likely time that my online-only students are going to be working on the course material, meaning that I am most available at the time they are least likely to need my help. But it is the requirement at my community college that we hold on-campus office hours, so I am there. But, again, is it exciting? No. Is it necessary? Apparently. Is it worth it? That depends on the day.

So, when she asked me today, when I got home, if work was exciting, what did I say? Not really. I graded some essay exams. I went to lunch. That’s what I had to say. But, the reality is that I did much more than that. I got there a little before 10 and cleared my email inbox, answering emails from students, including two who wanted to drop the class (because it is now time to take the exam) and one who wanted me to look at drafts of the essay questions for the exam. I clicked through the rest of the emails, most of which required no specific action today but are things I want to look at later. I have a folder rule set up in Outlook to send all of the newsletters and informational emails to a folder to be read when I have the time and interest in reading them. Then I checked in on my online class, looking to see what had happened since I had last looked at the class the night before. I double checked what I had fixed at 8am this morning when the Testing Center had called with a question about the exam, where I had not set the closing time correctly. It was fixed correctly, luckily, and four more students had taken my exam since that point. I then checked to see if the fix that is due from the textbook publisher had come in that would allow me to grade the written submissions of my students had happened yet. And, it had not. So, the publishers’ program that I am class testing still does not allow me to grade what my students submitted, which is getting to be more and more of a problem. I went in to talk to my Dean about it, but he had taken the day off. So, I sent him an email about it. By that time, I had been there about 45 minutes, and so I took a few minutes off to do some random web surfing. I am in the office by myself by that point, so I had turned on some music to listen to. I then started grading. I can grade about 3 exams at a time before I have to take a break. So, in the time between when I started and when it was time to go to lunch, I got 9 exams graded. As the exam actually does not close until tonight, I figured that really wasn’t too bad overall, as I’m ahead of the game there.

I went to my usual Thursday afternoon lunch with some colleagues, and it was 1:30 by the time I got back to the office. I chatted about office politics and the like with some people in my office bay until it was time to go at 2. I made it home in time to help my wife get all of the kids ready to go to the grocery store with her. We then realized that our elder daughter had math tutoring to go to, so my wife took the other kids to the grocery store, and I took the one to the tutoring. I normally sit at Starbucks and work while my daughter is in tutoring, which is where I started this post. However, my wife had gotten locked out of the house, so I had to go back and let her in, leaving me to finish this post later in the day. I entertained the toddler while my wife made dinner, then I went back to get the other daughter from tutoring. We had dinner; I watered the flowerbeds and garden; I did some laundry; and now I sit down.

So, was the day exciting? You tell me, but this was fairly typical.

Thoughts on Teaching – Class-Testing a New Book – 6/4/2014

I am teaching this summer.  The summer sessions are always interesting at a community college, as we get a completely different crop of students.  While there are certainly a number of continuing students from the semesters, we also get a significant population of students who are attending a four-year university who take a class or two from us over the summer.  Thus, in many cases, we get students who would not normally be in a community college here over the summer.  I am not saying they are better students, although some certainly are, but they are definitely a completely different group of students.

This summer, I have decided to class test a new textbook.  So often, the textbook choice time catches all of us completely off guard.  We choose a new textbook every three years, and, so often, we start making that choice essentially at the last minute, relying on a quick glance at the book, a demo of the online material, and a visit from a rep.  Sometimes that is enough to get a sense of a book and to choose a good one, but it has also led to some duds over the years.  When approached this year about a new textbook from a different company than the one we are currently using, I decided to take it for a test drive to see how it might compare.  I will leave the names of the companies out of this, but they are all major publishing companies for college history textbooks.

I am not trying out the new textbook and company because I think that what they offer is superior, I am trying it out because I do not have any idea if they are superior.  We have used two different publisher’s books so far since I have been in my current teaching position, and I strongly disliked one and generally like the other.  When this third company approached me, I couldn’t help but be interested because I want to see what is out there.  I certainly have the time to go out and explore on my own, but if nothing is forcing me to, I probably won’t.  So, a class test forces me to delve into a different book and online system in more detail.  It also allows me to see how it actually works in practice.

I have launched on this with full openness to my students that this is a class test.  They have to know it anyway, as only this class has a different textbook than the others, as we use a common department textbook.  However, I also wanted to let them know, as I want their feedback as well.  It is just as important to me that the textbook and online system be manageable and accessible to them as it is that it be something that works for me.  It could be the best book in the world, but if they can’t deal with it, it is a failure.

