To Do 2016: What I Accomplished

Growing up, I laughed at the tradition of setting resolutions, but when I finished my master’s degree, and was left without the usual goals of Write good papers! and Graduate! I discovered that goals are really helpful in giving my life forward direction and structure. So now I too set New Years’ Resolutions!

Here’s what I’ve accomplished over the last year:

Professionally, I resolved to read up on teaching developmental courses, as well as read John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching (recommended by my mom). I also made a tentative resolution to pursue the opportunity to teach online and to pursue further professional development for myself.

I’ve done really well in this area. Over the past year I’ve

  • Read Teaching Underprepared Students, by Kathleen Gilbert
  • Read Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching 
  • Taken a course in online assessment
  • And taught a course online! I’ve even designed new assignments for it!

I made progress on my personal goals too.

I wanted to get more comfortable baking yeast breads, since traditionally I make Christmas morning cinnamon rolls, and traditionally, I panic about making cinnamon rolls. Are they rising enough? Did I kill the yeast? Is this a warm enough spot for them?

But this spring, I joined a bread baking group on FB and started making my own bread. I regularly post panicky questions (most recently: What happens when you forget to add the oil ?) to the group, but the people there are kind about helping me through my problems, and I’m really starting to understand the process better. And the bread I’m making is delicious! It’s nothing spectacular, just white bread that never seems to rise as high as I want; but it sure is yummy!

Sadly, I didn’t get to make cinnamon rolls this year, as a helpful family member commandeered the process. So I treated my cousins to a chocolate babka instead!

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Babka, or as my cousin Dan calls it, “chocolate goodness”.

I also opened a retirement account and purchased a new car (a blue Toyota Corolla); the car purchase was especially wise since I put nearly two thousand miles on it driving about southwestern Colorado this summer, hiking a 14er with my aunt and uncle.

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Me, my aunt, and my uncle on Mt. Handies. 

But I missed a few things personally:

I never learned to pick up dropped stitches. Just a few days ago I dropped two or three stitches, and when I tried to pick them up, I dropped a few more stitches. So into town I went today, to get the yarn store ladies to pick up the stitch for me.

I never owned a pet. I tried, but it turns out I’m not rich enough for that yet. Back to the shelter my cat went.

I accomplished a few spiritual goals, too: I found a new church home, and I’ve gotten involved, reading Scripture during the morning service and participating in a Friday evening women’s event. I also kept Lent, with a fast from sweets, including Brach’s peppermint candies, to which I’m slightly addicted. Beyond giving me a break from my addiction, the Lenten fast was a good reminder of how much I depend on the Lord’s grace for spiritual life.

But there were spiritual goals I missed, too. I never read Dante again, nor did I finish George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. To be fair, I own the Unspoken Sermons on Kindle, and it’s a little daunting to read 19th century religious essays on a tiny iPhone screen!

It’s worth noting that I accomplished a few others goals in addition to the ones I formally set, too:

  • I got my first smartphone, an iPhone SE. I love it!
  • I took up yoga. I also really love yoga.
  • I baked Christmas cookies and delivered them to people in my church. This is a really good way to connect with people personally.
  • I visited Mesa Verde and Four Corners. I’ve wanted to visit Four Corners all my life – totally cheesy, yes, but I’ve always been fascinated with standing on the boundaries of things. Mesa Verde, incidentally, was super cool, much more so than I expected it to be.
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Me at Four Corners. I’m smiling, but it’s like 105 degrees here. 

Now it’s time to look forward to next year; look for a post in the next week or so laying out a few goals for 2017.

Till then, tell me: What did you accomplish this year?

 

New Years’ Resolutions: Teacher’s Edition

teachOne of my goals this year was to read The Seven Laws of Teaching, by John Milton Gregory (If nothing else, that name of his was alluring!)

I was skeptical when I opened the book and discovered it was published in the mid 1800s and written in part to Sunday School teachers. But this is an excellent book.

My purpose in this post is not to do a full review of the book, simply to highlight a few valuable takeaways. Essentially, I’m recording my ideas here so that in the fall, when I return to teaching, I remember what I learned, and apply it.

Lesson #1: Teach the new skill or idea first, then the words to describe that skill.  

When I teach students to add quotations to their writing, I start by introducing the term “quote sandwich.” When I teach students to read poetry, I start by defining “close reading” for them. Frequently, they get a little freaked out by these unfamiliar terms; they may insist they don’t do poetry, or that they’re not naturally good writers.

Reading Gregory’s book reminded me that when students are first learning something, they learn best when the subject builds on familiar knowledge and is described using familiar vocabulary. “Ideas,” writes Gregory, “must precede words in all but parrot speech”.

