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Putting the “teach” in Teach, Write, Cook

January 25, 2011

As you may have noticed, though this blog is called “Teach, Write, Cook,” I have not talked much about the teaching part. There’s a good reason for that: I started this blog during my Winter break from teaching, and although the new semester started last week, today was my first real day back in the classroom.

This semester, I’m a graduate teaching assistant for a large, 200-level college course. The lectures are taught by a professor, and I teach 4 discussion sections each week of 15-20 students per section. I love teaching in these small groups because I feel like I can connect with each student individually.  A big part of my job as a teaching assistant is to encourage my students to think critically about the world and to empower them to articulate their opinions, and that’s significantly easier to do when I can connect well with my students.

Many of my students were born in the early 1990s and have been taking state-mandated standardized tests since elementary school. They have spent a large portion of their educational careers trying to figure out how to get the “right” answer that fits into the bubble or box of a standardized test , which is then scored by a grader trained to look for only a very narrow range of answers (or by a machine that only recognizes one correct answer).  By the time they reach college, many of them are extremely adept at coming up with the expected answer for an exam, but struggle when asked to engage in critical thinking and writing.

Though I often hear people complain about millennials1 having poor critical thinking skills, I have found that my students often actually do have unique, insightful, and interesting ideas, but they are terribly afraid to express them.  They become extremely uncomfortable when asked to complete an assignment that asks them to express opinions and make critical judgments; what if their opinions and judgments aren’t right? (I cannot tell you how many times in the past few years students have come to my office to ask me to look over a critical analysis essay to see if it is “right;” it probably numbers in high double digits.)

It sounds strange, but I find a lot of inspiration from body-positivity-oriented projects/sites  like Operation Beautiful and Already Pretty. Much like young women and men are inundated with messages from media representations, their families, their friends, and even strangers that their bodies should fit within a narrowly-construed ideal of the perfect body, they also receive messages from educators and administrators that tell them their ideas and opinions should fit into a narrowly-construed ideal of the correct answer.  Sometimes I feel like my own one-woman Operation Beautiful: Mind Edition to convince students that they can and should express their ideas. (Perhaps I should start putting up “You are smarter than you think you are!” Post-Its on the mirrors at school?)

I don’t have a magic formula for helping these students overcome this deep-rooted fear, but in my own teaching, I’ve found that the three most effective things I can do to engage my students are:

  • ask them open-ended questions aimed at critical reflection
  • truly listen to and acknowledge their responses
  • encourage them to ask their own questions of me, of the course materials, and of the world

Of course I still have to assess their written work and assign it grades, but I find that grading is easier when I have this sort of engaged, open communication with students.  The work they turn in is better– more clearly written, more analytical, more critical– when they feel empowered to engage and interrogate the material on their own terms, and I even find that their reactions to their grades (high or low) are better when they know that I respect them.

This afternoon, when I read over the teaching evaluations my students filled out at the end of the fall semester, the most rewarding comment I read were not the ones that said I was a knowledgeable about the material (though I am really proud of those comments, too), but this one:

This is the most comfortable I have ever felt participating in discussion section because I felt like giving the wrong answer wouldn’t be judged or shunned.

Although this one was pretty high on the list, too:


1I just Googled “millennials” and realized that by some definitions, I am one.  Interesting!  I’m not sure if/how this applies as much to my generation, because I graduated from high school just before No Child Left Behind went into effect, but I do wish more teachers had encouraged me to think for myself and own my opinions when I was younger.

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