Saturday, May 23, 2015

Summertime, and the Learning is "Easy-er"

I'm back at it, at least for a little while: for six weeks this summer, I'm again taking a course about using learning technologies in my teaching. And, in connection with that course, I'm blogging again, too.

Photo by Ian Burt
This time around, I'm finding the learning experience easier. I'm thinking about why that might be. What is making this course go more smoothly for me than the last time around, two short years ago? And why, even though it's "easier," do I feel that I am learning more?

It's Not Because I Was Ready for This Course....
It's not because I'm a tech whiz. I'm not. Case in point: I let go of my computer for a few hours this week (they pried it out of my hands!) so that the helpful team in our computer services department could complete some updates. When my laptop came back, the new email interface threw me off so much that you'd think they'd sent me the equivalent of the backward bike that some playful welders rigged to go left when steered right. "Little" changes in the appearance of my inbox were disrupting my workflow, suddenly making it tough for me to scan and sort my messages at the quick pace I was accustomed to. For a good 24 hours afterward, I did a lot of growling at my inbox and telling myself to buck up and learn.

So no, clearly it isn't my technical prowess that's helping me find my way more easily through this second course in blended and online teaching.

Maybe, you think, it's because I've been through these ropes before, I know (at least a little) what to anticipate and what to do, and I bring a bit more confidence to the task. That may be part of what's happening for me, but I don't think it's the most important thing. Technologies keep changing at a fast pace, so past experience only gets me so far. For example, I'm working with a different LMS this time (Canvas vs. Blackboard), and I expect that I'll learn many other newer technologies and pedagogical approaches. That's why I'm taking the course--because these things keep changing, and I need to keep learning.

...It's Because This Course Was Ready for Me
The big difference that I really feel this time is that our instructor is doing a great job of anticipating the questions, worries, and struggles we might have as people who have a lot to learn about online, blended, and web-enhanced learning and teaching. Three "little" things that I've found helpful so far:

  1. Receiving an email in advance of the course that outlined expectations and made it clear what we needed to do to get started....including how to find the virtual front door and when to show up for the start of class. In a F2F school, new students get a tour of the building and a preview of the school. Online, students need some guidance about space and time, too.
  2. Viewing the task and visual help tips in a single window. When it was time to post links to our blogs, we could see the written instructions with some screenshots on the same page where we had to do the linking. No need to toggle to another screen, read technical jargon, and then try to remember it back where we had to complete the task. And therefore, no cognitive overload for our short-term memories while we were in the thick of trying to get a new task done.
  3. Seeing new comments in the course discussions from him on a daily basis makes it clear that he is here to help. We don't have to worry that we'll "do it all wrong" for a whole week (since that covers a lot of ground in a 6-week course!) before getting some corrective help. Our instructor is obviously present and teaching!

For me, these things are making this summer course pleasant, even fun. I hope you are enjoying summer as well. Need a pick me up? Maybe some Ella Fitzgerald will help: "Summertime...." Sing along!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Making Time for Grace

What does it look like to live in grace on a college campus? As we live today, do we really have time to live as grace-filled people? What would it look like to make grace a priority in our daily schedules and agendas?

These were the questions that got us talking yesterday in a Lenten reading group that I've joined. There were nine of us there, and many of us were meeting for the first time or only knew each other by name--six students, a professor, a maintenance staff member, and me. You wouldn't think this would be the place to take up tough life questions, but we'd agreed to read The Cure together and to meet weekly to talk through the chapters, so there we were, digging right into the hard questions. 

I suppose that where we landed was a bit ironic: we got to this discussion after reading a chapter that emphasized that we don't do anything that brings us God's grace--the whole point is that he sees the brokenness, shamefulness, and shortcomings in each one of us, yet seeks us out in spite of ourselves. We fail at "being good," and yet God offers us his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his renewing and transforming power.

So what's this about "making time" to live in grace? Our discussion wasn't about trying to earn God's love. Quite the opposite. Rather, we talked about what it would look like if we were to stop wearing our masks--to stop trying to fool others into thinking that we have it all together, to freely acknowledge that we are much in need of grace. 

One of out student leaders reflected on how we rush past each other in hallways and on sidewalks, often exchanging a superficial "Hi, how ya doing?" and "Fine" even when we or our neighbors aren't fine. And that's where the question came in: what would it look like if we made time to live in grace? What would it look like if we made the time it takes to linger, to share together in our need for grace and the thanksgiving that we have for it?

