Teaching is a practice, not a perfect. This is a lesson that nearly all of us are currently working through, as near-universal campus shutdowns mid-semester pushed everyone suddenly and completely out of the classrooms we knew and into emergency remote teaching. Spring semester for many has been some hybrid of emergency and intention, a steep learning curve managing curricular expectations with the fallout of a near-total economic shutdown, waves of illness and displacement, the collapse of our support systems for everything from personal care to child care.
I don’t know about you, but as empowered and fortunate as I am in my life, my personal resilience has been sorely challenged by our Current Situation. It’s hard to transform my teaching when I can hardly manage to answer an email some days–and many of my students are in the same boat, that’s got a leak, and their bailing bucket is a thimble. I have to find a way to make it work, flexibly and compassionately and nimbly.
A discussion of resilient pedagogy is flowering online this week, like some kind of strawberry plant whose dormant rhizomes invisible under the soil all spouted up into the light at once, distinct and individual but still connected.
I think I might be a strawberry plant, too–I recognize in some of the blind underground grasping I’ve been doing to transform my own teaching over the past several years might in fact be part of a larger, coherent set of practices we could collect under the resilient pedagogy umbrella. Spurred by my own mid-career ADHD and ASD diagnoses into a re-evaluation of my work practices and beliefs, and a growing attention to the necessity of a teaching praxis rooted in universal design–a teaching focused on a much broader kind of accessibility and inclusion for all rather than accommodations for individuals–I have been rebuilding my courses from the ground up. And it turns out that I have been building resilient courses.
There are some things I’ve never been good at: answering a bunch of specific emails; writing lectures; getting everything completely arranged in advance; having “lecture notes” to share with students; tracking daily details; remembering thing; managing my out-of-class time to produce things for class. There are some things I’ve always been very good at: lively in-class interactive activities; responding to current events in real time and producing lesson plans incredibly quickly; motivating students. And so, I started rearranging my teaching to mitigate my weaknesses and play to my strengths. At the same time, this offered a lot more flexibility and utility to students. Then I won a big fellowship that necessitated a lot of mid-semester travel, which reduced my ability to be physically present, often. And then my mom’s terminal cancer entered its end stages, which greatly impacted my emotional and cognitive availability, and also sometimes required trips with no notice.
What I came to, in the most general sense, was that the goal of my relationship with students was to empower them to become literate in a given domain of knowledge so that they could eventually direct their own learning, as curious critical thinkers. It struck me that creating a new course and then teaching it was the main way that I learn new material: I decided that course prep is probably the highest value learning activity of a given course, and that I would stop hogging it to myself and start downloading it onto students. So I would have way less prep to, could be a lot more available for interactions, and would empower students to come into their own critical literacy. As it turns out, I turned a highly bottlenecked and teacher-dependent classroom into a mesh network of massive parallel processing where the burdens of teaching and learning were distributed much more diffusely across participants, across the span of the semester, and across modalities. I built resilient teaching.
Here are some things that I do, that give a lot more flexibility for everyone to do their best and learn the most, even when disaster or absence or illness might knock one or some or all of us of course, more or less severely. Forthwith, one post on each topic, because I HAVE A LOT TO SAY ABOUT THIS STUFF.
- Stable, semester long groups
- Collaborative class notes
- One-page reading summaries
- Short assignments, different modalities
- Short assignments, not sequence
- Flipped classroom: pedagogy of gentle provocation
- Meta-cognitive classroom: teaching the teaching
Today I’ll write about the stable, semester long groups
At the beginning of the semester, I put students in groups of 3-5 people, depending on the class size, so that I wind up with 5-8 groups of students. These groups are stable over the term. They are crucial to everything that follows. Groups chunk grading; groups become a small network of accountability and support for students in them; if one member of a group cannot participate in a given activity, others can cover; groups allow students to focus on their own strengths as they negotiate roles with group members; groups help shy students feel safe in discussions because they’re smaller than The Entire Class; groups make learning social and peer-driven; groups are easier in all ways for me to manage than atomized students.
This is where it gets exciting, though: the kinds of work I assign to groups. Yes! It brings out my strengths and theirs, covers my weaknesses and theirs, and is both decentralized, redundant, and robust. WINNING!
I’m bad at planning detailed lessons in advance, but I’m good at producing frameworks. At the beginning of the term, the main topic and readings of each week are laid out. I teach social media, so that means I assign the scholarly readings for the whole term in advance, but explicitly leave space for me to chuck in all the primary texts week by week, based on What The Hell Is Happening On The Internet Today. I am also good at producing lesson structures. I know that each week in my selfies class, for example, each of the secondary readings will need a one page summary (produced by a group), each topic will need some relevant primary texts (found and shared by a group), each class meeting will require a detailed set of lecture notes (captured, organized, and edited by a group). Each group rotates through each activity at least twice, and the dates are set on day 1, so they can all mark them in their planners. And then we spend half a class discussing how they might organize and apportion the work, how they can publish their documents to the course CMS in the proper lesson, and how they can get help from me.
For example, group 1 might have four students in it. In week 2, they might be taking class notes. In week 3, they might produce a structured one-page summary of a critical reading. In week 7, they might be responsible to find three examples of Instagram influencers who suffered backlash over undisclosed #sponcon. At the end of the term, each group member reports on their own participation and role in the group, and assesses their group mates.
We explicitly learn how to work in groups, how to assess the strengths and challenges of each group member, and how to negotiate communication modalities, communication styles, work flow, and roles. We discuss how to accommodate one another and how to build each other up into a group that is greater than the sum of its parts. We discuss the power of both diversity and inclusion in group work, how many hands make light work but many brains make better ideas.
I am always going to do this forever. First of all, these are writing assignments that have actual real world value: these documents the groups produce are useful to and used by everyone in the class, including me. The materials they produce are embedded in the actual content pages of the CMS, not dropped into the black hole of a dropbox to be read and graded by me. This is living writing. Second, this has greatly increased the course accessibility, for all of us, because it reduces the responsibility of any given individual to need to perform in any class, and spreads the work around. Thirdly, it means any or many of us can flame out of any given day, lesson, or assignment, and the course rolls on, fully functional, even if, as happened this winter, the instructor leaves the class for six weeks, mid-semester, on a short-term disability leave.
How? Well, tune in for my next post, on the collaborative class notes assignment that groups complete.