Essentially, I see it this way. The stuff I’m trying to teach students is in a box, and on that box there is a label, something like “quote sandwich” or “close reading” or “A-Ha! Moment”. If I teach students the word on the label, all they have is superficial knowledge; they know what’s on the box, but not what’s in it. Knowing that a specific style of shoes is called Manolo Blahnik is meaningless if you’ve never worn a pair of shoes in your life.

But if we take the stuff out of the box, handle it it, play with it, try different things with it, and only at the end affix a label to it, then students understand both how to use the stuff in the box and the term for it.

So here’s my goal for next year: I’m going to stress vocabulary less, skill more; I don’t care if students know the terminology (much of which I make up myself anyway) if they can demonstrate the principles I’m teaching them. When I do want them to know the vocabulary, as much as possible I will try to introduce the vocabulary after the skill – for instance, assigning reading about quote sandwiches only after practicing quote sandwiches (without using that term) in class. When I absolutely have to introduce vocabulary before the concept, I will not only teach the term before we practice the new skill, but afterwards too, so that if the term did not make sense in advance of the lesson, it may be clearer after the lesson.

Lesson #2: Get students talking about and working with the material we learn in class. 

On a related note, Gregory also stresses that if students are to really understand course content, they have to get beyond “parrot speech” and clearly put the new concepts and skills they’re learning into their own words.

A few things. One, this rests on Gregory’s assumption that learning is not transferring data from the teacher’s brain into the student’s, like moving gold nuggets from one prospector’s pan into the next. Rather, learning is about the teacher enabling the student to recreate an experience, to apprehend how what she is learning connects with prior knowledge and applies practically.

Given this, how elegantly and vividly the teacher can explain the lesson is not as important as whether the students have a chance to explain and practice the lesson themselves. If ideas really do come before words, at some point students need the chance to put the ideas and skills they are learning in their own words, and they need to be guided towards the most accurate words.

Since reading Bruce Wilkinson’s book The Seven Laws of the Learner, I’ve taken responsibility for guaranteeing that my students learn, but in general, that means I’ve made a good effort to make my lessons rich in visuals and examples, and to meet personally with students to help them apply what they learn. Now, I’m going to put less work into thinking up visually rich lessons and creating beautiful Power Points, and more work into asking good questions that get students talking about what they learn. I’m going to keep reviewing terminology with students, but instead of just asking (say, for example) to define symbol, I’ll ask them how they know that the birthmark in Hawthorne’s story is in fact a symbol, which gets at not only the vocabulary but (more importantly) the experience and skill behind the words. I want my students not only to parrot back definitions; I want them to explain what they are doing, the experience they are having.

Two, later in the book, Gregory stresses that since learning is about recreating an experience rather than rehashing a lesson, students must be stimulated to independent thinking and independent work on the subject if they are to really learn. Gregory rejects “the notion that [the teacher] can make his pupils intelligent by hard work upon their passive receptivity.” Instead, he suggests that teachers should spent their time “assisting the mind to shape and put forth its own conceptions” of the topic. In my writing classes especially, I have noticed that thoughtful papers depend on students taking time to mull their topic over, and so I’ve urged them to do so.

But in general, I’ve expected that mulling to happen out of class, while we use class time to discuss general writing principles. I see now that I have been trying to make my students good writers by “hard work upon their passive receptivity”: If I just explain the general writing principle clearly enough, and if students are diligent enough to think about their topic out of class, they will become good writers. This is not true. In the future, I am going to give students time in class to actively think about their topic, to practice and discuss and apply the specific writing skills we learn.

Lesson #3: The teacher should make sure she is studied up for the lesson. 

This was a good reminder for me. I confess, when the grading piles up mid-semester and my day is chock full of meetings with students and meeting with colleagues, it’s easy to convince myself that I don’t need to do the same reading I assign to students, because I’ve read it before. I don’t need to brush up on the methods used to create an outline, because I’ve done created so many outlines before. Surely I can wing it in class.

Not so, says Gregory. “Imperfect knowing,” he warns, “will be reflected in imperfect teaching.” Unless we really know what we’re teaching, we lack the ability to correct students’ misunderstandings, to ask guiding questions, to provide clear examples, and to explain the topic in a way that will hep students learn.

The truth is, I probably will skimp on preparation in the future. My time is not an inexhaustible resource (literally, I turn into a pumpkin after 10.00 PM), and some things are more important than being fully knowledgeable about what I’m teaching. But I am also going to hold myself to a high expectation of knowing as much as is reasonably possible about what I’m teaching, and refreshing my memory frequently.

Concluding Thoughts: 

There were, of course, other takeaways from this book.

I was reminded not to use vocabulary or examples that my students were unfamiliar with.

I was reminded of the importance of reviewing, and reviewing not only little bits & pieces of what we learned but the whole topic together, making sure students can see the big picture.