Our group had a few practical ideas: maybe we would allow more time for traveling between classes, meetings, and other responsibilities--valuing sidewalk conversations enough to plan time for them into the day instead of always rushing from here to there. Instead of filling our schedules to the top, we'd allow some open spaces each day, expecting the unexpected in our relationships with others and allowing time to listen and learn together.   

Along with turning the clock forward tonight, I'll also be making some adjustments to my calendar. I  think the students had it right: living together in a community of grace works better when we intetionally allow for the time it takes to travel the road together.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Goals, Habits, and Nudges

I'm not much for New Year's resolutions, but I'm definitely a goal setter. Here we are in the last few hours of February, and I'm blogging because I want to meet the goal I set for myself to blog at least once a month....which isn't as often as I'd like, but is the start of a habit. Today started with goal-keeping, too: I logged 3.1 miles on the treadmill, just enough to get me to my goal of 52 miles for the month of February. Most days, I also complete my goal of doing at least a little leisure reading (which feels more like a gift to myself than a task!), and the Habit List app has helped me to stay accountable for the scholarly writing time that I've aimed to carve out each week.

In this shortest month of the year, it's been a challenge to keep goals. February is a busy time, and the cold weather and dark mornings can make it hard to stay energized. But I do try to stick to my goals--not because the milestones themselves are so important, but because I'm trying to develop a set of habits and practices--to go beyond doing and to work on becoming or even being a particular kind of person. Last fall, reading some of David Smith's ideas about practices got me thinking: it's not just what we produce, but who we are from day to day--all those little moments that add up. 

For me, meeting goals requires a lot of help. This blog entry? Inspired in part because I've got a great accountability partner who is a prolific writer--and who sent me an encouraging note earlier this week asking how my blogging was going. (Thanks, Troy!!) Running? If I weren't using RunKeeper to set and track monthly distance goals on my phone, I can assure you that my total distance this month would at best have been closer to 40 miles. Seeing a graph every time I log another run ("You've accomplished 78% of your goal!") and receiving motivational emails are both big helps--which still surprises me, given that this feedback is automated. How about my goal for academic writing? That one is especially challenging, so I'm glad that I have both a tracking app and the social support of a whip-smart writing group. They keep me honest about my progress (no, I may not bring that same piece back to the group for yet another round!) and they help me remember that this is something I want to do--something I'm motivated to make time for and that is worth the hard work.

It's that mix--goals that I've set personally, attention to habits, and a system that guarantees me some external nudges--that has me thinking. How might this same combination of goals, habits, and nudges help those I'm responsible for teaching and growing? 

More specifically, when I'm teaching courses or working with faculty on professional development, how might I help others to identify goals that are important to them? To establish and maintain the kinds of habits and regular practices that help them to be stewards of the time and talents entrusted to them? To take advantage of external nudges like private tracking systems (such as the Habit List app) and social networks (like accountability partners and learning groups)? 

I'm hoping you have ideas and resources to share. If you'll send them my way, I'll write about them in my next blog post. Thanks in advance for the nudge!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Good "Goodbyes"

We have a rule in my family: we don't leave angry, and we don't leave without saying goodbye. Life is too short and too full of surprises, and one way to show each other we care is to commit to "good goodbyes."

I'm blessed to work in a place where people are also quite deliberate about showing each other they care and keeping relationships in good stead. It's not so explicit as at my house, but on our campus (at least in the two office areas I've worked in) we do seem to abide by an unwritten rule that if you leave before others, you say goodbye to your neighbors and those you pass on the way out. If you are the second-to-last person out the door, you detour down the hall to wish the remaining colleague a good evening and remind them not to stay too late.

For the most part, I've taken this for granted. But yesterday was different: as sometimes happens, I got so caught up in what I was doing that I lost track of time, and the next time I looked up, it was dark--not only outdoors, but also in the halls outside my door. I wondered if I was alone. Sure enough: a quick tour confirmed that everyone else had left.

I didn't go home moping, but it did get me thinking, and it's still on my mind a day later. This is the only time in 9 years at my college that I recall leaving for the day (or being left as the last one for the day) without saying goodbye to anyone before I went. The experience twinged me with an unsettled feeling. What would it be like to experience work each day without others going out of their way to say hellos and goodbyes? Would I feel disconnected? Would I believe anyone cared? That what I did mattered? That I mattered? And what if those possibilities weren't fictional imaginings, but were the realities of people around me? What if there are people on my campus--whether faculty, staff, or students--who experience this kind of disconnectedness on a regular basis?

