Posts Tagged ‘Students’

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

One of the many benefits of a profession in education is time off in the summer. The others include the certainty that everyone needs what I can provide, and the product I deliver will perpetually increase in value.mandela

My school year concludes on July 9th. Now is the time to reflect on my year as an educator. Reflection is a central part of education, and I am happy to model a behavior I frequently urge my students to practice. Intellectual inventory can be conducted in countless ways, but I typically frame the discussion as “what’s working” and “what’s not working.” I try not to get too fancy with the daily stuff of life.

I’ll limit this reflection to the classroom. All the rest of professional life is just meetings and paperwork, both of which are necessary, but neither terribly fun. Side note: I am a proponent of the rare, trendy, and marvelous “walking meeting,” and will push for its further use next year.

I confess I’d have to look up my schedules for fall, winter, spring terms to determine exactly which classes I led in 2014-2015. I know I taught writing classes, and communications classes, and creativity classes, and literature classes, and humanities classes, and I suppose that is specific enough. In each of these courses, I was offered the opportunity to learn for and with and from my students.

As a teacher of a wide range of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, I regularly learn which texts work and which don’t. Students always enjoy reading Martin Luther King, Jr., finding his writing to be even more impressive than expected. The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton was so well received by my Creativity 230 class that I bought the book for my nephew Alexey; he starts college this fall at my alma mater, The Ohio State University. I find my students generally like poetry more than anticipated, this year’s favorites included “The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden and “The Facebook Sonnet” by Sherman Alexie. My Dystopian literature classes proved Bradbury and Vonnegut’s appeal is timeless. And we all loved a twenty-first century short story treasure (with a ridiculously long title) that I found by Eugie Foster.

Readings that didn’t work are always a surprise because I believe I’ve chosen spectacular texts. My students could not get excited by Brave New World; too slow, they lamented. The creativity text Out of Our Minds by Ken Robinson did little to engage my classes, his examples oftentimes distracting from the abstract ideas represented. I’ve already identified new books to try next year, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick and The Creative Habit by Twlya Tharp.

Besides the texts, things under the heading of “what’s not working,” included a set of assignments that I considered reasonable, but were deemed overwhelming by students. Midstream, I made changes to better serve the intentions of the class. Over a decade of teaching provided prep work for the lesson I only recently accepted: the paramount importance of flexibility; I have learned to bend.

What worked included a student’s desire to know more. When many tired students were asking for a day off, or at least a “movie day,” one student rejected the idea, observing: “She’s not going to cancel class, so we might as well learn instead of just watching a movie.” At least someone was paying attention.

Ultimately, what matters involves groundwork for what happened in the classroom. A class worth being a part of is not an ordinary occurrence. Teachers struggle to concoct a winning mix of preparation, enthusiasm, knowledge, openness, and community. My primary efforts lie in creating circumstances in which all of the above flourish. Establishing a true sense of community among the students is of paramount importance. I forge community slowly, introducing new ways to meaningfully interact. I am sometimes struck by the sense that I am just throwing a perpetual intellectual cocktail party (sans cocktails), and any omission or inclusion can spoil the occasion.

What works is when students are truly present. I remind them that their presence starts with the act of waking up, putting on clothes, and coming to class (ideally with books and other learning materials, too).

group-of-people-walking-and-texting1This effort, I assure them, ought to be respected, rather than negated by texting throughout the class. Many, many of my students would rather text or do whatever it is they do on their “machines” than attend to what is happening in class. Such is the burden of their generation. I do not envy them.


Ranger Trish?

What works is when students take ownership of their learning; then, I simply facilitate, answer simple questions, offer suggestions. Analogies illuminate every aspect of my teaching practice. One equates a teacher to a park ranger: both provide necessary information, note potential dangers, and point to a wide range of paths each individual might explore. I never tire of an awesome analogy.

Watching my students work together, talk, learn, grapple with meaning, that’s the stuff of a good day teaching, always and forever “what’s working.”