I was reminded to check what my students already know about the topic before starting the lesson, so that we can build on previous knowledge.

I was reminded to be thorough, going fast enough to keep up enthusiasm for learning new things but slowly enough to make sure students can explain the new concepts and skills they are learning.

But I’m going to end with only the three big takeaways from above. When you make life changes, you’re generally urged to make only one or two at a time, lest you get overwhelmed; changing everything all at once is rarely a good idea. The same is true for teaching. Can I improve in many ways as a teacher? Sure. But I’m not going to improve in every area all at once. For next year, my goals are more modest: Put new ideas before new vocabulary, experience and thought before data, and student talk before teacher talk.

We’ll see how it goes!

 

To Do: 2016

Here are my goals for 2016. I’ve been giving them a good deal of thought, and these are the things I think will enrich my life: personally, professionally, spiritually.

It’s worth noting that I’ve tried to focus on quality over quantity. Rather than resolving to bake four different kinds of bread, for instance, I’m looking to improve my baking skills; the point is not to do a whole bunch of things but to do things which will help me to do other things better, and with more pleasure.

To that end, I don’t have as many goals this year as I did last year. I’ve focused on things I really want to do, not things I feel I should do.

Professional Goals

  • Read up on teaching developmental courses. This is something I’ve struggled with, especially since I was never enrolled in a developmental course myself. I would like to improve.
  • Read The Seven Laws of Teaching, by John Milton Gregory. This book has been recommended to me by several sources. Time to read it!

There are other things I’d like to do to, such as teach an online course and take a professional development or training seminar to boost my skills, but those are far enough outside my control that I’m not adding them to my official to-do list. I’ll still work towards those goals, though.

Personal Goals

  • Improve my knitting skills. 1) Learn to pick up dropped stitches on my own. Every time I drop a stitch, I take the whole project to a knitting expert. That has to stop.  2) Learn to increase & decrease (add and remove stitches from a project). I’ve been religiously avoiding  projects which require me to increase & decrease. But when I learn to do so, I’ll be able to make something besides scarves and fingerless gloves.
  • Get comfortable baking with yeast. Every Christmas, making the traditional Christmas-morning cinnamon rolls is really an adventure, because it’s the only time all year that I use yeast.
  • Start a retirement fund. While I feel awfully young to be thinking about retirement, the truth is that I’m thirty and unmarried; it’s me that will be taking care of me when I’m retired, and that means putting money aside for me now, years before I’ll actually need it.
  • Buy a car. My current car has nearly 170K miles on it. By year’s end, I’ll need a new one, but spending tens of thousands of dollars on a single purchase makes me nervous. I’m hoping that if “buy new car” is on my to do list, I’ll be more likely to overcome my nerves and actually do it.

Again, there are other things I dream of doing (visiting a friend in Seattle, climbing a 14er with my father and my outdoorsy aunt and uncle, owning a pet) but I’m just dreaming about them, not listing them as official resolutions.

Also, I want to have people over more regularly; this is a real goal of mine, but so very unmeasurable that I’ve left it off the official list. Still, the fact remains that I love cooking and baking and eating with people, yet I very rarely make these get-togethers happen, and it’s time for this to change. Anyone want to volunteer to be my first guest?

Spiritual Goals

  • Find a church home and get involved. I am leaving the church I’ve been attending for the past four years, for reasons I outlined in this post. Time to find a new church.
  • Read several religious books, including Dante (missed him last year! It’s been too long since I’ve read the Commedia) and George MacDonald’s sermons, which have been sitting on my Kindle for months now.
  • Celebrate Lent, and possibly other church calendar fasts/feasts. Last year I marked Lent with a fast from humor websites, and Advent with a fast from unnecessary purchases. Both of those times were rich ones in my spiritual life.

I have two other spiritual goals, but as with my goal of having people over regularly, they’re nearly impossible to measure in any way whatsoever, and so I’m describing them here rather than listing them with my other goals:

One, I want to spend much less time on the Internet, mindlessly scrolling through humor websites and skimming mildly interesting Atlantic and American Conservative posts; there are way more productive ways to spend my time. Which leads me to my next goal. Two, I want to read the Bible and pray more regularly. When the semester is very busy, it’s easy for me to fall out of the habit of reading the Bible, and then simply not pick it back up again. This should not be. Reading the Bible is, of course, something I can do more of when I’m not online!

By posting this list to my blog, I’m mostly guaranteeing that I have an easy way to remind myself of what I’m committed to doing this year; I’m not trying to get attention so much as I’m trying to hold myself accountable to using my time profitably. However, because I think it’s interesting to talk about what I’m learning and how I’m growing, I will post about my work towards these goals from time to time; look for the posts under the tag To Do: 2016. 

Here’s to a great 2016!

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