Reading #2 Heart of a Teacher

Reflections upon reading #2, “Heart of a Teacher”, Chapter One, from The Courage to Teach, by Parker J. Palmer

Not a boring reading, I am glad to report.  Beginning with a bad day of teaching (students “silent as monks”) and referring to 30 years of learning the craft of teaching, Palmer finds that the “techniques I have mastered do not disappear, but neither do they suffice.”  Terrific turn of phrase and analysis, and further “good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” (p. 10)

Infusing one’s teaching with one’s personal identity and “being there” with and for students in the service of learning, teaching is not reducible to technique, but comes from the heart (“good teaching comes from good people.” p.13).  Further, student have had objectivity drummed into them, leading to their being out of touch with themselves, stilted in their speech and writing, deluded “into thinking that bad prose can turn opinions into facts” p. 18.  This is one of the most adept descriptions of stiff scholarship I have ever read.

Saddest, and perhaps truest of all, Palmer gives us “we train doctors to repair the body but hot to honor the spirit; clergy to be CEOs but not spiritual guides; teachers to master techniques but not to engage their students’ souls.” p.19  In the name of objectivity, we have lost heart and denied the value of subjective thought.  Palmer goes on to advocate for not only mentors, but explores the qualities of mentees that will/did allow them to absorb what the mentors had to offer.

This is a very person and subjective journey that Palmer guides us on, exploring the joy and pain of teaching.  Working for money and not meaning (p.30) is a common plight these days where holding the job or honoring your soul (p.30) is the real question.  Listening to your inner voice, your inner teacher is the path to identity and integrity as a teacher—and one must author their own authority as a teacher. (p.33)  The truth within your students will respond to you, and respond in kind (p.33).

This is so personal and so deep that while I appreciate Palmer’s sharing the inner workings of the inner teacher, I wonder how many readers will or can attain this depth of understanding.  Great benchmark, but quite a distant or demanding target.  Inspiring to read, perhaps impossible to reach, but there is nothing wrong with aiming high.  I think perhaps Palmer was writing for teachers in similar situations: 30 years of experience, bouts of depression, wondering if it is worth it all, sounds like burnout to me.  At the same time, Palmer rejects pursuing other vocations—the inner teacher loves the inner students.  I think THAT is what has distinguished the exceptional teachers I have known.  Not only “being there” but with love and caring for the students, and also for the disciplines they taught so well.

Reflections upon “How do they conduct class?” by Ken Bain

This is the first in our series of readings for GIS Spring 2013, and for me it was like finding a meteorite in my front yard—just sitting out there in the open, apropos of nothing.  Great job of laying out the unifying factors that MAKE good instructors good instructors, but only if you subscribe to the idea that the sum of the parts equals the whole.  For the most part, I can subscribe to this logic—except where humans are involved, and I know that every outstanding instructor I have ever had possessed something that could not be reduced to words.  That is, good instructors engender FEELINGS in their students, these feelings spark curiosity, and curiosity makes you want to know what is on the other side of the mountain.  That said, please see below re Ken Bain’s Chapter Five.

Bain admits from the get go that any teaching method (my favorite was always called guided discovery) can fail, but then goes on to dissect specific methods employed by specific instructors to inspire students.  His first point was that one should create a “natural critical learning environment” with everyone in the class working together.  This latter charge is challenging enough (professionals are supposed to work together, and class work should mirror this model), but the critical learning environment involves embedding natural activity and questions into a learning environment where everyone is reasoning from evidence.  Evidence-based (you fill in the blank) is a huge buzzword these days—I first heard of evidence-based medicine—and if physician scientists need convincing as to the utility of basing behavior or treatment upon the best evidence, how should college students react to this tactic?  Pretty well, I predict, as there is no ponderous structure (yet) limiting young students’ imaginations—what a great opportunity.