The summer session started this week, and I have kept the students completely informed about the changes and expectations.  In my course outline, this is how I explained it to them:

Over the course of the summer session, we will cover the first 15 chapters of the textbook, which is what is included in Volume 1. This section is what I am class-testing this summer. Thus, all of the assignments in this section are new to me, just as they are new to you. I will be working through them along with you, and I will be evaluating them from my own historical perspective as well as looking at your own responses and performance in this section. We class-test material such as this both to ensure that we are using the best possible material for our classes at Weatherford College and to evaluate new content that we have not seen before.

What that means for you is that the material is presented to you in a way that explores all of the different options available from XX [censored to not show what book I am using]. What I have seen appears to be a manageable amount of material, but I will be evaluating as I go along in case what is here is too much. I am very happy to change if necessary, as this is all about testing out the material, both in quantity and quality. I also will be looking at how the material is assigned and accessed. It appears to be fairly obvious what material is due when, and it appears to be clear what assignments you need to do. If there is a problem, I will work with the material to try to figure out what is going on. As of right now, the material is organized by chapter, with the exception of the introductory assignments at the top.

Again, I want to be as open with them, so that I can evaluate the book and they can evaluate the book.  That way, when our choice comes up next spring, I can talk about not only the book we are currently using but another one as well.  We can all make an informed choice at that point and come up with the best possible outcome for our department and our students.

Thoughts on Teaching – First Grading Session – 2/24/2014

I am coming to the close of the first big grading session of the semester.  I have the class divided up into three units, with major assignments due at the end of each unit.  For me, that means that my busy time starts after each unit closes.  And, the first unit hits before I get any significant number of drops, which means that I grade more in the first grading session than any that follows.  This session has been no different.  I have had my students complete papers, discussion forums, and essay exams, which means a lot of direct grading by me.  I strongly believe that my students need to write and need to write a lot, but the curse of that is that I am then the one who has to grade them.  So, I have been grading since last Monday, meaning I am just over a week into this grading session, which I hope to wrap up tomorrow.

The other feature of the first grading session is that I also get my first round of drops from the class at this point.  Students can cruise along in the class for the first 4 weeks, completing some basic reading quizzes and the like.  However, once a paper is due, a discussion forum closes, and an exam must be taken, that’s when the first round of students are gone.  There are always a number of those, so it is part of the process.

The other thing that always comes up with first assignments in the semester is that the first technical glitches hit.  Luckily, this time I actually had no glitches on the exam, which is where they usually occur.  Instead, this time the paper has been the problem.  The students are required to submit their paper to turnitin.com (to check for plagiarism and grade easily with a rubric), but I had about 10 students who managed to miss this part of the assignment.  This is despite the fact that every place that the assignment is referred to says that it is due in to turnitin.com, as well as the fact that I sent out two announcements in the last week warning students that they needed to submit to turnitin.com.  What it really shows, unfortunately, is how the students seem to run mostly on autopilot.  Many just click on the next thing to do without ever looking at any instructions or materials that teachers post.  This does mean that often I do not get what I am really looking for, as the autopilot mode often means that students hit a very minimal level of work.

I wonder if there is a way to combat these problems, but I have yet to come up with any yet.  I modify my class every semester, working on the phrasing of instructions and reconsidering the structure and order of assignments.  And yet, it really doesn’t seem to make much of a difference, as the same problems continue.  Unfortunately, where it ends up is that I end up just assuming a certain level of attrition with little I can do to help them.  All of my efforts end up failing for a certain number of students.  Of course, if they can’t meet my standards, then they probably do not belong in the class and certainly do not deserve a decent grade from me.  That does not make me feel any better about it, but it is the best I can do for now.

Thoughts on Teaching – A New Semester and a New Beginning – 1/31/14

It seems like I am always starting blog posts off with an apology for not having written in a while.  Since the birth of our daughter 15 months ago, spare time has been harder and harder to come by.  However, she is settling down into a good routine, so I hope to do better this semester.  I had hoped, after the post in November to be back on track, but shortly after that, we had a major family health issue come up that pushed out non-essential items.  Now I think things have settled down, and I hope to be going again with my blog.

So, here we are, with a new semester (three weeks in but, hey, what can you do about that).  I have, yet again, been given a double overload in classes, meaning that I am teaching 7 classes this semester for the second semester in a row.  I have 4 online sections and 3 hybrid sections.  My online sections are running as they always do.  I am in roughly the 5th year of my current configuration of my online class, as so they can largely run without much effort on my part.  That is one of the truths about online classes, that they are very involved and difficult to get going, but they can run pretty easily once you get them done.  However, if you have followed my blog so far, you will see that I am rarely satisfied with how my classes are going.  My online class is far overdue for a reworking, and I hope to start thinking about it this summer.  I have made some changes over the last 5 years on the margins, moving assignments around and changing a few things here and there.  However, I think it’s about time for an overhaul soon.  And, the model that I will use for my overhaul are my hybrid classes.

