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My Teaching Philosophy Statement

April 22nd, 2020

I recently had occasion to update my teaching philosophy statement, which I haven’t done in a few years. It was an enlightening and useful exercise. If you’re interested, I’ve posted it here.

I’ve learned in life that the easy way isn’t always the best way; so too in teaching, the easy way is rarely the most effective. I have best learned when teachers took the time to understand my current skill level, gave me examples to follow, allowed me to emulate those examples, and then provided feedback that pointed out what I’ve done correctly as well as areas where I could improve. I have attempted throughout my teaching career to follow in the footsteps of those educators who inspired and taught me.

The specifics of how I organize and plan a course and how I teach it depends on the exact content and goals of the course, but my general methods of teaching are as follows:

1) Engage the students in discussion in order to gauge their current understanding of the topic as well as help them locate previous knowledge they can connect the new information to.

2) Introduce new information.

3) Discuss strategies and tools that students can use.

4) Analyze examples with the students so they become familiar with what works and what does not.

5) Model how to utilize the tools and strategies.

6) Allow the students to try the techniques on their own or work collaboratively with them.

7) Assign meaningful homework that allows students to explore their new skills, challenging them but not discouraging them.

8) Use peer feedback when appropriate and instructor feedback to encourage growth and remediate misunderstandings.

9) Build on previous lessons through the use of repetition of key concepts while new ideas are presented.

Not all students enter institutions of higher education prepared to complete college-level coursework. Simply assuming that they possess particular skills or that they can “figure it out” risks setting up both the students and the instructor for failure. This is where providing students with strategies and tools comes into play. Strategies and tools can give students a place to start and a direction in which to move. Designed properly, they can be used by students beyond individual classes to make them more self-sufficient and successful in their broader coursework and their careers outside of school.

I’ve seen that students utilize strategies and tools more effectively when I have modeled their use for them. Searching a database for articles on a topic, taking notes from an article, drafting a summary, completing planning steps for an essay, and even drafting an essay while standing in front of a class can be nerve-wracking at times, and it’s certainly harder than simply telling students what they need to do, but my training in fiction writing rings in my ears as a reminder of best practices: show, don’t tell. Modeling techniques and behaviors allows students to see what success can look like, and if I struggle in front of them at times, they can see that their struggles are completely natural.

Beyond giving my students strategies and tools and showing them how to use them, I am most concerned with students’ ability to think critically and analytically about the texts they read and the words they write. Such experiences should strengthen their critical-thinking skills in general while also helping them to communicate their ideas more effectively. Students need to be trained to look at the big picture to determine if a piece of writing is effective and to question whether or not the quality of the composition reflects on the messages contained within.

When it is time to focus on the details of writing, I feel that rote grammar exercises concerned with definitions or the identification of parts of speech and lessons that utilize low-engagement exercises such as fill-in-the-blanks are ineffective at helping students achieve mastery of academic and professional English and clarity of expression. Grammar and style instruction should focus more on the function of words and how they can be used to express ideas. Activities that requires students to write sentences using particular parts of speech or constructions allow them to learn by doing, thus connecting that practice to their writing habits. Again, this is not easy. A simple answer key cannot be used to gauge student success in such activities, but most assessments that can use a key are testing lower-hanging fruit on Bloom’s Taxonomy. I’m concerned more with application and creation as well as students’ ability to analyze and evaluate their own writing and the writing of others—at both the macro and micro levels.

A concrete example of my beliefs in action is my redesign in the spring of 2020 of an online remedial English course. The original version of the course contained an overwhelming number of grammar worksheets in the first third of the term. The second third of the term contained assignments that requested students to summarize short readings with little explanation of how to approach reading for the purpose of writing an academic summary or what a good summary should contain. The final segment of the course focused on writing short essays—with only limited time for peer or instructor feedback to be provided to allow students to fully engage in the revision process. It is my belief that this course organization was detrimental to students’ learning. Separating grammar, reading and summarizing, and essay writing does not allow students to connect those into a holistic discipline of engagement with information, which they will need in school and beyond.

