Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Burning my lesson plans

Apart from the grading, my semester is now over. It was a reasonably good one, but I'm left feeling vaguely disgruntled. This is my tenth year of full-time college teaching, and my ninth at RU. I'm not tired of my classes--I have enough opportunity to design new ones and find the old ones consistently interesting--but I think I'm tired of my teaching.

Most teachers have their go-to teaching strategies. Maybe you're the kind of person who has students work in groups, analyzing particular passages or concepts and then comparing and debating their findings. Maybe you have students free-write for five minutes at the start of class and then build discussion from there. Maybe you do a lot of collective close-reading. Maybe you draw elaborate charts on the board. Maybe you begin every class with a student presentation.

I've done almost all of those things, at one point or another, but there are some techniques that just feel right--for me, for the subject matter, for the size and level of the class--and that I rely on more heavily than others. Sometimes, at the end of a semester, I realize that 80% of my class meetings for a given course had roughly the same format. Sometimes my students even comment on it.

And I've found myself wondering: why do I teach the way I teach? Partly it's that Strategy X feels right and produces the kinds of results I value, but some of it is that I've gotten in the habit of teaching certain texts certain ways. Over the past decade I've hammered out sturdy, reliable lesson plans for the works I teach semester in and semester out. Sure, I adapt them when I'm teaching at different levels, but the methods are mostly the same. If I did group work on this part of a text in the past, then I do it the next time. If I did a collective brainstorming-and-mapping-out-major-ideas-on-the-board, then I do that again. If I usually work with scenes A, C, and F, then those are the one I focus on the next time I teach the play.

It makes sense to stick with what's worked in the past; it's hard-won knowledge, for one thing, and there aren't enough hours in the week to reinvent the wheel. Still, I'm feeling itchy and bored, wishing I could just burn all my lesson plans and start over with the energy, enthusiasm, and fear of ten years ago.

I won't; I can't. I have one class this spring that I am redesigning from the ground up (I taught it several years ago and it was Not Good), and that's where my energy needs to go. My other two classes are trusty warhorses. Until I can afford to replace them, I guess I have to keep sending them into the field.


Readers, how do you deal with pedagogical burn-out--or how often do you revamp your classes or otherwise keep things interesting?


undine said...

Flavia, I keep many things but shake it up by assigning a new text or doing a new exercise. That way, if the new thing falls spectacularly flat, as sometimes happens, I know that something tried and true is still coming up.

Jonathan Dresner said...

My techniques tend to be similarly constant, I think, but for (I think) reasonably sound pedagogical reasons.

What keeps things interesting is that I keep shifting sources. Of course, my courses are so broad (World to/since, Japan or China to/since, etc.) that I have a great deal of freedom to change things and still be within my territory. But I'm always looking for new readings, translations, etc. And I'm never happy with textbooks: I change those when I can, and then all the lectures I was doing to point out the misunderstandings or omissions or not-quite-up-to-date-ness of the textbook have to be changed as well.

And the class sizes keep changing, and the online stuff keeps getting more involved....

Not bored yet.

Flavia said...

Thanks, both. Yes, I do this too--swap in and out a text or two, or modify or entirely scrap an assignment--and that's been all I've really needed to stave off boredom in the past. And maybe all I need with my warhorses is to do two or three new exercises a semester--just modify the way we deal with a particular passage or formal feature or whatever.

But I feel I want to do something dramatically different, starting over as if I'd never taught a class that I have (in fact) taught a dozen times. And that probably isn't going to happen--or not in my remaining time at this job.

pat said...

I remember 10 years in as a sort of sticky spot - I had things enough under control to wonder if they would ever change again but not enough under control to have a big grab bag of methods I could draw from at a moment's notice. Now that I've been at it longer, my classes don't feel scripted because I have so many different tricks I can pull out in response to the energy level in the classroom or what I see the students having trouble with.

Three things that kept my teaching interesting to me in that uncomfortable in-between time were:

1. learning to write online tutorials to help students through sticky spots.

2. putting my course in a departmental context - in my case, it was an initiative for developing quantitative skills that required us to identify those skills and plan where they would be taught in every class.

