Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lighten up already!

As I was saying on Monday, one of my goals for 2012 is to take things less seriously, especially in the classroom. The thing is, disposition is a tough nut to crack, and requires a lot of introspection that sometimes I'm not really good at. I mean, I've been trained as a critical thinker by some of the best - that's what a Ph.D. from a leading program at an R1 university should get you. So, I can train an analytical eye on movies, on political discourse, on pedagogical practices and take them apart six ways to Sunday. But, my own actions and their underlying motivations, especially their emotional impulses - that's a much more slippery target.

And yet, it's an area that needs focus and improvement. I'm a good teacher for a number of reasons: I'm organized, knowledgeable, enthusiastic and rigorous. I ask a lot of my students, but nothing that I don't believe that they can't achieve and nothing for which I don't provide structure and support. But a side effect of this seems to be that I can come off as abrasive, even aggressive. One of my student evaluations from last semester nails it:
The only thing I would change about Dr. McLaughlin's course is that he could have a little more relaxed environment in his classroom. It can be very stressful to have a professor with such high expectations sometimes and I have discussed with other students of his that it causes some people to not speak up for fear that they will answer incorrectly
There's a fine line between apprehension and effective learning. I do want my students to think about what they say, but I don't want them gagged by fear. This is counter-productive: it limits what students are putting in to the course and what they can, as a group, get out of it.

So, how can I go about creating a "more relaxed environment" in the classroom? Honestly, this runs counter to nearly every instinct I have as an instructor. Class-time doesn't have to be all work and all seriousness all the time, but it should be focused, structured, productive and include attention to the task at hand with appropriate feedback.

Ah... there's the kicker, isn't it? Sometimes, a light touch is the best way to go. So, here are some things that I'm going to try out and focus on this semester:

This past Monday morning, on the very first day of class, before the session had even begun, I had a student shyly approach me with an old edition of the textbook.
She started: "Is this -"
"Nope," I cut her off.
Whoa. Teacher fail. Imagine that being the very thing you hear from your professor? Ouf. I tried to back-pedal quickly, highlighting the improvements of the new edition, but the damage was done. I need to avoid doing these kinds of abrupt, insensitive interactions. It's not that these happen often, but acutely negative moments like this stick in a person's mind much more than a hundred gentle smiles.

So, the moral of this story is: take a moment; smile; consider where the student is coming from, not just what I want them to accomplish or how I want them to go about doing it.

To make up for that gaffe, alas not with the same class, but karma-wise, at least, I had an effective humorous moment on Monday, too. I was presenting the textbook; pointing out how well it's organized and how it presents its information (that is, grammar, vocabulary, etc.; some pretty dry stuff on its own) in an engaging and often visually-stimulating way. "It reminds me of a kid's book," I said, off the cuff, and then proceeded to read to the class in my best Kindergarten Teacher Voice:
Make sure to learn the correct article with each faire expression that calls for one. For faire expressions requiring a partitive article or indefinite article, the article is replaced with de when the expression is negated.
Silly, but effective. The students learned how to best do their homework, prepare for class and interact with their textbook and I earned some kudos for poking fun at my own textbook.

Games Without Consequence
I often play games, including Jeopardy! for unit reviews, Pictionary for vocabulary lessons, and even Taboo! But I attach some sort of consequence; usually, this is extra credit for an upcoming assessment or assignment. My thinking behind this is that the score is a motivator; their performance is more pertinent to their course experience.

However, an unintended - but no less important - consequence is that even fun things become stressful. It's time to play just for the sake of playing. It's okay to let your hair down and kick about every now and then. Why not? It's just a French class. (Nevermind that just participating in the game helps them learn, and having fun improves their disposition towards the course...)

Don't Take it Personally
This is perhaps the thing at the heart of my problem. I internalize a lot of my coursework; it's really an extension of myself. I put my ego out there every day. So, when students fail to reach my expectations, when they are unprepared or just having a blank moment - I feel like I've failed. Yup, I have failed. This is frustrating, and sometimes I take this frustration out on them. This is doubly bad, because not only are they embarrassed for not knowing the answer in front of God and everybody, but here I am chastising them for it in front of God and everybody.

It's okay to fail. I want my students to fail every now and then; failures and problems are the beginning of learning. But I have to let them know that during class-time, I'll be there to catch them, to laugh it off with a joke and to help them find a way to succeed.

So, here's to a semester of having more fun and letting the serious business of second language acquisition in a university environment become a little less so. Let's start with this:

1 comment:

rlopez said...

One thing that I've had professors do in the past, and something I used in my classes is picking fun at yourself. Tell students funny stories about mistakes you made when you were first learning. Make words up sometimes in class if you can't think of a more appropriate word, or intentionally make obvious mistakes for the students to catch and laugh about. These techniques won't undermine your authority on the subject, but it will make you more personable, inject extra humor into the lesson without taking time away from instruction, and, if used properly can actually help create connections between personal experiences and some of the more complex structures they will be introduced to.

Having had you as a professor the only comment I can make is that yes, it is sometimes hard to work up the nerve to speak in class *knowing* that I don't know how to say exactly what I want to say and that you're going to correct me.

You are very confident, clear with expectations, and always conduct yourself very proper. Giving your students glimpses of the more relaxed teacher I know you can be can go a long way in creating a more relaxed classroom environment without restructuring your management style and telling stories about how you struggled with learning the language will send a clear message to students that yes, you set your expectations high, but you know just how challenging this can be, it's ok for them to make mistakes, and that the language isn't just magically easier for some people than others.