Pedagogy Stew #2

The following can be found in the February 2013 Voice of the River Valley.  The March edition is available online in the archives (I will post it when the April edition comes out).

I appreciate everyone’s feedback on the column when I’m out and about–glad to know it’s hitting the spot (at least for some folks!)

Any requests? I’m about done with the April column, but what should I write about next?

[And here’s a curious thing–I’ve just now realized I mentioned my bad handwriting in February’s column AND March’s. Both in the context of teaching–this time in terms of writing on the board, in March in context of commenting on student papers. So, two things:  I should perhaps re-read previous columns right before I send off the brand new ones, and 2)perhaps I need to write a whole blog post on the handwriting thing. Apparently it’s heavy on my mind.]


Even though most college faculty no longer see themselves as “the sage on the stage,”

Look! A sage on the stage!

Look! A sage on the stage!

lecturing for full class periods, filling up the empty vessels of our students’ minds, the lecture-style classrooms we teach in are typically set up for someone to come in, and, sage-like, to stand at the front of the room and begin talking to students who sit with their desks facing forward. Now that a lot of us rely on PowerPoint slides for lectures (I like them because they keep me on track, and students can read them, unlike my handwriting, which is largely illegible—worst grade I ever got was a C in fourth grade for penmanship), even when we can move the desks around, we don’t, because we want students to keep their eyes on the slides.

I realized how attached I was to what I saw as the “default” setup for the basic humanities/social science college classroom last fall, when a fellow professor regularly had her students sitting in a circle—and often left the chairs in a circle when they left. I was annoyed at having to rearrange chairs, but I tried not to grumble—after all, “fusty don” is not the teaching persona I’m going for. (I do have students work in small groups in the course of most class periods, and 200-level classes more often have discussions in which they sit in a circle.)
I think my time volunteering at my son’s school makes me highly conscious of these matters. In a chapter from a book called Learning Spaces, Nancy Van Note Chism points out that “[s]pace can have a powerful impact on learning; we cannot overlook space in our attempts to accomplish our goals.” The teachers at the River Valley Elementary Studio School make an ongoing effort to support learning by shaping the space.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I went in to help one of the kindergarten teachers begin work on an igloo made of milk jugs. What lucky students! Lessons in physical science, social science, math, environmental conservation, creativity—all right there in their room in a way they can see and touch. My son’s teacher, that same Saturday, was rearranging furniture she’d brought in so that their classroom now has a living room. On a recent morning she met with students individually on the sofa, to go over their most recent reading test scores (while I worked with the rest of the class as they did individualized literacy work). In the afternoons, students read to themselves in the living room if they want.
Van Note Chism finishes her piece with this quote: “No longer can we assume that any old furniture and any old room arrangement will do—we know better. Like all academicians, we should ensure that current knowledge informs practice.” For a variety of reasons, professors tend to tolerate “any old,” but we could learn a lot from the emphasis K-12 teachers place on space.
(Picture from flickr, Creative Commons. Tulane Public Relations, “student in class.”)

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