I have started getting my hybrid class really going in the direction that I like.  I am in the second year of working with this new hybrid format, and I am adjusting and working with the class as it moves forward.  Following what I worked with last, this semester, I have moved into a model of weekly work and a long paper at the end.  There are no exams, although I do have some chapter quizzing going on.  The big part of the grade (about 45% overall) is discussion based, both online and in-class.  Then, to keep the students on track, I have weekly, one-page response papers.  I have returned to this model from what I did the first year, because I tried not having response papers last semester, and I found that students did not do the work if I did not hold them directly responsible.  So, I am hoping that this semester they will do more of the work I expect them to do outside of class.  I don’t have any great desire to grade weekly papers, but I want my students doing the work, and their grades will improve (hopefully).

As I have this hybrid model settled in well, I think I can use a lot of the ideas from this format in my online course.  I would like to move beyond the exam model and include a lot more activities and discussions.  Right now, the online class is primarily made up of reading lectures and the textbook and taking quizzes and exams.  That is exactly the format that I have moved away from in my hybrid class, and I would like to move the online class beyond it as well.  I hope that I get it together relatively soon.

Anyway, that’s a good start for the semester.  Wish me luck.

Thoughts on Teaching – Failing the Semester – 11/26/2013

Yes, this sounds like I am going to talk about my students failing this semester, and, to be honest, I will in a roundabout way.  However, in reality, what I am writing about is my own failure this semester.  I tried something new, as I do every semester.  And, I can honestly say that it has not worked.  I feel like I have failed the students, although, in reality what I have done is to make it easier for them to fail themselves.  As there is so much pressure on us to help the students succeed, I certainly do feel that I have done them a disservice and made at least a few of my students less successful that they would have otherwise been.

What I did this semester was I did not assign weekly writing assignments to check and make sure the students were doing the work they were supposed to.  To be clear, I did assign chapter readings and chapter work, so I was checking up on whether they were doing that part of the work.  However, as a part of the hybrid-class model that I am using, the students have extra work each week, whether it be watching a documentary, reading some extra piece, or even completing a history game.  Last year, I consistently had the students complete a response paper each week.  This mostly was used to check on whether they had completed the work they were supposed to and provided a basis for a regular check and grade on their work each week.  In the evaluation of the course last year, I heard back from students that, while they did not like writing something every week, they felt that it was helpful in making sure they were doing the work they were supposed to.  The students said that they felt more prepared to discuss the material when they had been required to write a response paper about it.

With that said, it would seem stupid for me to not assign those response papers this semester, but, when it came down to what my weekly workload would look like, I chose to take them out.  I was assigned an extra class at the last minute this semester, meaning that I am teaching 7 classes this semester.  Five of those classes are online, and so they are not affected by this change.  It is only in my two hybrid classes that I decided to try running the class without the weekly responses.  I was afraid of what the teaching load would look like if I added those extra grading pieces each week, and so I left them out.  In retrospect, this was a bad idea.  For one, my students have been noticeably less prepared this semester than last year.  I have had to send them away twice this semester when I did go and check on whether they had done the assigned work, only to discover that they had not.  The other reason this was a bad idea is that I have not been as burdened this semester by an extra class as I thought I would be.  So, I could have easily done the response papers with little consequence on my overall work load.

What this leaves me with is that fact that I made students less likely to succeed, despite both knowing that they would do better with regular checks on what they were doing and despite having the time for the resulting grading.  This is why I see this as a failure on my part.  The check that I had built into the semester for them doing the extra work to prepare for class was that they have a discussion grade for the class that counts for 25% of the overall grade.  It turns out that this grade is too abstract for the students to care about on a weekly basis.  The level of participation has been lower this semester, and the quality of participation has been low as well.  Given the opportunity to have no checks on whether they have done the work or not, most students have chosen not to do the work and not be prepared for class.  I know this should come as no surprise, and, if I had thought it through more, I would have easily realized this.  This, again, is why I put the failure on myself.  I did put out the rope for my students to either grab on to or hang themselves with, and most of my students chose the latter.

I do not know how this class will fall out at the end, but I have a feeling that my grades and pass rates are going to be horrendous for the hybrid classes this semester.  Obviously, I know what to do to fix it next semester.  However, it still sits heavily on me that I have let these students fail out when I could have done something to help them.  Sigh.

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