3. teaching a grad class in the field.

4. challenging myself to find out exactly how students were going to use what I taught them after they graduated, and rethinking the course from that perspective.

Sometimes changing the syllabus or content is, as you note, not a big change in the course. Changing the focus and purpose can be more satisfying.

Flavia said...

Thanks, Pat--I think that's what I'm hoping: that this is just a awkward phase!

I also like the advice to think of the class from an outcomes-based perspective. The most satisfying thing about teaching the Shakespeare survey (which I've done 20-22 times now) is that I've gradually come to have a really clear idea of how the course serves our larger curriculum, and I've made a number of changes to the assignments with that in mind. My other classes could stand some more of that.

Historiann said...

Wait--aren't you moving to a new job next year? I'd table any thoughts of making major changes until you get there. You'll have to spend a great deal of mental energy on just figuring out how your new uni works. You might as well wait to see what your students will be like & how you might best engage them.

Changing jobs is one way of keepin' it fresh!

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I frequently have trouble with students not reading, so I sometimes have them read for the first 15 minutes of class so that they can have something to say in discussion. Or sometimes, if I feel confident they have read, I have them write for the first 15 minutes of class, then collect it at the end of the discussion and count it as a quiz grade. I do group work sometimes. I do "chalk and talk" sometimes. Sometimes I just lecture. Then, another thing I like to do with advanced students is set a timer and sit there and say nothing for 30 minutes while the students discuss whatever we read. It's really funny how the pressure to fill the silence will make them talk -- even the normally quiet students.

I really like to mix it up, so I try a lot of different things. Last time I taught the Shakespeare class (two YEARS ago. Sob!), I had a couple of class days where we focused on one word per day. It was FASCINATING. Oh, god, I loved those classes.

Anyway, I rarely get bored in the classroom. Maybe it's just that I haven't been at my full-time job long enough to get bored.

What Now? said...

I also have my tried-and-true teaching strategies, and one thing I've done to try to keep things fresh is to observe colleagues' classes and try out things that work well for them. And, for the most part, I wind up going back to my tried-and-true strategies because they actually work better for me than whatever works better for someone else! But I like returning to those strategies because I've tried something else and am making a deliberate choice about how I want to teach.

The other thing that is not at all tried-and-true is thinking through the skills I want to teach and the order in which I want to teach them. This may be more of a high school thing (I experience it most in my 9th-grade classes), but thinking about these skills does give me ongoing work to wrap my head around even when I'm familiar with the texts.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

For me, it depends:

a new course gets a thorough reconsideration right after the first time I teach it, then a minor one the next time.

Once a course is up and running, I'll re-evaluate it and usually either try out all-new readings or assignment structure every 4 cycles. If it works, I keep the new. If it crashes and burns, I go back to the old.

In the midst of these cycles -- and *especially* for survey courses that have a substantial lecturing component -- I mark 2-3 lectures to re-research & rewrite, or to ditch entirely and replace.

Why? Because I just get bored.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

clarification: those 2-3 rewrites are yearly. So by the time I teach a course 5 times, it's almost entirely new.

Flavia said...


Yes--unless something unexpected happens, I expect to be moving next year. But I still think that my classroom strategies could be tinkered with productively, since it's not just about the students, but about some ingrained ideas about teaching that I don't think are specific to my current student population so much as they are specific to my own approach to texts, my core strengths, etc. (And the one class that I *am* redesigning really needs it--it was a noble failure last time, but I think I know how to make it awesome this time (and it's a class I'll take with me to any future job).


That's really interesting! I suppose I've done something similar with my Shakespeare class, by virtue of swapping in and out different texts, or reorganizing the thematic focus (even as the central structure, assignments, etc., have only slowly evolved), but I haven't done it particularly consciously or deliberately. I think I'll try it in the future. Thanks!

babasonicos said...

My techniques tend to be similarly constant, I think yeaaaa

Psycgirl said...

Thank you for this post - I am so bored with my classes now that they are prepped and running smoothly. I need to change things up so I am engaged because I am a sucky (to me) instructor when I am bored. These comments were so helpful!