The internet, where all the cool kids are

Well, it has only been two weeks and it has already been a bit of whirlwind quarter.   I had the misfortune to start the term a bit sick, and I have been able to teach by the grace of DayQuil and cough drops.  My doctor assures me that I’m not contagious, and that I’m ready to get better.

Any minute now, that would be nice.   (grumble, grumble… stupid lungs)

This  quarter ALL of my classes are “Emporium” classes.   This basically means that the students are learning at their own pace online, while I teach them en masse in the classroom.

Honestly, I miss writing Zombie test questions.   So much for technology.

The realities are, we live in an increasingly digital age and teaching needs to utilize new technology.   Teachers:   you need to get on board, or else.   Gamification of education and having instant feedback are very tempting tools to have!  The downside:  the more that classes are structured online (and curriculum is designed by people removed from the students) then the less connected the instructors can feel from the material, or the software.    One thing that doesn’t sit well is the underlying assumption that the progression of topics is set, which does not lend itself to differences in student’s learning styles.    But nothing I’ve seen in the classroom is perfect, so…. on with the show.

It takes some adjustment, and  teaching online presents its own challenges and benefits.   Because classes are self-paced and online, it makes pacing lectures challenging, and some students will feel like attending class is entirely optional.     Of course, I quickly disabuse them of that notion.    Also, ask them to write down their work.   It confuses them at first, but they’ll appreciate feedback on their process later.     Two pieces of good news with adaptive learning software:   no grading, and very detailed reports.  So we can retailor the class fairly quickly when needed.

So… don’t be a slave to the software.   Good teaching is still necessary, and the students will still benefit from different techniques and tricks than the software will provide.

Now, go scare some students.


Going off trail…

One of the important things about being a teacher is sticking to a plan.     One hard lesson that I’ve learned is that if you don’t have a plan for your class on any given day, they will have a plan for you.   And the class’ plan is likely to be a far less useful one than what you can cook up.    Planning your class isn’t just a matter of the calendar,  it comes down to planning hour-to-hour.   I hope that it is obvious that you shouldn’t script yourself too much, or you will drive yourself crazy trying to follow it, and frankly such a class would be robotic and stilted.   Think about sitting through someone reading a powerpoint presentation at you…   By the way, throw out all of your powerpoint presentations, unless you like having classwide epidemics of narcolepsy.

Besides, after a while you get very good at being able to plan classes with minimal direction.

But it is fun to go off on a tangent sometimes.    Both for the teacher and for the class.   Myself, I have a velcro-brain:  some very weird stuff sticks to it.   Strange bits of trivia,  mathematical history and fun mathematical puzzles,  bad math jokes…   all of these are fair game.   I even shared one of my “dirty” (at least scatological) math jokes in class the other day.    You may have heard it:

Q:   What does a mathematician do when he gets constipated?

A:   What he always does,  he’ll sit down and work it out with a pencil.

Of course, there is also the one about “What is long and hard and will keep you up all night…”    Nevermind.

Seriously, having fun in class keeps a good atmosphere for learning, and going “off trail” can be good sometimes.  The best way to be interesting is to be interested in something, and the best way to keep your class fun is to have fun in class.

P.S.   I seem to have rather a lot of subscribers from Poland.    Like more than half… I had to ask myself, really?      Please post a comment if you really are a subscriber.     If you don’t, I may decide that you may just be a bot who slipped through my spam filter, and I will delete you.

The importance of patience

Pressure.   Students feel it, and so do teachers.   And when the pressure is on to speed things up, take the time to slow down.   No one benefits from rushed work.

Patience isn’t just a virtue, it is an utter necessity.

Undue pressure on students creates an atmosphere that is hostile to learning.   If a student feels like they can’t make mistakes, or feels like they can’t ask questions something terrible will happen:  they won’t.   They won’t volunteer information, they won’t ask questions, and they won’t take any risks.  Rushing students will give you bad results quickly.   What is even worse is that they will blame themselves for not being capable of performing under pressure.   And guilt is not a condition that leads to thoughtful study… or class attendance for that matter.