The second point was to get students’ attention and keep it (???!), and let the approach you take be student centered (point three), not discipline-oriented.  That is, you need to first care about the students, and then work toward the discipline.  The fourth point was to seek commitment from students to the class and learning class material, and (5) to help students learn out of class and then use class time to actually do work and check on their progress.  Finally, one must engage students in disciplinary thinking (learning to think like professionals in the field), and create diverse learning experiences, as the brain loves variety (harking back to the–apparently outdated–idea of different styles of learning).  All of this contributes to an environment where “What is the next question” becomes the END of any learning experience, and yet is the BEGINNING of the next learning iteration.  Sounds great.

Above all, student must learn to talk in class, and instructors who communicate well and warmly are those who will succeed in this.  From my experience, making students feel empowered to make a contribution to any class, and accepting those contributions is the key to WANTING to go to class for any student (I believe).  In short, the challenges are many, and opportunities equal the number of challenges.  No one has all the answers.  No one is beyond learning (students and teachers).  Great teachers focus on learning, both theirs and their students (p. 134).  Lots to do.  Let’s get with it.

A Magical Beginning


Looking back, I blame “The Librarian: Quest for the Spear” for my first memories of wanting to be a librarian being a little skewed. I was fifteen when the film starting airing on television, and it quickly became a favorite. This version of a librarian was active, dynamic, and magical–an Indiana Jones for bookworms. Flynn Carsen and his quirky sidekicks gave the illusion that the life of a Librarian was an ongoing adventure concerned with continued learning, education, and mystical objects. Though the mystical object portion of that equation isn’t really true, the rest is.

This ideal of librarianship makes me realize that I not only want to discover where I stand as a teacher, but as an adventurer. Do I teach best through lecture or activity? Am I better at guiding through questions or creating simulations? This internship will help me become my own version of the great Librarian, through experience and learning. It will help me begin my own magical adventures, with my own quirky sidekicks– the new tools of technology.

Practice, Guidence, Modeling and Encouragement

We have a new set of interns and GTAs this semester. Louise, Alex and Karlie finished their sojourn with us in December, and we have sent them out to rock the world of instruction! This semester, we welcome Steve, Kristen, and Robert to the group, and Brett and I look forward to watching them learn! I know at the beginning of the semester, our group experiences much trepidation- what can be more scary than the thought that in the span of a month, you are going to be expected to stand in front of 25 freshmen and teach them something! As we begin the semester, I’d like to share a post that came across Inside Higher Ed that I think really expresses something lovely. The post is about developing an ethical culture (a further explanation of the resolution stating “We will stop making Faustian bargains in the search for truth, and create a lived and shared culture of ethical conduct and transparency” ) it speaks to what we are striving for each semester in our group.

The thing that I love about this post and it’s analogy to ballet is the environment which the author is describing. A culture of “guidance, modeling, and encouragement toward the ideal.” This is the very culture that we strive for in our instruction internship program- our intention is to invite our interns to join a learning environment where they are going to make mistakes and be nervous, but where they will be encouraged to grow and find their voice. To give them experience in teaching with a safety net, so that when they enter the job market they will both know what to expect and have something to offer their future employer. To guide new instruction librarians in the practice of reflection and intentionality. And to give them a period of time to learn to self-evaluate and assess their performance, and practice without the pressure of impressing anyone. And I hope that with this experience, their future participation in instructional activities will be more fruitful and less cause for anxiety.

So, welcome to a new semester! I look forward to all of the great work that we’re going to do!

Why do the internship with GIS, and what do I expect to learn?

I sneaked in under the door and worked in a medical library for eleven years on the strength of a Master’s in public health. This experience gave me a great foundation for studying librarianship, and my academic work has reinforced the idea that on the job training is necessary to round out any MLIS degree. Since my library work experience has been in a very narrow field, broadening my horizon is the best thing I can do and there is no better way to do that than to work with Gorgas Instructional Services.