It's easy to get overwhelmed imagining all the lonely people. But then I think of my high school band teacher, who stood at his classroom door every morning to greet each student by name as they arrived from the buses, and did the same each afternoon to send us on our way. Those hellos and goodbyes made a difference.

My prayer this week is that we'll have the eyes to see and the hearts to notice those around us who are feeling disconnected--and that we'll take the time to reach out to them, even in ways that may seem small.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Have You Eaten?

"Mom, did you eat lunch today?" We were on the way to my daughters' piano lessons, and I was approaching the "hangry" zone--that ugly place where hunger can quickly surface as an angry or short-tempered response to something that really isn't much of a problem.

This frank, insightful question from my eldest made me laugh and reset my attitude. It also reminded me that I had a stash of dried mangoes along, so we passed those around, and between between the attitude check and the snacks, I soon found it much easier to keep my sense of humor. Good thing--because when we arrived at the piano teacher's home after 20 minutes on the road, one of the girls realized she'd forgotten her piano books, and we had to invent a different kind of piano lesson.

Staying fed has been on my mind this week.

Several of our Dordt College students, faculty, and staff returned earlier this week from AMOR trips to developing nations like Haiti and Ethiopia--places where food isn't taken for granted. Their testimonies were reminders about how much we have to be thankful for, and a reminder to keep in perspective the challenges that are sure to arise in a day's work. It can be easy to feel frustrated when things don't go as smoothly as we had hoped. But as one professor pointed out, it's a privilege when the problems we face are the glitches that arise when we do something like starting another first week of school.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not dismissing the difficulties of starting a new semester. The first weeks take a lot of energy. As we start new classes, we're working with new people on ideas that are new to some (or all) of us, trying to figure out how to find joy in doing that. We're consciously trying to get to a place where some of those interactions are easier, maybe even second nature, so that we have energy to focus on the ideas, practices, and habits of mind that we are trying to explore together. And that's just what happens inside the classroom. Behind the scenes, we also need to ensure that everything is ready, and that's complicated, too: we have many people, processes, systems, and technologies to deal with as we ensure that the books are available, the projection is working, the classroom has enough chairs, the students can log in, and so on.

But that's the point: we know that the first week (actually every week) of the semester will bring challenges both inside and outside the classroom. As Marilyn Lampert has explained, dilemmas aren't what cause problems for teachers: they're a dimension of the very fabric of teaching. Surprises and challenges are to be expected and welcomed because it means our work isn't routine and that we have daily opportunities to be creative, to solve problems, to make connections--and to do these things with grace. Think of it this way: our work as educators gives us the satisfaction of "the creative challenge and stimulation of the work itself, and the change to keep learning"--the very things that lead to a sense of reward and flow in our work (Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence, p. 106-107).

Getting  ready for each day and week of learning/teaching is like getting ready for a backcountry hiking adventure. I know that my hike up the mountain will take plenty of energy, will probably bring a few surprises, may require some creative problem solving. There may be times where I need some mental discipline to remind myself that this, and not a boring treadmill, is the kind of adventure I'm seeking.

I would never go hiking, let alone lead others up a trail, without ensuring that I had plenty of energy-rich food in my backpack. I want to make sure that I don't get exhausted--or even move into the hangry zone (which eats the joy out of the situation for me and everyone in my path!). Staying fueled, and planning and providing for how to so, are all part of the work, part of my hiking and in learning/teaching.

And that's why staying fed--physically, emotionally, spiritually--is on my mind.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Teaching Jam Sessions

"When you produce something with another person that is truly creative, it's one of the most powerful forms of bonding there is." - Stephen Covey, foreword to Crucial Conversations 

One of the most rewarding dimensions of my professional life is collaboration. I've collaborated frequently as an author (including a co-edited column on professional writing with Jonathan Bush that included a piece about teaching collaborative writing). I've also enjoyed scholarly collaborations with others beyond my campus--including a long-term teacher-research and writing partnership with Jim Fredricksen. (We share some of our thoughts on academic partnerships in Collaboration: Talk. Trust. Write, which we co-authored with several others who have their own collaborative partnerships.)

While collaboration with friends and colleagues beyond my campus has been integral to my professional life, I have rarely had the opportunity to collaborate in teaching with faculty here at Dordt College. Until this year.

Every week this summer, I had the joy of co-planning a faculty workshop with colleagues. Those of you who have led faculty workshops may be shaking your head in disbelief (joy and workshop planning in the same sentence?!), but hear me out. What contributes to the joy in these collaborations?

