Reflections on CMU’s High Impact Teaching Academy

Last fall, I joined CMU’s High Impact Teaching Academy with the specific goal of rethinking the approach to teaching my methods course, ENG 315: “Writing in the Elementary and Middle Schools.” While I am unable to present my final project in person this week, I did want to share three components of my refined approach: a course concept map created in Prezi, a “visual syllabus” to replace my old, standard design, and a few of the activities that I used in class to get students more engaged in conversation about our subject matter.

Course Concept Map

As a tool to help frame my own thinking as well as to visually represent our goals and the path for our semester in ENG 315, I created this Prezi. During the first class session, I used this to complement our talk about the syllabus and the schedule of assignments. Then, during the next three weeks of class I returned to the Prezi, briefly, to reorient students to where we were at and what we were heading toward. After that, I only took class time to look at the Prezi intentionally twice more: once immediately after spring break and again with two weeks left in the course. With each tour of the Prezi, I also tried to connect to the big ideas that we were discussing in class at the time.

Survey Results - Prezi

Survey Results – Prezi

While I need to wait until the end of the semester to read their written comments from SOS forms, the results from an anonymous survey that I gave last week show that my students’ reactions to having and using the Prezi were quite mixed. I am not entirely sure what this means for me as I continue to think about creating course concept maps in the future, but the fact that nearly 3/4 of them appreciated having the Prezi is a positive sign.

Visual Syllabus

Both because my old syllabus had become weighted and bulky with tons of text, and because I was really trying to really rethink some major elements of the course, I opted to create a visual syllabus over the holiday break and after meeting with Eron. As I streamlined assignments, readings, and procedures — including a new “collaborative unit plan” assignment — I shaped the visual syllabus to reflect the organization of the course and the ways in which the assignments related to one another.

ENG 315 Syllabus First Page - Fall 2012 ENG 315 Syllabus First Page - Spring 2013
Previous version of ENG 315 Syllabus (PDF) Spring 2013 version of ENG 315 Syllabus (PDF)
Survey Results - Syllabus

Survey Results – Syllabus

Again, like the Prezi, results were mixed, but not nearly as much. Possibly because a syllabus is the defining document for a course, or perhaps because they really did appreciate the design, students all rated the syllabus as favorable. There are some minor tweaks that I would go back to fix, and again I will need to see their written SOS responses to get a better idea of what they really liked and what didn’t work so well.

Creating Engaging Discussions in Class

ENG 315 Group Work

ENG 315 students work to create a visual representation of a major idea from the course.

Over the past few years, I have worked to create interactive, inclusive discussions. For a few semesters, I worked with a colleague to create what we called the “read/share” project where students would read a professional book, then lead a lesson from that book. This didn’t seem to elicit the types of interactions I had hoped for, so I shifted focus last year and asked a different group of students to prepare a discussion activity each week based on a particular article or chapter. Again, this didn’t seem to elicit the types of active reading and engagement I was hoping for. I knew that continuing with the traditional “call and response” format would only show me that a few students had read and were prepared to discuss course ideas in a substantive manner.

ENG 315 Concept Map

ENG 315 Concept Map

Thus, this semester I took a number of the ideas from the HITA workshops and tried them out — using playing cards to randomize groups, bringing chart paper and markers for brainstorming, allowing for adequate wait time, back channeling, and having students complete reading guides or discussion questions on Blackboard. I would also take these comments that were produced before class online and bring them directly into our class activities. For instance, I had students agree or disagree with a statement from another student’s online post. Also, in private, I asked some students who had posted something unique to please speak up in class, and most were willing to do so.

Survey Results - Discussion

Survey Results – Discussion

While I am not sure that I mastered all of the techniques, and I recognize that I “lost” some time with lengthier discussions, I am sure that the positive responses to the survey are telling me that I am moving in the right direction. Classroom discussions, even for college seniors preparing to enter their student teaching, can still feel stifled. Yet, I think that I helped encourage a variety of voices to contribute to our dialogue throughout the semester.

Conclusions

These three main changes in my approach to teaching ENG 315 were relatively easy to incorporate and have led to equal, if not better results than what I have experienced in previous semesters. Participating in HITA has reminded me of effective and engaging practices that I knew but seemed to have forgotten, as well as providing me opportunity to learn a few new strategies as well.

As a teacher educator, I am constantly thinking about how best to engage pre-service teachers in meaningful activities that will actually help them better understand both content knowledge and the practice of teaching. In the coming year, as we expand the audience for ENG 315 to include all elementary education majors, I know that the work I have done this semester will contribute to my continued growth as a teacher educator and, more importantly, to my students’ growth as new teachers.

My thanks to Eron and the entire FaCIT staff for a wonderful professional development experience, as well as my students in the Spring 2013 section of ENG 315.

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