Borrow these ideas

Borrow these ideas

There is a lot of brilliance to read right now about teaching for the coming year. So much, in fact, that it can be hard to wade through. We’re all working to figure out how to shift our modes of delivery to include far more asynchronous and online content than we normally have and, hopefully, far less panic than we had during the sudden pivot this spring. And we’re all talking about what we’re thinking. And it is a lot.

Here, then, is a different model: instead of anything expository, it’s a laundry list of great ideas, briefly told, compiled from the collective wisdom of a recent two-week Critical Digital Pedagogy workshop. (The workshop was terrifically organized by the Macalester postdoc in Digital Liberal Arts, Aisling Quigley; reading list and prompts are here, if you have bandwidth for reading things longer than a tweet). It turns out, if you ask twenty academics from across nearly as many disciplines to talk to each other for fifteen hours about teaching, especially when prompted with a lot of thought-provoking reading, they will come up with many great ideas. Realizing how excited we were to adopt each other’s ingenious solutions, we started keeping a list of our favorites. And here they are, loosely organized into clusters that focus on key issues members of our group raised over and over again. Borrow away!

Building Community while Social Distancing or Remote Teaching

Walking office hours: use the outdoor track while the weather’s nice and have office hours conversations while walking laps: lane-lines make distancing easy.

In a class that read a road novel, they built a map of each city, and each student had to contribute one piece to the map of the whole. This could also work as a community building effort: students could write about themselves or someplace they’ve been, and contribute to a map of the class, regardless of where they are.

For remote teaching, start class in breakout rooms. Students have a few minutes to talk to each other casually, just as they would in the pre-class gathering time in person, and it helps them get to know each other. This could just be socializing early on, or could include questions about the day’s work.

Halfway through small-group work, redistribute students into new groups with directions to amplify/complicate initial conclusions.

Have students write the check-in questions to ask of each other at the start of class.

Zoom (subscription version) has a polling feature (you have to enable it online first). You can add multiple choice questions in advance for any recurring meeting and just “play” them when it’s the right time in class. These can be fun check-in questions like “do you have a pet?” or content based ones to check comprehension. Poll results show up in real time.

Teaching Remotely, When You Often Depend on Material Objects

My students normally build and compare data sets early in the term, using body measurements we take in class (arm span, foot length, neck circumference, etc.). I might ask students to measure family members or others with whom they’re living to create interesting, new data. We could do something interesting comparing things like how tall are same age siblings.

Consider the value of the tactile versus value of everyone looking at the same thing. Might it be possible to decouple that? Examples (from soil science, anthropology, literature, and data science professors):

  • Collecting a soil sample with your own spoon versus seeing one core sample all together. All of us getting our hands dirty has different, but possibly equally useful, value.
  • Even if they cannot hold the artifacts I normally bring to class, perhaps I could talk about the ancient tools I have, and they could consider tools they have in their own homes for a comparison.
  • Even without a scale, students can use cup measures and common substances like water to get a sense of the weight of artifacts they cannot hold: what are the relative benefits or disadvantages of tools that weigh as much as two gallons of water, for example?
  • Use a game of 20 Questions to enable students to investigate unfamiliar objects from afar. You demonstrate an object, students take turns asking you to do something with it or describe something about it. “What happens if you tap on it there?” or “Can we zoom in on that spot?”
  • We might use or many other PDF sites to have everyone examine page images of older texts, or do a study of a single periodical and its contents and draw some conclusions about readership.
  • For estimation activities, I have done things like come into class with a ping pong ball and ask students to estimate how many ping pong balls would fit in our classroom. To do this remotely, they might just need a little bit more information: maybe I say how tall I am and hold up a ping pong ball. They can develop their own units of measure.

Writing/Alternative Assignments

Have the students write weekly 1-2pp reflection papers, turn one of those into a 5pp midterm, then turn that into a longer final paper. Especially good for scaffolding in an accelerated period of time if your campus has shifted to a block plan.

Turn a writing project into a class museum exhibit or cabinet of curiosities. Both can be done virtually.

Think/pair/share activities can happen with Poll Anywhere Word Clouds, if you want to focus on key words and phrases.

There’s a great project called “Dear Data.” People sent postcards with hand-drawn data visualizations on them. Students in subjects like data science sometimes can get stuck in the code instead of thinking why we are doing it. I could ask “what’s interesting to you personally?” and then have them collect data and represent it by hand.

