I have now been observing EN 102 classes for three weeks and have found the act of observing as a beneficial way to critically assess and explore teaching strategies. I have observed both in-active and active classrooms, responsive and non-responsive students, and a variety of teaching methods used by instructors. These three weeks of observing have allowed me critical insight into what makes the instructional classroom successful. Although it may feel arbitrary to measure success through technical and responsive elements, I think it is important to take stock of what parts of the instruction students are responding to and what aspects of the class they are questioning and struggling to understand. Therefore, finding a way to measure success through observation will allow me to more effectively refine and shape my teaching into something that is meaningful, innovative, and rewarding to students.
It is difficult to identify what exactly makes an instructional class successful as students from all areas with different perspectives and backgrounds bring something unique to the instructional classroom; therefore, it is not productive nor necessary to find one strategy that universally works in the instructional classroom as it does not exist. Instead, it is productive and absolutely imperative to find and tune several strategies that can be adapted and individualized to each classroom setting. For example, although all instructional librarians follow a general lesson plan for several teaching options, each librarian individualizes the lesson plan to their teaching style and customizes the material in a way that allows them to engage students and offer better instruction in every classroom environment. This personalization of the lesson plan produces a great learning environment. I have begun asking myself these assessment questions while observing:
- Why are students engaged/disengaged in this particular moment?
- How can this subject be alternatively explained?
- Is the instructor engaging the students in a critical, academic discussion? If so, how? If not, why?
- What are the elements of library instruction that the instructor is successfully exploring?
- Would an additional element (visual, audio, etc.) further define this point?
The most successful instructional class I have observed thus far was successful in terms of participation, excitement, understanding, questioning, active learning, and energy. I would argue this was due mainly to the excellent lesson plan the instructional librarian followed. When students were not responding, the instructor approached the material differently by re-phrasing a question or providing a more relevant example that resonated with the class. When students responded well to an example, the librarian would continue exploring different areas of that example which allowed students to engage in critical thinking towards something they found interesting. The instructor, above all, treated the students as intellectuals who had something important to say.
This was the first class that a different lesson plan was used for the instructional session. Instead of having each student come up with a topic on their own and form a specific research question around that topic, the instructor had students break into six groups and assigned them an “unusual topic.” Before topics were even given out, the student’s body language showcased interest in the term “unusual.” These topics included the Masque of Red Death, Salem Witch Trials, werewolves, Elizabeth Bathory, cults, and cannibalism. At first I questioned whether students would be invested in a topic they did not pick or knew very little about; however, assigning an unusual topic allowed students to more narrowly focus in on the topic and quickly explore aspects of the topic they wanted to know more about. Not knowing anything about the topic prove to be a great teaching tool as students became invested in learning about the unusual topic. When students reported their research questions, they overwhelming reported great, intriguing, and narrow research questions. The instructor processed to ask questions such as:
- Now that you have this topic, how are you going to approach it?
- What do you/have you found interesting about this?
- Could you narrow your focus anymore?
- How did you get to this question?
- What more could you say about this?
- Would you say you’ve synthesized a good, solid topic?
- So you found… can you tell me more?
- What about this interests you?
- What about this makes a strong research question?
- In what ways would you move forward with researching this?
The professor of the class did jump in to encourage students not to simply create a question that could be answered simply by yes or no; instead, he encouraged them to keep the question narrow enough for an in-depth textual analysis that fits the page/word requirement of their upcoming assignment. This was the only time a professor worked with the instructor in responding to students work during the session, which gave great insight into what the professor wanted as the instructor leant his expertise. In this way, the students received a really great instructional period on what the professor expects, as well as the technical knowledge the librarian provided.
What’s important to me as an instructor is to relay information to students in an engaging manner, while also assuming the role of a non-judgmental and non-condescending facilitator. The librarians I have observed did a great job of balancing this by listening to students concerns and relating the material back to their academic and social lives. This communication creates an authentic and productive instructional classroom. When developing my lesson plans, I am making it a priority to focus on facilitating active response through critical conversations as my three weeks of observation have taught me that this focus has the potential to lead to a successful instructional classroom.