So, when I’m not traveling to Iceland or reading lots of books or viewing lots of movies or listening to waaaaaay too much music, I teach. I spend most of my time working with pre-service teachers, specifically those generous, patient, not-insignificantly-crazy souls who are studying to be high school English teachers. As a former high school English teacher myself, and, importantly, one who was profoundly dissatisfied with the quality of his own pre-service education, my goal has always been to provide my current students with all the theory they need to create innovative lessons, but to ground that theory in practice by sharing the things I did in my own classroom and dissecting why they did or didn’t work.
My classes are, by necessity then, highly participatory. I introduce an activity I conducted with my own high school students, my current students take part it in as the high school students did, and then we debrief (or, if it went poorly, conduct a post-mortem) to figure out why it went how it did. These classes tend to be high energy, boisterous and free-wheeling, full of the noise made by passionate students who are excited to start seeing themselves as teachers. Crucially, their energy keeps me engaged, too, and in the best moments I see the difference I’m making. Last year one student told me candidly, “Help me teach the way you teach.” I tell my students teaching isn’t a game to get into if you need instant gratification, but there are certainly moments that rival any applause I got in my days doing improvisational theater.
But this semester is a semester of tension. I’m developing an online class, see, and the hardest part so far is rethinking how I teach, to somehow take these energetic lessons, full of lively conversation that cascades across the room like brightly-colored confetti, and translate that to a comparatively monochrome online setting. How do I replicate these organically evolving discussions where the students and I don’t meet face to face? How do I show them how activities can work in their own classroom if we can’t conduct them the way they would with their own students?
The short answer is: I can’t. Even if I provide my current students with an activity I did with my high school students, all I can do is ask them to follow the instructions and then write about it later so I can see how it went. The closest we can come to actually debriefing in the way that seems the most helpful is to try and arrange a Google Hangout, which still isn’t the same thing. Because so much of pre-service teacher education relies on trial and error, on seeing what doesn’t work for you but does work for someone else, and on the opportunity for me to assist and guide in the moment, I worry about what I’m sacrificing in the translation to online teaching.
I don’t mean to imply it’s a total loss. It’s a compromise. In the six modules I’ve developed for the summer semester, I’ve tried to incorporate a mix of activities that will give the students a chance to interact online using text-based technology, as well as audio and video. I think it works. I think it’s good. But it’s been an adjustment that’s pushed me to think about my practice in a way I haven’t in a while.
Here’s the upshot of all this: I’m still a beginner, which means there’s nowhere to go but up.
Neon Neon – Praxis Makes Perfect (2013)