Remember that asking questions is often seen as a high-risk behavior by the students.   It can take days to foster an atmosphere where students feel they can ask questions, and a few curt comments will undo all of your hard work!     It may sound strange, but students need to have an atmosphere where they free to fail.   Because failure can be rocket fuel to success.   And if they have a chance to fail and an environment that is encouraging and helpful, they will also have the opportunities they need to succeed.

There is a lot of balancing that needs to take place in a classroom:  between being patient and still asking for excellence.   And between giving your students enough to do versus giving them too much.   I structure my class with work time that has some easy and some tricky questions.   I tell my students that speed only comes with a lot of practice.

“The only bad mistake you can make is one that you’ve made before.”

Classroom Management

Sometimes the difference between a good/functioning classroom and a dysfunctional one is a small one.    My criteria  for a healthy class is fairly simple:  (1) students need to be able to connect with the material, (2) students should feel encouragement from coming to class, (3) there needs to be minimal distractions so you can keep the class in order.    Teaching is often a balancing act between encouraging participation and discouraging idle talk and disruptions.

Every class will present its own brand of challenges:   there will be students who really want to impress you, and other students who will view your class as a social hour.    There will be good days, and there will be bad days.    A good teacher will need to roll with it, and most of all stay humble enough to keep learning new tools.

So, here are some tools that I have learned:

  1. Use non-verbal communication effectively.     One of my favorite tools to quiet a disruption is to simply stop talking and look at people who are being disruptive.    It takes a few moments, but it can be very effective.    Also be aware of your students body language – they will tell you without speaking if you are going too fast or too slow with lessons… or if there is something distracting them.
  2. Use humor.    Humor can be a fantastic tool!   It will engage students and make them allies in your classroom.  I will say, that you can’t be funny all the time… but humor can defuse situations when students might be feeling discouraged.
  3. Rein in over-participators.    Some students will try to dominate classroom discussions… be a bit cautious of these students because they will sometimes make students less willing to participate, or sometimes even make them feel stupid.    Call on a variety of students to keep them all engaged.
  4. Establish rules for participation.   Some very simple rules of participation can keep your class from getting out of control.   Simple rules like raising a hand for questions or comments, or asking students to quiet their personal conversations until they aren’t audible to the class are reasonable.    Also, if you let your students decide on these rules, they will frequently enforce the rules themselves.
  5. BE PATIENT.   Patience isn’t just a virtue, it is a necessity.    Sometimes students will have a hard time grasping material, and this is frustrating for both you and them.    The best thing you can do is take your time with these students… otherwise they will get into a negative cycle of “I should understand this…” and feeling bad that they can’t keep up.    It is no fun when students “should” all over themselves.
  6. You will need to establish discipline at times.   There isn’t a fun way to to this, but there are ways to keep disruptions from escalating.
    • Don’t judge.   Nothing will turn a student against you faster than if they feel you are judging them.   Try:  “Is there something I can help you with?”  rather than “Why can’t you respect your classmates?”
    • Use the language of choice.   If you give a student an option, they will be much more likely to act rationally and respectfully.    Students who feel like they don’t have any options will often act out of spite, rather than community.
    • Talk with students privately.   Calling out students on their behavior in public can sometimes backfire in an escalation of disruption and resentment.   Instead, talk to the student quietly and privately.   First off, see if you can get them to express their needs.   Let them know of your concerns for them personally, and for the class.   Only at the end, ask them to change their behavior.
    • Don’t be too heavy handed too quickly.  Sometimes decisive action is called for, but delivering an ultimatum to any student will change the atmosphere in the classroom quickly.    It is much better to give a student a warning,  and to let the student know the possible consequences of their actions rather than “my way or the highway.”   The goal is to give ownership of the outcomes to the student.
    • When the time comes, act.   Don’t opt out of disciplining a student if they continue to act out in class.   Hold the student to the consequences of their actions.   You are doing a disservice to the entire class if you don’t.
  7. Have a plan for your class.   If you don’t, your student’s will.


One final piece of advice:  give yourself a break.    Some days you won’t be at your best, and you won’t be on top of everything.   That is okay – you don’t need to take it personally, and you don’t need to feel bad about being human.   Provided you don’t light anything on fire, you won’t do irreparable damage to your class just from having an off day.   Remember that you need to take care of yourself too.

Now:  go forth and educate more evil geniuses.