Hacking the Classroom

Every instructor has likely walked into a room and thought, “Oh, no. How am I going to teach in this room?” The classroom might be in the basement and have no light or have more chairs shoved into it than it truly fits. I am used to hacking the classrooom and making it work. This might mean working with what I have and making the best of it. I have to walk and work the classroom and it is imperative that I have a place to move–to pace. 

I also need to see students’ faces. I am pretty good at reading a room and I need to see the ephiphanies or looks of boredom so that I can respond. I will ask students to not sit in the very back or if they must multi-task to do so in the back of the classroom. I try to set up the etiquette guidelines during the first week. I explain my expectations, then what they can expect from me. I have moved our classroom furniture, booked lab space for one day, and booked a different classroom for group exercises. I will do what it takes to the make the classroom ours, and make it work.  

The image below is from the National Forum on Active Learning Classrooms. We were using playdough to make our ideal learning space. 



A long weekend has started here in Canada. Technically it starts after work today for me, but campus sure is more quiet today. This is the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, and I am pausing between meetings to share thoughts about gratitude. 

1. I have gratitude to the team of people who have kept me healthy this year, and this includes the family doctor, physiotherapist, dentist, and oral surgeon. 

2. I have gratitude for my family. I am noting that this is for my kin and my made family. My family supports me and I do not thank them enough. 

3. Deep gratitude for my in laws. I could not manage my week without the help that they offer. I am extremely lucky to have them five minutes away from us. Our family Excel spreadsheet is a thing of beauty and if they did not do a drop off or pick up it would make things more difficult for me. Thank you. 

4. I have gratitude to my co-workers. Here I am thinking those who I report to, later colleagues, my staff, and other colleagues across campus. I know that I am lucky to have a job that is my career. I have a privileged life enjoying my work, and feeling satisfied. 

5. I cannot finish this list without thanking about my students, and other students across campus. Thank you for making all of this worth it. Your energy makes me smile. Your questions motivate me. And, working with you is a pleasure. OK. It’s a pleasure most of the time! 

6. Thank you to my many mentors! I include a photo of Dr. Kathy Jones. I worked with her at SDSU–back when I was an undergrad and we have kept in touch. She’s one of the many amazing mentors I have had. Thanks, Kathy! 

It might not be Thanksgiving for you, but what is in your gratitude list? 


Introspective Exercises

I am co-teaching a new course, Digital Skills for Your Career. Last night my slide deck consisted of a letter  in bullet point form to my 20 year old self. I shared with my students some regrets and points of reflection. It was blunt and at times humorous. My point was to help them with their exercises. Co-op and Career had provided them a venn diagram to fill out and for some of the students the exercise was a tough one. They needed to think about their skills, wants, and competencies. The exercise is all about introspection and self-promotion. It is not as easy as it sounds. 

And, their first assignment was due this week. We had asked them to curate a fulsome About.Me page, and in two weeks their LinkedIn URL is due. They worked away in pods chatting with one another about what is holding them back, and how to overcome self-doubt. 

Mentoring university students has taught me numerous things. One consistent issue is the uncertainty and the way it can stifle creativity, bravery, and happiness. My exercise in self-deprecation and honesty was to remind them that they are going to make mistakes and it is OK. We are three weeks into this course and I hope that they are enjoying it as much as I am. 

My photo of one of Co-op’s Slides. Thanks! 

Girls Learning Code: Scratching at the Surface 

This last weekend I volunteered at one of the local Ladies Learning Code events. I helped by doing social media for the Girls Learning Code event at St. Margaret’s, an all girls school in Victoria, BC. The “code” for the day was learning Scratch, and the girls had fun designing games. The school had donated space including the use of their labs, a large area for the girls to eat their lunches, and then the presentation of the games. We ended up using a computer lab at the Junior School and another lab next door at the Senior School campus. Thank you to the school! 

The day was fun and the girls demonsrated their wicked skills with Scratch. Some of the girls were familiar with Scratch, and others were new to it. Regardless, they had fun. The labs were warm with the hum of the computers and the din of conversation among the girls and the mentors roving around to assist. The mentors donated the bulk of their day to help. And, I want to speak to the mentors. 