I am eager to have a term off, to read and write (as I encourage my students to do), to travel and explore, to rest and relax, to reconnect with who I am and who I long to be, to inspire myself so that in the autumn I will have energy to begin again.


By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I had a strange realization last quarter.  I was in my American History course, and I just mentioned in passing, apropos of nothing, that people get far too outraged at young men wearing baggy, low hanging pants.  To my surprise, my teenager/twenty-something students started to complain about the droopy trouser fashion in the gallery_1_1_11337 (1)exact same language as most octogenarians. I think some may have even muttered something about ‘kids these days’. I felt as though I was surrounded by cooler, younger Abe Simpsons, waving their fists at passing clouds.

I wouldn’t say this was the first time I have noticed this unexpected phenomenon.  I have heard students before speak of loose-fitting slacks in negative terms.  But, as I looked around the room this time, realizing the ethnic and racial diversity of a 40 person class at Robert Morris University, I was struck at the different characters reviling the fashion in a similar….well….fashion.  White, African-American, Latino, Asian, young, old, male, female; a small majority of the class had the same negative opinion when it came to baggy pants.

My mind started to wander.  As I checked in on social media in the days and weeks after this particular course last quarter, I saw a handful of memes posted by extremely different Facebook ‘friends’ that were supposed to be funny, but obviously masked a severe outrage and hatred concerning young men’s pants.  Again, the strangely divergent backgrounds of the people posting about an innocuous fashion trend struck me.  Old and young; white and black; urban and rural; educated and not-all-that-educated; men and women; northerner and southerner; liberal and conservative; religious and secular.  They all agreed on a topic.

It hit me! The outrage about baggy pants is pluralistically democratic.  I can’t think of any other social topic that a broader range of divergent people agree upon.

Ironically, I think this outrage is backfiring.  If these people want to get rid of the baggy pant look, they may be more advised to start practicing it themselves.   Most other youth fads, whether it be music, movies, language, or fashion, lose their revolutionary chops when less rebellious populations co-opt them.  As soon as mom and dad start to listen to rock and roll, rock and roll is dead. Along comes punk, and mom and dad are outraged. Long live rock and roll.

The baggy pant fashion has never been co-opted by mainstream society, and it probably never will. Perhaps this is why the baggy pant look is a freakishly long youth fashion trend.  The best I can figure, the look began around 20 years ago, gaining its first full-throated pop culture critique from Alicia Silverstone’s character in the film ‘Clueless’.  See this clip:

Such long lasting outrage raises two big question.  First, what upsets people so much about this fashion choice?  Is it the ‘sloppiness’ of the look, as Alicia Silverstone points out in that clip?  Or, is there something more sinister?  Is racial bias tied up in the disdain as well?

I am going to avoid this query, since I think each person who hates baggy pants has their own reason, and to pigeonhole anyone‘s particular feelings is unfair.

The second question is more intriguing, and, I believe, more important.  Why are people so outraged with another’s pants, all the while ignoring much more outrageous social ills? I will take up that troubling question in next week’s blog post.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.

I’ve taught thousands of students over my fifteen years of teaching. I’ve forgotten nearly all of their names. If they remember my name, I’d be surprised. I’d rather them remember something I taught them, though I prefer the verb “share” to describe what happens in the classroom because share is the most accurate verb for what teaching encompasses. Teachers share their passion, their intensity, their curiosity, their perspective, and their (frequently groan-worthy) jokes. Teaching is the act of sharing ideas—a wonderfully generous act, and teachers devote their lives to it. Teachers share facts, information, and, ideally, knowledge. How magnificent that ideas are not depleted but expanded through the act of sharing. Ideas are meant to be taken and shared, like bread passed along and across an endless table filled with teachers and learners.

