Aaron Cohn, a freshly minted Binghamton University graduate, provided some comic relief when he welcomed participants to the Institute for Student Centered Learning workshop May 21, dressed as Wayne Jones, professor of chemistry, who traditionally opens the annual workshop.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Workshop examines ‘The Joy of Teaching’Tweet
How do faculty find joy in teaching? How do students find joy in learning? The Institute for Student Centered Learning (ISCL) went to the source for its May workshop, switching roles with students − who rose to the challenge by sharing what works for them in the classroom during the first day of the day-and-a-half workshop.
While the song “Strawberry Fields Forever” played in the background, students took the nearly 50 faculty participants back to their college years. “Write down the happiest events you experienced,” said Rebecca Platsky, who had received her bachelor’s degree in accounting the day before and is continuing on at Binghamton for a master’s degree in accounting. “What made you happy? And what made you unhappy?”
After circling the things today’s students deal with that they also dealt with, participants heard that there is one difference. “That is in the way that we perceive the world,” Platsky said.
Baran Ersan, a graduate of the dual-diploma program with Turkey who is headed to a job in New York City, stepped in. “We are a different generation,” he said. “We are different in our words. Our brains work entirely different and we require constant feedback. That’s why we like social media,” he said. And that’s why, in class, “sometimes you need other measures to keep our attention.”
One way to find common ground – to bridge the attention gap – said Platsky, is through social media. If a student drifts off to Twitter during class, “you can reach them where they are” she said, by having your TAs tweet from class. “The reach is huge and you’re meeting them where they are, finding common ground,” she said. “We love constant feedback and this is a good way to communicate better, connect with each other and get those experiences we have in common.”
With that, Platsky, Ersan and several other students roamed the room, helping participants set up Twitter accounts. Within minutes, a chronicle of the workshop was projected to the entire room as participants made their first forays into the land of Twitter.
Major discussion ensued: With the diversity in ages between faculty and students, using Twitter requires a great deal of mutual respect, said one participant. You can reach students who have been out of your class for years and archive information, too, said a student.
“I’m fundamentally opposed to not having an actual dialogue,” said one professor. “But you can ask your students to follow you,” said a student. “People have to sign up to follow you, and you can make it private to those who follow you or not,” said Manar Alherech, a double major in chemistry and Arabic with an adjunct in management. “You can allow anyone to follow you, or you can approve everyone. The alternative is to say, ‘Let anyone follow me and if someone I don’t want follows me, I will silence them.’”
Student said they follow people who share great articles, people who are funny, celebrities. Some tweet about jobs, some about lives, some about funny things they see. The best classroom use one student mentioned was having to write an essay in English class based on certain things the professor had talked about in class that the TAs had tweeted. “We had to use the tweets to write the essay.”
“We’re competing against this while we’re trying to teach,” said Kim Jaussi, associate professor of management, “They’re getting hit from the outside with all this stuff, so we have to insert ourselves into that.”
Aaron Cohen, another student who had graduated the day before the workshop, said, “The takeaway is: for those of you it [Twitter] might work for, it could be an awesome tool in your toolkit. There could be creative ways to use it. Play around with it. You may find you like it, you may find you don’t.”
Following the Twitter session, Justin Pierce joined Alherech to lead another activity. Pierce earned his bachelor’s degree from the School of Management on May 20, and will pursue his master’s degree in student affairs administration at Binghamton in the fall.
Pierce and Alherech broke participants into small groups and took two minutes to introduce their “class” to their group, as if they were speaking to students on the first day of the semester. Each group then selected a “winner” to present to the entire room. Finally, participants voted for the teacher most of them would want to take a class from by poll – texting as if they were voting for the American Idol winner.
Though topics ranged from yoga to drugs and behavior to death and dying to Russian poetry, Ming An, assistant professor of chemistry, took the win. It was his reference to zombies that put him over the top.
Looking at what the presenters did well – what worked – brought a number of tactics to the fore; share something about yourself, move around the room, don’t use a monotone, prove that you’re not a zombie, know the students’ names, look them in the eye.
“One of the things that most people didn’t focus on was the syllabus, the grade, the assignment, that part of the class,” said Pierce, “because that’s going to come if the student is interested in the class and engaged and wants to be there. That will come. We love that we learn a little something right away.”
“What’s better than not starting with the syllabus is starting with the fact that you are human,” Alherech said. “Opening with a story or talking about a concert or zombies is a good way to catch a student by using your personality. This person has character, maybe I’ll go to the office hours.” And it builds from there, he said.
“Talk about what your interests are and humanize yourself to the students,” Pierce added. “”This is what I’m doing my research in and this is who I am.” We love to know who you are. Everyone has a different comfort level, but hearing a little bit and giving a little of yourself shows that you’re engaged just as much as you want your students to be and that goes a long way.”
“When you have a human connection to students, that’s when students go the extra mile and that’s what students and faculty want,” said Cohen.
Additional student-directed activities kept participants active the first day of the ISCL, with a wrap up by organizers the following morning that included a mind-mapping exercise led by Jaussi. Participants were asked to think about what brings them joy and makes them connect with students. “Give them your joy and they’ll give it back to you,” said Jaussi.
“It’s a connection you’re making. It’s not about the stuff,” said Chris Reiber, associate professor of anthropology. “Someone throws a ball and whoever catches it has to answer a question and then they throw it. So it draws them in. It’s not about incentives. It’s about drawing them in.”
Participants were then shown a video of a speech by composer Steve Karmen, given at the spring Commencement ceremony two days before when Karmen was awarded an honorary degree. His speech was personal and emotional – and made an impact.
Karmen found “common ground” by putting himself on a level with his audience (students). How can others do the same? “Do you talk about your parents?” asked Jaussi. “Use your brain power. He was passionate and he dropped all barriers and there he was − wide open” connecting what he did to students’ lives and making your material relevant to them.
For a final ISCL wrap-up, participants discussed the changing role of the professor in the classroom, the ethics of engaging students in different ways, Twitter and the value of storytelling.
“Ultimately with all the new technologies we’re faced with, some of them stick,” said Wayne Jones, professor of chemistry. “So we just have to try to keep up, move forward and save our time to be most effective in getting things across.”