TA Update: Collaboration is Key

On Wednesday, I taught my first lesson of the semester. Whereas last fall I was TA-ing in a freshman course, this semester I’m in a sophomore seminar. For this lesson, I worked with my fellow TA (we’re in the same class this time around) to plan about an hour’s worth of content.

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Our First Plan

Originally, when we started thinking about what we’d like to do, we planned to do a game on evaluating sources for research. We were going to create a slide deck with various sources, split the class into two teams, and run a competition. However, we thought of a few problems with this:

  • What if technology was disagreeable that day? It’d happened before.
  • What if a slide isn’t sufficient space to share enough information for students to determine a source’s value?
  • What if the students didn’t know how to evaluate sources yet?

The last question was the big issue–and it prompted our revision of our lesson plan.

Our Second Plan

We put together a lesson plan that culminated in the game we intended to run, with some exercises first to allow the students to learn how to evaluate sources–and then practice. The problem was that we still felt like something was missing, our game still faced the potential issues of technology and space allowance, and now we were running into the second half of the class.

So, we emailed the professor we’re working with this term. She didn’t mind us taking more time, but as we thought about our plans, we discovered what was missing: how to incorporate sources.

After all, that goes hand-in-hand with evaluating sources. We discussed this with the professor, and came up with a new plan.

Our Third Plan

On Monday, the professor taught APA in-text citations. This was a great lead-in to our Wednesday plans. I taught evaluating sources (using the CRAAP method), and my fellow TA taught the students how to concoct an APA reference listing.

The two lessons worked well together, and we didn’t have to worry about the concerns I listed above. Overall, planning for this took about a week, and that includes both my fellow TA and I creating handouts and reviewing each other’s. It also included addressing printing concerns.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed working on this lesson together. It was great to be able to bounce ideas back and forth, and this reiterated for me something I had already learned (but reinforcement in this is always good): Even when teaching alone, it’s a great idea to share lesson plans, handouts, readings, assignments, rubrics…every piece that makes up the puzzle that is a course.

Great things can come of brainstorming. If we’d stuck with our first plan, it might have been fun and the students would have been able to test the knowledge that they came into class with…but that didn’t involve us actually teaching.

Our second plan was better in that regard, but it still needed some more oomph to go from abstract ideas to practical application in the sense that the students will have to create an annotated bibliography before they write their research papers. Those will involve APA references and evaluating sources.

We were able to get the students involved, teach them valuable, actionable information, and tie it in to their semester-long projects–all because we collaborated.

How Starburst Saved the Day

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I’ve had the opportunity to teach a few mini-lessons in the composition class I’m observing as part of my TA program, for which I’m grateful. I’ve noticed, during those lessons, that the students are a bit sleepy. It’s not a lack of energy on my part; I’ve taught martial arts for years and I understand that students feed off an instructor’s energy. Part of the problem is that the class is at 2 pm on a Monday; another part of the problem was gray skies. And let’s be honest, not every student wants to learn about grammar and the nitty-gritty of writing.

Class During Nap Time

When I was an undergrad student, whenever I had class around two o’clock, I’d get sleepy. With a full stomach from lunch, and often having been in class as early as 8 am (which meant leaving home at 6:30 am because of traffic and parking woes), by mid-afternoon, all I wanted was a little cat nap.

It didn’t help that one of my classes scheduled at that hour was a history of world music course, and for a month we studied nocturnes. With the lights off.

The professor made it dark and played me lullabies. Sleep was inevitable.

I finally got around to asking her not to turn the lights off because I really did want to stay awake and focus on class.

So, as a TA, after observing sleepy faces in my first mini-lesson, I tried to get everyone on their feet for my second. It worked moderately well, and it was part of this past Monday’s lesson (which ended up not being mini at all–it clocked in at 50 minutes). But I knew, from my second mini-lesson, that it wasn’t going to be enough just to get them up and moving.

For one thing, they can’t really move about easily in the classroom without tripping on the furniture. I didn’t want to cause an injury.

Acknowledging the Issue

I started out the lesson with an introduction on what we’d be covering–when to cite in an MLA essay. Then I abandoned my slideshow for a moment to talk with them earnestly about the realistic challenges of class at this time slot.

“It’s your first day off the weekend,” I said. “You’ve spent the last two days working, doing homework, maybe seeing friends or traveling. I get it–you’re tired.”

Then, I talked about how hard it is to stay awake in class. I told them about my undergrad music history class and the nocturnes. I got a few smiles.

“It’s cloudy, too,” I added. “That always makes me want to close my eyes and go to sleep. And I get that some–or maybe even all–of you aren’t that excited about MLA citations.”