Productive Pressure Points

(1) Attendance at these faculty workshops is voluntary, and I've found that the voluntary attendance policy makes it relatively easy for me to convince others to collaborate with me in planning and leading the workshops--and helps us to plan better together. My colleagues accept my invitation knowing that if we plan a good session, faculty will be interested and appreciative. But we don't want to don't want to disappoint those who show up, so there's still pressure....but it's positive peer pressure. That knowledge helps us to keep focused on designing workshop sessions that are useful, smart, and engaging. The situation calls for us to bring our best game to our co-planning while also thinking deliberately about how to help others enjoy the session we are planning. Something about that goal brings out the fun in the collaborative process--and I suspect it's because we're involved together in what Donald Murray famously described as the "hard fun" of writing. We are challenged, we're "in the zone" with our thinking, and we have confidence that together we can figure out an effective and enjoyable plan of action.

(2) Each week, I invite as co-leaders a different group of 2-3 faculty who I know to have some expertise and experience in the topic for the upcoming workshop. The faculty I co-lead with are doing this on a voluntary basis as well, and because we are in this together, we become peer mentors to each other as we plan and teach together. I know that I learn from them, and I've found each of these colleagues also to be receptive to what I bring. Most of us haven't worked together before, and yet there is always synergy when people are sharing strong ideas, asking questions, and working together to design a workshop that will put us all in the spotlight. Working with teacher leaders and learning how they think is like having backstage passes to do a jam session with rockstar professors. Author Peter Bregman said it well: "Solving problems with other people is more fun than solving them alone." As he explains in his chapter "The Nintendo Wii Solution" building the fun of collaboration into our work makes us more productive and effective, because we're more likely to do the work--and do it well--when it's fun.

What About You?

Happily for me, my teaching collaborations will continue into this academic year as we keep the momentum moving forward with the Pedagogy Perspectives workshops. How about you? How often do you get to talk with peers about their best teaching ideas, where they came from, how they use them, and how they've adapted them over time? How often do you get to do this through the process of creating something together? Treat yourself:  you can create opportunities to co-teach with others--even if you only get to work together for a class period or two. Your thinking and teaching will be richer for it, and I'm betting you'll start to think creatively about other ways to collaborate, too.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Teaching with all your Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength (In memory of Dr. Bill Vande Kopple)

I don't want to write this blog. Somehow, writing makes it undeniably real: Dr. Bill Vande Kopple passed away yesterday. He was my teacher for only one short semester, but that figure doesn't do justice to the impact he had on me. He was my methods professor and the supervisor for my student teaching, but he continued to teach me long after he turned in his grades at the end of the term.

The lesson that affected me most deeply was one that he taught simply by being himself. During my years as a beginning high school teacher, Prof. Vande Kopple would occasionally drop by to see what was happening in my classroom. He didn't make appointments. Instead, when he was "in the neighborhood" and had a few extra minutes (at least that was what he claimed!), he would stop in unannounced.

This generosity with his time was an incredible gift to me, and it's one that I've thought of often since I've moved away. He was a mentor: genuinely interested in what was happening between me and my students, and after he'd watched a bit and paused to ask how things were going, he freely shared stories from his own teaching. He had a way of asking the one question that would help me see a problem for myself ("What makes that angle of analyzing the poem worth 20 minutes?"). And like a gem hunter, he saw what was worth keeping and helped me to grab and polish it. ("You see how well they work in groups? That's something! What if you turned more of the work over to them?")

I am sure that Prof. Vande Kopple made these same kinds of stops, told the same kinds of stories, and gave the same types of encouragement in classrooms of beginning teachers all around West Michigan. He loved working with new teachers. His drop-in visits were something to look forward to: they were his way of saying that he cared, that he had confidence that he'd see something worth watching, that he believed I had what it took to keep learning and keep teaching. Those visits helped to build my skills and confidence as a beginning English teacher in more ways than I can count.

Fast forward. I followed in Dr. Vande Kopple's footsteps, and for about a decade, I've had the privilege of serving as an English teacher educator. Yesterday, I met with a recent grad from our program at Dordt College. She shows a great deal of promise, and that time with her was a joy. I saw the spark catch in her eyes when I asked a question, saw the satisfaction in her smile when I named back to her a great idea shining out from her notes, heard the excitement in her voice as she thought aloud about how she might polish that idea and make it sparkle. It was a visit modeled after the conversations that Prof. Vande Kopple had with me.

Thank you, Professor Vande Kopple, for teaching with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. I'm thankful for the time you gave, for the lessons you taught, for the legacy you've left that reaches miles and generations beyond your classroom. You will be missed.