What I expect to learn is whether I can still relate to entering freshmen, and to update my teaching and technical skills. As a public health and English as a second language instructor (once upon a time), I found it easy to get students engaged and contributing toward their own education and learning. These days, with so much competition from a 24/7/365 entertainment cycle, I wonder if I still have it in me to be able to capture the interest of students who have the entertainment universe at their fingertips. I view this as a competition for student eyeballs and attention, and any new skills I can learn toward winning this competition will be to my great advantage, now and in the future.

There are positive aspects to this competition. Students are accustomed to being engaged with electronic devices, and getting in touch with the information universe is closely related to entertainment. After all, efficient use of the information tools available can save folks time to spend as they choose, entertaining themselves. The devices used are all the same, and librarians have been tasked with saving patrons time and effort since the beginning of the profession—I am very happy to follow in this tradition.

Looking forward to it. If you see me missing something, please bring it to my attention, and thanks.


My Special Project

For my special project I worked on a series of information literacy instruction podcasts. I’ve enjoyed it, even though it’s been frustrating at times (sometimes for fairly trivial reasons). Podcasts are an interesting way of teaching information literacy, because they can be used as just another way of getting the information across to students. I’m not sure they can really replace instruction sessions, but they can be used as a supplement to them (along with tutorials, readings, etc.). At Alabama, we started the Keys to the Capstone podcast series this past summer, with one of our interns recording a series called “from topic to paper,” and I continued on from there.

My work on the podcasts kind of gradually developed as the semester went by. I knew that it would be my special project from the very beginning of the semester, but we were primarily focused on teaching in the first couple of months. During that time I primarily just did some planning – an outline of each episode along with some free writing about each topic. Once our teaching ended the podcasts became my primary focus, and I spent a lot of time in November and the early part of December working on them.

In fact I have a hard time explaining to people the amount of time I’ve spent working on what will end up being just three five minute podcasts. Some of that is my own fault – I’ve become a bit obsessive compulsive about them (I’ll re-record entire segments because I didn’t like how I pronounced the word library, etc.). Some of that is also because of technical issues. I spent some time practicing mixing voices, editing, etc., but it’s still been a bit of a challenge. For example, I had one interview with Andy Johnson, an English instructor here at Alabama, who just has a booming voice (I literally wondered at one point why he wasn’t narrating documentaries for a living). I tried to mix the volume to make his segments sound about the same as my other interviews, but it seemed like he got louder as it went on. So when I recorded my parts of the episode I turned the volume up a bit to make myself louder. Eventually we decided to cut his segments out because I was having a hard time conceptualizing the episode around his quotes (more on that later), but now I’m having to re-record my parts of the episode (that’s pretty much all I have left to do) because they’re almost jarringly loud compared to the other episodes.

The main problem though was in conceptualizing the episodes. The first podcast series was, for the most part, focused on interviewing other librarians, but for this one we decided to interview GTA’s and Instructors from the English department here at Alabama. And it was difficult at times to keep them focused in on information literacy issues. My first interview was with Katie Stafford, and we ended up talking too much about Google, and how it was different than “academic search engines.” The best interview was with Emma Furman (for the Boolean operators episode), and in retrospect it’s not surprising that that one was the best, because she had taken library science classes and knew what Boolean operators were and how they worked. I didn’t want to just script out answers for them (although I kind of did that for the second interview with Katie), but I found it difficult to keep them on topic. For example, during one of Andy’s segments he talked about how important it was for students to keep in contact with their professors during their office hours. I didn’t stop him, or try to prod him in another direction, because the second he started talking about it I knew it wasn’t going in the final cut, so I just let him go.

I think for the most part bringing in some outside perspectives worked well though, and it was worth trying. I enjoyed learning how to use the technology, and I’m pleased to be able to put the podcasts on my resume. In retrospect, I missed an opportunity to put together a blooper reel – it’s amazing how utterly and completely tongue-tied I could get at times.