I think about the countless ideas shared with me over the years by my patient, brilliant teachers, my talented, supportive colleagues, and my engaged, enthusiastic students. One of the most fantastic aspects of my teaching career is Teach-New-Conceptsthe time spent with students. What a fantastic way to spend the day, surrounded by unique individuals who challenge and surprise and delight me every day. My students push me to explain myself more clearly, to think from a different perspective; my students bring new, unexpected ideas and experiences to the classroom. My students regularly make me laugh. My students are generous, and I gain an immense amount through knowing them. I elicit book, film, and music recommendations.  Some students have offered even more amazing treasures. An eager student in my literature class created compilation CD’s to accompany his essays on Kafka and Existentialism. One student was inspired by my poetry lessons and wrote a sonnet (a sonnet!). Since college terms move quickly (especially at RMU), the years and students cycle by me at an alarming rate. I will encounter students and assume a year has passed, only to learn they have already finished graduate school. Some things that my students have shared with me in the past have become a part of my courses. One remarkable idea—a gift from a student whose name I have forgotten—continues to inform my teaching and learning: “Progress is success.”

I’m lucky to be a teacher, happy to be a teacher. One of my favorite “games” to play when I was young was “school.” My older sister Theresa pretended to be the teacher while I was the diligent student, listening attentively, working hard. Was that nature or nurture at play? In any case, I have spent the majority of my life happily learning, reading, and writing. I talk to my students about the necessity of investing in themselves. When teachers do all the things that make teaching—that is, sharing ideas—possible, we are investing in the education process. I believe in education as a means of individual and, consequentially, social empowerment.

There is nothing better than a good day teaching. A good day teaching is wildly exhilarating; it is a ride on a luck dragon

“A good day teaching” is about one thing: connectivity. I am overly fond of quotes, especially the simple, beautiful command from E. M. Foster to “only connect.”  A good day teaching is about confluence and culmination and ultimately an arrival at a point of connection between ideas and people that results in insight. This moment of insight sparks a remarkable phenomenon: the student’s face will actually, noticeably light up (and what a lovely light).

“We do not remember days, we remember moments,” says Italian writer Cesare Pavese.  And so it is that “a good day teaching” consists merely of moments. A good day at school has been captured in many inspiring films. I’ve cried watching every one of those films which elevate the classroom experience, but the subtle accomplishments in the excellent documentary The Class reveal a more perfect truth. Extraordinary moments of learning are fleeting, like the sighting of a rare a astonishing bird. In reality, “a good day teaching” entails, perhaps, one brief hour on the luck dragon, the other seven hours  (or more) are spent preparing course materials, reading ancillary documents, researching curriculum, grading assignments, updating course materials, attending meetings, holding office hours, and other necessary aspects of education.  This does not mean that all the other aspects of teaching are drudgery. They are the things that must be done in order to get a ticket for a brief, yet glorious ride.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.

I’m incredibly lucky to have all that I do. My life is full of tremendous things, and getting to earn a living doing something I love is near the tippity-top of the list.

My good fortune was made particularly relevant in class this week. The text for this week’s class was excerpts from The Manifesto of the Communist Party, by Marx and Engels. Naturally, we spent a lot of class time discussing socio-economic class, money, and spending. My students enjoy class discussion; here’s a chance to talk about real things, and try to make sense of them. From my perspective, the most significant moment of our conversation this week occurred when I told them that I truly believe that having more money would not make my life happier.

Fascinating data provides evidence that, after achieving a set point of “comfort,” enough income to live safely and comfortably, more money does not increase happiness. Look to the work of Dr. Martin Seligman and his fellow psychology professors for the astounding intricacies. In fact, theorists have moved away from using the term “happiness” in their research because it is too often conflated with pleasure (what feels good). Understanding the attributes of a fulfilling life is complicated, but investigating and promoting “well-being” seems to be more productive.

My poor students: this might have been the first time they’d questioned the promise of more money. Imagine the questions that erupted! I had to explain a lot quite quickly. I assured them that I am not foolish enough to suggest that money is irrelevant, or that I remain angelically above the temptations of commerce. Nevertheless, the revelation isn’t about me. It’s about the perception that more money will mean more happiness. Not some money, more. Always more. Happier with more. The endless futility of this logic should be obvious, but many of my students remained unconvinced.