The vast bulk of the mentors were women, and virtually all of them shared one message. They wished that Girls Learning Code existed when they were young, and that we need more women in the tech industry. One mentor noted that she has never worked on a project team with another woman. And, another mentor noted that in some of her Computer Science courses she is the only woman or one of three in a class of 50. Yeah, re-read those sentences. It’s 2015. We still have work to do. 

A few of the mentors were men and they echoed the comment. “We need more women and girls coding.” The mentors were great and coached the girls through the day. But, I really hope that the girls were left with the messages that it’s cool to like Math, Games, Computers, and Science. The mentors were introduced to the parents, and again the mentors shared their stories. I am sure that some of the girls and parents left the event with a sense of optimism. I hope to see these girls at more of the Girls Learning Code events. 

I used #llcyyj on Instagram, Vine, and Periscope. The Twitter handle is @llcvictoria. 


Things College Professors Like

Let me start by saying that this is not an exhaustive list. And, this list is based on my experiences as a college professor, teaching assistant, and life-long learner. I also talk to other instructors in the college environment, as well as teachers in the primary and secondary schools.

1. Show up to class

2. Read the syllabus or course outline

3. Come prepared

4. Talk to us after class or in office hours. You are never bugging us when you want to chat about the course or materials. If you need another copy of the syllabus, ask for it. 

5. Plan your time accordingly for the assignments. We realize that you have other courses 

6. When you email us, please use complete sentences and the usual rules of writing. And, start of formal and use Prof. A or Professor. Some profs prefer the title and others will say it’s fine to use their first name.

7. Be open to the materials and course content. 

8. Get involved

9. Come to office hours

10. Review graded work with the prof to see what you can do better next time. <This is different than asking for more points>.

11. Have fun

Number 11 is about making connections between the materials and your other courses or events in the news. Overall, I want to see you engaged and it is a give and take situation. I cannot expect students to magically engage–part of it is my work. I need to make you want to come to class. I will do my part.  


Popular Instructors

I cannot believe that I am starting my 18th teaching year. I always start counting the years in September and this is 18. One of the things that I am mulling is what a popular instructor or popular prof means in academe. Does this reflect your enrollments? Is this term cast as a negative assuming that your course content is easy? I think the context mattters.

1. Hearing it from some colleagues it is clear that it cheapens your pedagogy and the depth of what you teach. 

2. Hearing it from students varies, but it is mostly meant as a compliment. 

3. Some colleagues clearly mean it as a compliment. 

Overall, my sense is that the so-called popular instructors generally enjoy teaching. I think that is the difference.  


Participation Ribbons: Show Up

At some point in the last decade or two participation ribbons became common at sports events. I have mixed feelings about this. While I understand the need to make every kid feel good about her or his participation in a cross country meet, there is another part of me that cringes with this practice. My mixed feelings stems from not wanting my kids to think that they have to win to be their best. Perhaps this is why they both like competitive swimming? While they swim against others, ultimately they are trying to lower their swim times and it becomes self-focused. 

I know that when I watch competitve sports events I am the one in our household who always comments that it is an honor for the athletes to compete. And, I think it is. Participation ribbons, though, have another part to them. Things get more complicated when I am in the classroom. Somehow this culture of rewarding people for showing up has bled into school work. There is this equation in some students’ minds: effort = A. And, this equation is a problem. 

Yes, it is important to participate. You need to show up to class. However, that is only one part of it. There are terabytes worth of research about the correlation between student attendance and success. Part of it is that students who attend class are more likely to be prepared and feel accountable, but the other part of it is that this same group is also likely to hear annoucements, do the reading, and possibly attend office hours for clarification about assignments. My issue is that I often have to explain to a student that their gauge for effort will vary, and that some students can whip an assignment together fast and do well and others will not. 

I do not believe in participation ribbons in the classroom. A solid blog post, research design, paper or vlog is going to take some effort, and merely doing the assignment is not enough. A stronger assignment is going to have to make me pause. The pause is one of excitement–this is great work. However, most of the students will do good to fair work and this is in the B to C range. And, nothing is wrong with this. What is the saying, “Bs and Cs earn degrees.” It’s true, but the learning experience is more than grades. A new term is right around the corner for our college students. My advice: show up. I hope that your instructors entice you to learn, think, and try. You do not have to do your best, but note that you’ll benefit based on the effort you put into the class. The benefits, though, are more tangible than a grade, and you might end up taking away more than the the ability to write better and think critically. You might be moved to change your major or take more classes with that instructor.