My redesigned course starts with essay writing to place students in that mindset right away, and it provides individual weeks devoted to planning and drafting, peer review, and revision for each essay. During that time, students also work on close-reading exercises that build up to writing academic summaries, and they take part in sentence-writing exercises aimed at getting them to think analytically about their use of language to avoid common errors. The course is designed to follow a consistent pattern in the hopes that the students develop effective new writing habits that they will carry with them beyond the term.

Do I think I know all there is to know about teaching? Hardly. In my experience, teachers can be most effective when they view teaching as a two-way act of communication in which both parties are open and receptive to each other, to exploring new ideas, and to the possibility that everyone has the room and potential to improve and grow. It is just as important for teachers to be willing to learn and grow as it is for students. I do my best to remove my ego from the situation so that I can be more self-reflective and open to improvements, and I am always looking for ways to be a more effective instructor. If a student struggles to understand a concept or a task that has been assigned, I work with them to attempt to alleviate that confusion, and then I look for ways to add clarity to the course materials to avoid similar confusion in the future. Just as I believe that writing should be more about the reader than the writer, I believe teaching to be more about the student than the teacher.

Hard to Recommend a Book. . .

August 20th, 2012

. . . when you cannot remember the title.

I forgot the name of a book that I was attempting to recommend while on a panel Sunday morning at Gen Con. Well, here it is, for anyone interested:

English Through The Ages by William Brohaugh is basically a chronological list of words broken up by category. Need to know if your assassin can use a garrote (not until 1855–though he could certainly garrote someone as far back as 1625)? Maybe you’re not sure if that biologist should really be called that (not until 1875) or if she’d refer to herself as being homeothermic or not (if she’s working after 1870, then yes!).

By avoiding words that do not fit the historical period the world of your story is set in or based on, you help to create a more realistic and immersive experience for the reader.

  1. Disclosure: If you purchase a book from the above links within a certain amount of time of clicking on it, I will earn a small portion of the sale. That does not affect my recommendations, though. For more information, see the full affiliate disclosure.

It’s OK to Ask for Help

July 1st, 2010

Though David Morrell’s talk last weekend at Seton Hill University did not specifically address this topic, he did touch on it, and I suppose recent events made me latch on. In his introductory remarks, he mentioned research and how you should strive to get details right (I agree!), so you should ask people for help. If you’re writing about cops, find a cop and ask questions. Need to know how an emergency room works? Go down to your local one. Most people, he said, will be willing to help out especially since they are curious about the process of writing.

I have to admit that I usually try to find answers to those types of questions myself. I love book research! But you do miss the authenticity of experience with that method. And what do you have to lose by asking?

As I hinted earlier, I’ve had some experience asking for help of late. This past weekend at Seton Hill, I had some car trouble thanks to a battery that decided it was on its last legs while I was a couple hundred miles from home. By the time I left early Sunday morning, I had been forced to ask for three jumps, including twice from the same campus security officer.

I felt like an idiot asking for help the second time, but I guess that’s life.

Whether it is because I am naturally an introvert, and perhaps even edging into shy in some situations, I do have difficulty asking for help. I’d rather not draw that kind of notice, and one of my driving impulses is to avoid inconveniencing others. I’m nearly obsessive about being on time because I’d hate to make others wait, and when it comes to decision-making time, I tend to consider first how my decisions will affect others. This applies to major issues all the way down to small things like how closely to the curb I should park my car.

I suppose that though I do worry about my so-called “carbon footprint,” what I most worry about is my “inconvenience footprint” (which plays into my environmental beliefs since I would rather not inconvenience the generations to come, not to mention the planet that has already given us so much).

And yet, I attempt to be a helpful person, not turning people down unless I really cannot help (I attempt to deflect the “Can you critique my 300-page novel for free?” questions as gently as I can–mostly it’s because people have no concept of just how much work that is). So why shouldn’t I allow myself to reach out and ask for help once in a while? I’ve been slowly going through my contact list, asking people to help promote the Kickstarter.com campaign for Fantastical Visions V, so I’ve been getting a bit more comfortable with the idea, especially since everyone has been so gracious about it, helping out in various ways.

So, maybe next January I’ll try to get up to Seton Hill a day or so early, look up my campus security officer friend, and ask if I can shadow him for a day to learn about the job for a supernatural thriller set on a college campus that I’ve been meaning to write.

I’ll swear to him that my car is in working order.