Interesting what a “tough sell” (pun intended) this is to my bright, inquisitive, ambitious college students. And why shouldn’t it be so? How many times they are encouraged to go to college to “make more money”? College is bought and sold like a product, and nearly every other aspect of daily life is packaged as a commodity. When told that college is an “investment,” they all “buy it.” I’m not the first person to point out that metaphors matter. If we continue to frame life in economic terms, we will be eternally disappointed. The repercussions are far beyond the scope of this diatribe, but consider how infrequently students are asked to question the capitalistic motivations in their lives. Living an enriching life is not about more money. Students need to know that how they choose to spend their time and apply their talents, in college and beyond, should be not be motivated by the desire to have more, but the determination to be more.

by Jenny Jocks Stelzer, English Faculty & Chair of the Sustainability Council

“Education should reflect the world we live in.” Who said that? Some famous educator? A successful business person? Oh, it obviously comes from the back wall in Room 303, right?

Nope. It was said by my student, Kayla Moore.

This quarter, I’m doing something new. Not because I, as a professional educator, thought of something new to do with all of my “education” or “experience.” Not because I read about it in a pedagogical periodical or went to a brown bag workshop or webinar. I’m doing something new because my student, Kayla Moore, approached me and said. “I have a lot of thoughts and ideas about education. It must be changed and I think I know how to do it!” Now, as the “professor” in this situation, my professionally acceptable responses would be as follows:

(1) “Well, focus on graduating first. Answer all of the questions, write all of the papers, and take all of the tests, then we’ll talk.” [Subtext: “Think the way I want you to first. Then, and only then, should you start thinking differently.”]

(2) “Change education? You need to be formally educated to understand what needs to change in education!” [Subtext: “Join us here in ‘the system.’ You’ll see.”]

(3) “That’s nice, dear.” [Subtext: “That’s nice, dear.”]

I’m a professor, right? I’m supposed to be doing the educating. I’m supposed to have the answers. I’m supposed to teach my students how to, when to, and what to think, right? Before you quickly (and smugly) claim “I don’t teach them what to think! I teach them critical thinking!” (as I did), consider these ideas, that I’ve been lucky enough to explore with Kayla in our independent study this quarter:

We’ve explored different “landscapes” for education, instead of the classroom.

We’ve explored teaching students to think of terms in the unexpected, instead of anticipating “what’s on the test”.

We’ve explored embracing social media and welcoming it in the classroom, instead of forcing students into a “phone-free” zone.

We’ve explored technology in a way that pushes education forward, letting it evolve into something beyond software that prevents “cheating” and facilitates “course management.”

We’ve explored changing the focus of education from “They need to get these ‘fundamentals’ down,” to “They need to learn how to innovate and develop new ‘fundamentals’ themselves.”

We’ve explored switching up the teacher-student relationship, and that is exactly what happened for me with this experience. I’ve learned that I don’t have all of the answers, or the best career advice, or the right opinion to hold. I’ve learned that there are innovative ways to get students engaged (like microblogging! Yes, Tweeting, in class!). I’ve learned that there are different ways for me to share the awesome stuff that I learn with my students (by interacting with them through social bookmarking, like we are peers who respect each other or something. Imagine that!)

I, a “professional educator,” have learned more about educating from my weekly discussions with Kayla than I have from most of my 11 years of experience because, for once, I relinquished the control.  I didn’t set up “objectives” or “learning outcomes” or “assignments” or “tests” for this independent study. I invited my colleagues to join in our conversation and (gasp) learn from Kayla’s insights as well (Thanks, Paul Gaszak, Gerry Dedera, and Tricia Lunt!). Instead of “teaching” her, I let Kayla’s ideas guide us, and she will be ending this quarter with an active blog on innovative thinking, a video that communicates her blog and draws the world to her ideas, a thesis that is evolving as we speak, focused on changing the educational system to help students become innovative and creative thinkers, on using what she calls “Academic Networking” to get students to learn in ways that mimic the world they have embraced and live in, and a formal plan and proposal for educators, to help us decide that, even though we are the “professionals,” it is time for US to get inspired: to let our students lead the way.