Subscribe Twitter Twitter

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Back to School

After a year of leisure, I’ll soon start teaching full time again. I took unpaid leave to finish an MFA in creative nonfiction writing and although that wasn’t exactly “time off” my hours were spent concentrating only on me: my writing, my projects, my submission, my homework, my classes. Soon, I’ll be back in my teacher role where it is always all about the students--as it should be.

As a community college teacher, I’m well aware that most of my students work close to full time while trying to keep up with a full course load. Many of them also have families. This week—-a week before the regular quarter starts--I taught a module at my school’s First Year Introduction (FYI) seminar about how to succeed in science classes. FYI is like a booth camp for students who feel they aren’t quite ready for college student life and need learn a little about successful student behavior. I started the module by telling the FYI students the same I tell my regular students: the college curriculum load assumes you spend two hours outside of class on preparation and studying for every hour you spend in the class room. That means that for a five credit class, you spend a total of fifteen hours per week on just that subject. If you take three of those classes, you’re all of a sudden up to 45 hours per week of just school work—more than a full time job. To be able to have a life on top of that, you have to figure out a way to beat the system—a way to study more efficiently and be able to cram ten hours worth of outside classroom studying into eight or fewer hours.

I taught my module at 2.30 pm and at 7 pm. In the first class, most of the students were straight out of high school. As I went over the importance of preparing for class, why they would be frustrated if they fall behind in a science class (the concepts build on each other), and gave them practice exercises on how to effectively read a college textbook, they stared at me with glassy eyes, texted friends that were not in the classroom, and chatted with each other about current movies and video games. I had to dig deep into my arsenal of basic classroom management skills to be able to conduct an effective class. Five minutes before class was over, all of the students were gathering up their books, zipping up bags, and had one leg posed to sprint up from the chair and out the door. As I gathered up my handouts and erased the whiteboard, I wondered if I should ask for another year off. I had obviously forgotten how to be an effective educator.

Before the later module began, I ran errands and stopped by the grocery store to pick up something to eat for my dinner. I also loaded up on cookies for the students. My plan was that if I didn’t get them excited about taking science, at least they would remember my session’s sugar high with fondness. If you can’t reach them through knowledge, try food.

The students that filed in through the door shortly before seven were a little bit older than my previous group. When they saw the cookies they exclaimed things like “awesome” and “I’m totally going for double-stuffed Oreos.” During my presentation, they stopped me several times to ask questions about what science classes were available on our campus, who the most popular instructors were, and why you have to take biology before zoology. They loved the textbook reading exercises and a few of them asked for my email and office number in case they needed further study tips after the quarter starts. At the end of class, most of them stayed behind to ask more questions about which science classes I thought might be right for them.

It was an awesome session. I drove home remembering how great it is to be part of students discovering something new and interesting. How privileged I feel whenever a student’s passion for science is awakened. I also remembered the reason I went into teaching in the first place was because I want to show students how much fun science can be and that everybody is born a scientist. We start our early years in life investigating the world around us, recognizing the patterns of it, and figuring out how to function within it better—just like scientists. That evening I felt good about teaching again.

I suspect the second batch of my FYI groups consisted of students a little more mature than the first, a little more motivated and a little more independent as learners. I probably did a better job of presenting the material since it was the second time around that day. However, I’m not taking any chances and come first day of the fall quarter, I’ll be walking in to class armed with a batch or two of cookies.

Hope your back to school week is a good one. How are you psyching yourself up for the start of it?


Erik Jensen said...


Thanks for putting a smile on my face. I think one important lesson is that we need to get students to put their guards down. Food seemed to work in your case. One way I can relate to my fire science students (they take a term of physics) is through labs. By design, most of the labs involve some element of physical exertion (tug of war, running stairs, tire drag, etc.). I always participate and I hope they can see that I am enthusiastic despite my age and lack of aptitude. I find that this opens the lines of communication with this particular group.

Asa Maria Bradley said...

Great tip Erik! I never thought about exercising my students to facilitate learning, but that makes perfect sense. I have a bunch of aerospace students in my first quarter of the sequence every year. Maybe this would work with them too. Not sure I could get airplanes involved, but we could do some spinning and roller coaster stuff.

Post a Comment