Ask students to write about what an article, the first chapter of a novel, a recipe, an economic theory, or anything else they are reading assumes they already know.

In classes focused on specific historical periods, consider relying on food for pedagogy: have students do recipe research, make meal plans, research ingredient costs, even cook. They can video short cooking demos, or work in teams (those with kitchens cook, those without do recipe research, coaching, etc) to produce some final dish.

Socially-Distanced Classes

Teach outdoors. Distanced on the campus green, or even a walking class session if there’s the slightest excuse for that to be related to course content. (The latter has limitations in terms of accessibility, but if your whole class is ambulatory, the idea of walking, talking, thinking while outdoors is very appealing.)

Arrange distanced clusters of students around the edges of the room, or by each whiteboard (or oversized post-it pad) and have just one serve as scribe to make the group’s ideas visible to the whole class.

Have students draw the set for a play or the opening scene/setting of a novel, using the collective white-board in zoom, a box of crayons (each person gets one & takes turns on large paper on the wall), or working in groups to plan and having just one member be scribe on the whiteboard.

Issue invitations for guest speakers via zoom:

  • a museum’s outreach team, a curator, or a docent could talk about some aspects of the collection you would normally go visit on a field trip;
  • people whose work you assign, particularly if they’re not super famous or are early in their careers, might appreciate an invited appearance (offer honoraria if your department budget permits; if not, consider approaching someone for a visit trade or some other in-kind offer.)

To help students collaborate and understand a journal article, break them into small groups and ask each group to write two key points to add to the whole-class white-board on the board.

In lieu of long, synchronous discussion in class about difficult reading material, try:

  • Half-Synchronous discussion: give different small groups each a part of the reading on which to make notes, ask questions, create syntheses, etc. Swap notes across groups, or use google docs, so that each group also responds to the notes and queries of one other group.
  • Flexible Synchronous: Assign students to working groups based on their own schedule and availability. Give each group different questions about the reading to work through, and ask them to make notes in a shared document.
  • Wholly Asynchronous: post a question in a Q&A style forum, where students have to post some kind of response before they can see anyone else’s. Have a follow-up assignment where they have to read through the threads and each come up with one synthesis statement that draws together two or more observations made by others, and post that to a shared google doc.

Ideas for Language Classes

Have students create a short video (nothing fancy, just record on phone) in the target language describing the space in which they are working.

“Mondays with Mom” – a faculty member’s mother, in quarantine in Spain, came to Spanish class once a week (over zoom) to talk with the students: genuine conversation, relationship development, intergenerational & international perspectives.

Rethinking Student Participation

Have students teach. Not “give a presentation.” Put them in charge of a specific topic for the day, and have them give a 10-15 minute lecture and take questions.

Embrace quiet time as thinking time.

Model the inclusion of divergent perspectives. Examples:

  • In a class on environmental policy, have students look at both corporate websites and the work of indigenous communities to consider different interactions with the same law.
  • In a class on soil science, highlight the implicit Western bias in how we think about soil. Although every civilization interacts with soil to produce food, the way it comes up in readily-accessible materials is “how does the USDA or UN do it?”

Assign roles in small groups: synthesizer, skeptic, note-taker, reporter. This is particularly helpful if you have some remote students and some in-person ones, as the remote student could have the role of skeptic or synthesizer and produce starting points for conversation that might happen in class (which they might miss), and the note-takers will then have produced notes that those who miss the synchronous discussion can use.

~ * ~

The above list of ideas comes from just one session with one group of faculty, though admittedly, it was a group that had been working together for more than a week and had been spending a lot of time working towards creative solutions to our common problems. We’d spent the first half of the session working in small groups (zoom breakout rooms) to trouble-shoot specific questions, issues or assignments. When we came back to share with the whole group, the rule was that you had to share someone else’s idea that you thought was so good, you wanted to adopt it.

I highly recommend this strategy, and will be using it in my classes when we shift from small groups to whole-class conversations. People can sometimes be long-winded when explaining their own ideas, but tend to be both concise and precise when talking about what other people said that made a real impression on them. When teaching remotely, “I admired Jane’s idea…” has the added community-building effect of people publicly calling out each other for praise. And building and retaining community in these difficult times is going to be a key component of any good teaching come fall.

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