Learning from colleagues, making changes to my class

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Changes

This semester, as has been the case with other semesters gone by, I have made some changes to my conversation class.

A lot of these ideas come thanks to observing my colleagues teach…which if you have not done in your own school you should do RIGHT NOW even though you don’t feel like you have the time to do so.  I learned so much just sitting in the room and watching the interactions between teacher and student, how the room was set up…everything.  I even went to classes other than language classes where I didn’t know anything about the topic but learned tons about how to structure the class, engage the students, and above all: keep a sense a humor about all of it!

One simple thing I have added to the class is something that not only helps me but helps the students: writing a brief schedule of what will be covered in class on the board. Some people add time allocations (5 minutes for this activity, 10 minutes for that one, whatever) but I have found that makes me really anxious. But knowing what we will cover over the next 50 or 75 minutes prevents the regrettable last minute  (and in hurried English) “oh hey I forgot to tell you all…..”  So instead I have on the board a short list that says: Ice Breakers/ Radio Ambulante/ WOBC (our radio station where we have a radio show once a week)/ Projects/ etc… simple but helpful..and we stay on track.

My colleague Brian in Music Theory shared with me something he learned from his high school math teacher… that the last 1/3 of the class should not be a time to introduce new knowledge or information. Basically, if we all did our jobs (both teachers and students) during the first 2/3 of the class, our brains would be full and we really couldn’t take in anything more. But we can review, reflect, and circle back… the last 1/3 of the class is perfect for that.

I am fully aware that my class is one of 4 that a student has, and probably the only one in a second language.  I know they come to me directly from other classes, from weightlifting or sports team early training sessions, and yes sometimes right from bed. I have about a 10 minute head start on them in terms of thinking and practicing in Spanish, but I can’t always expect that they do.  The solution: ice breaker activities or what my class calls rompehielos.

I have started a list of activities, games, etc  I have done here and I will add to it as I go along.  If you have some icebreakers that have worked for you please add them in the comments section below.

I don’t take attendance. It takes time and my students want to get going as do I.  What I do instead is keep each student’s name on a file card and before they come to class I arrange the seating (and usually the tables if I have time) so they find themselves with new people and in a different seat each class.  Card left over = absent student.  Curiously, I have had 100% attendance every day.

This might sound bizarre to those of you that know me and my antipathy for course management systems: I am using Blackboard this semester.  I am not using it for grading or testing or anything fancy.  I am using it for what it is good at: sending out information (announcements, syllabi, links) and retrieving information (recordings to be graded and not shared with others).  I still use Google Docs for everything else and any time I want to be sure that the materials can be created and shared with the entire class (for example, recordings created for our weekly radio show). Bb is still clunky as all get out but again, I am one of 4 classes they take.  If they are used to getting their info via Bb for the other three classes then sure, I can plunk mine in there as well.  Bb is and always will be a very expensive electronic file cabinet and that is how I am using it.

We are coming into the midterm season, and I have asked my students to do a brief and informal midterm evaluation of the class.  It was super helpful (although I will admit that I was terrified to read them…I always am).  I gave them 4 questions:

  • What should we do more of in this class?
  • What should we do less of?
  • What can the teacher do more of to help your learning?
  • What can your classmates do?

With that info I have begun planning the second half of the term.  They want to be more involved and more vocal in class so I will find ways to make sure that happens.

So far so good.  I’ll keep you updated!

And please share any thoughts or renovations you have done to your classes this term in the comments section below!

Featured image: by “The Gummy Bears Now Change Colors!,” Braden Kowitz CC by-NC-SA 2.0

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Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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