Sunday, August 15, 2010

The right start

One of the most thought-provoking reads on the internet, at least for a college professor like me, is Joe Hoyle's Teaching Financial Accounting blog.  I've gotten plenty of ideas from Joe's ruminations on being an effective teacher.

Yesterday Joe wrote about setting the right tone on the first day of class.  That's something all teachers think about -- or should.  As our opening day approaches, I start to rehearse those opening speeches in my mind.

My junior seminar on handcrafting is likely to be the first course of the whole semester for most of my students, given its 9:25 am start time on the very first day of class.  And I'm determined not to spend the 75 minutes talking to my students about how to turn in their work and what the class policies are.  Every semester I resolve to demonstrate on the first day that this class isn't about me talking to them, but all of us talking and working together.  And sad to say, most semesters end up with me reading over the syllabus to them, as we profs have done from time immemorial.

This year it's going to be different, I vow once again.  Thanks to an idea I stole from Joe, I have a fighting chance at making that real.  I sent a two-week-notice e-mail (and Facebook post) to all my students a few days ago.  In it I shared a few pieces of news and tips for success, pointed them to the course schedule, assignments, and policies already posted online for them, and stated some key elements of the philosophy I hope the class will follow.  Given that everything I would normally go over in class on the first day is already available for them to read, I don't plan to review those documents at all.  Instead we're going to spend that day reporting on the work we were assigned over the summer and maybe gathering a list of topics and questions we collectively hope the course will shed light upon.

In other words, we're going to hit the ground running -- with work already underway, with the matter of the course in our hands, with the ideas of the course set pinging around in our conversation and in our heads.  I want the first day to be the model for all the other days to come, not the introductory throat-clearing that students have come to expect.  And I've let them know they will be engaged in learning and contributing from the very first day.  They may not believe it, given what that day is usually like in college, but that's the whole point of expecting something different from them, informing them of my expectation, and then following through with the reality.  If they don't know this course is different by 10:40 am on that Thursday, when the class lets out, then I've failed in my effort to make it real this time around.

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