I don’t claim to be a mind-reader. I don’t know what they were thinking at this point, but I imagine the smiles and nods I received were in appreciation of my willingness to understand how sleepy college life can make a person.

Having graduated from my undergrad program in 2007, it’s not so long ago that I can’t recall how much some classes–especially gen eds–inspired sleepiness no matter how energetic the professor was.

Let’s Call it What it Is: A Bribe

Perhaps they were expecting me to just move on with the lesson. But I’d hidden a bag of Starburst on the podium at the front of the room. I picked it up and held it high.

“If you participate today,” I promised, “you get a Starburst. And I got the good ones–the red and pink flavors.”

Suddenly, the room livened. Students laughed. More of them smiled. Some of them sat up straighter in their seats.

I told them I knew MLA citations weren’t their favorite subject, and I wasn’t above bribing their participation. So, throughout the lesson, students were offered Starburst for  sharing their work. Some students elected to share even though they didn’t want Starburst. They donated their candy to another classmate.

The key here, I think, is to offer the candy-bribe in exchange for active and willing participation.

I wouldn’t use the candy-bribe in every lesson. But I had a lot of material to get through and I knew it wasn’t as interesting as discussing literature or debating hot-button issues.

Final Thoughts

Is it okay to bribe students? Originally, I was going to use the Starburst to reward correct answers during an interactive part of the lesson. However, two things changed my mind:

  • My fellow TA and I split the Starburst and I worried there weren’t enough for that, so she suggested using them as a reward for participation.
  • As the morning and early afternoon wore on, I decided it’d be wrong to reward the correct answers with candy.

The latter is more important–I don’t think correct answers should be rewarded with some kind of treat. I think that would discourage students from participating if their answers were not correct. What good is it to reward students who get the right answer at the beginning of a lesson when the purpose of that lesson is to teach them the right answer?

I ended up giving away the remaining Starburst at the end of the lesson, but I think the students had fun with it even though they knew it was a participation bribe. They actively and eagerly took part in the lesson even though they were sleepy. Even though the first snowfall started outside in the middle of class. Even though it was a Monday.

Starburst saved the day this week, but it was also, I think, my honesty in the purpose for the candy and the acknowledgment and validation of their sleepiness.

MFA Update: First Semester is almost over!

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It’s so hard to believe that my first semester is more than 3/4 over. I sent my third submission a week and two days ago, which means I should receive my mentor’s feedback in about five days. She’s been great about getting her comments to me within two weeks.

For my last submission of the semester…

I’d really like to submit revised chapters for this next deadline, if only because I’d love to have a few rounds of revision before submitting them for the winter residency peer critique. There’s not enough time to get her feedback on them between submitting them and the deadline for the critique pages unless I send my last submission in about a week and a half. I’ve already done some editing, so that might be possible.

On the other hand, another part of me wants to press forward. I know my mentor is a proponent of doing so as well. A good compromise might be to send her new material and submit my edited material for the residency workshop.

That would be the equivalent of working on two submissions at the same time, but I think I might be able to handle it.

I taught a lesson on comma splices…

And it went really well! I’m really enjoying my role as a TA. I worked with the professor, who is one of the department coordinators, to create a 15- to 20-minute lesson on comma splices. Despite the fact that grammar doesn’t really excite the students, most of them participated willingly, though in reflection if I taught the lesson again, I might gamify it a bit and offer candy rewards.

I’m not above bribing students to participate when:

  • It’s raining out,
  • It’s the middle of the afternoon,
  • It’s on a holiday that, until that year, students would have had off from school, or,
  • It’s grammar.

Again, I like grammar. But that’s not the case for everyone, and I understand that.

I may have filled my tutoring quota…

Just kidding. I was joking with a friend who tutored last semester because all semester long she only met with six students, and there I sat yesterday with no students. I’d already met with six since the beginning of the semester.

I wish the tutoring was by appointment, but I understand why the learning center offers walk-in tutoring. I forgot to bring my Kindle with me yesterday, and yes, I was in a library. I could have grabbed a book, but I didn’t want to leave my post just so I’d have something to read.

With my luck, that would have been when a student walked in looking for a writing tutor.

The six students I’ve tutored this semester have all been great to work with, and I’ve learned a lot from them as I hope they have from me.

I may be dead tired today, but…

That doesn’t mean I’m not writing in my head. I am. I’m staring down this last submission of the semester and trying to narrow down the three mentors I will put on my list for next term. I drove up and back yesterday. It wipes me out, but I’ve decided to hold off on looking for an apartment for now because I can’t do that, work two jobs, fulfill my TA duties, and get all my schoolwork done.

Something had to give. Bye, apartment (for now)!