teaching statement

My teaching statement.

Student-centered learning is at the heart of all of my teaching, although I prefer to think of it as community-centered learning. Learning is not best pursued as a solitary project. We learn better when we encounter collaborative problem-solving, and levels of innovation and motivation increase with a socially oriented, interactive classroom. As educators, we sometimes unintentionally stifle the potential of the classroom on the very first day when we overload students with information: syllabi, instructions, and imposed rules and regulations. But this is when we could start building structures for community, connectedness, and respect—building blocks not only for a classroom but for an equal and more just society.

On the first day of any class, I listen to students’ names, their gender pronouns, and why they signed up for the course. After that, I spend the rest of the class with an exercise developed for my Speech Communication course in Fall 2015, when I worked with students to create a Class Constitution. I had set up a collaborative document with an outline of five articles in advance of the class: the students’ expectations of me as a teacher, their commitments to me, to each other, as active participants, and as listeners. I left them alone for some time to let them, as a group, fill each of those sections using whatever electronic devices that had or could share. In doing so, the students developed a real sense of community: a critical participatory space for knowledge-sharing (hooks 1994, 15). After they finished, we spent the rest of our session discussing the expectations of each other and what it means to engage in a community without erasing difference and dissent. Every few weeks throughout the semester, we revisited the Constitution to affirm that we were honoring the commitments we had made. It became an entry point into what I have come to understand as a community-centered classroom.

Motivated students are certainly better suited to participate in such a community-centered room. But students should not have to face the burden of making themselves motivated. In my years of teaching, I have found that raising the stakes for assignments by involving a public-facing component helps increase students’ motivation and excitement. When the students in Speech Communication wrote their Constitution, they were interested in publicly sharing it under a Creative Commons license. I was excited as it allowed us to talk about fair use, copyright, and plagiarism and see how far the work we did in the classroom could reach in the world. The students were thrilled to see interest from other teachers and classes in entirely different disciplines after the document was shared publicly on Twitter. When teaching Introduction to Theatre at Hunter College from Fall 2012 to Spring 2014, I worked with blog posts in a similar approach. Many theatre instructors are asked by their departments to implement performance reviews as part of the assignments. Typically, they are only meant for the instructor to read and grade. Breaking this norm, I assign them as blog posts and encourage students to send the links to their finished reviews to the creative team behind the production.

But strategies for collaboration and interactivity do not have to be intensely technological. My courses feature at least one think-pair-share exercise per class, a “low-tech exercise” borrowed from Frank Lyman and Cathy Davidson: it only requires a piece of paper and a pen. I often ask the students the most crucial point from their readings or what they think they will remember the following week. The three steps of the think-pair-share exercise follow Bloom’s taxonomy closely. First, they are asked to individually collect, remember, describe, or recognize an idea and write it down. Second, they are asked to pair up and read out their responses to each other: they demonstrate, differentiate, relate, and compare. Finally, when each pair addresses the whole group, they get to understand how their reflections overlap or contradict others’ ideas by selecting, formulating, and developing their thoughts. Peer-to-peer learning is meaningful because students learn to trust their own knowledge and refine the idea that dependence on others is not a sign of weakness, but that care for the entire group is essential.

Peer-to-peer learning, thus, helps foster the classroom community and vice versa. This type of learning takes place in courses, such as Speech Communication, where I have, every semester, had collaborative note-takers self-assign on our syllabi. Every class meeting, one or two students are assigned “note-taking duty.” They take notes in a collaborative Google Document, which frees up the group’s attention so students can take breaks from their screens for in-depth conversations, and once again emphasizes care and trust in others in the room. In more advanced classrooms, a more thorough approach to peer-to-peer learning is possible. For instance, in my upper-level undergraduate seminar on the History of American Burlesque in Summer 2018, I built all of the assignments around researching primary sources and their interpretations, centered around my research topic. It was my way of showing the student group that they would have the opportunity to write history in our room and that, as much as I could teach them, their research would teach me new insights. Another way of going more in-depth with peer-to-peer teaching happened in the graduate course Dramatic Vision and Form at Villanova in Spring 2017. Each student took on some of the teaching responsibility for one of our class sessions, preparing discussion questions based on one of the readings. We reviewed the questions together and then co-taught the course on their selected day. Peer-teaching such as these two examples benefits both the individual student and the group. Preparing to teach others can deepen a learner’s knowledge, and seeing a peer teach a course also fosters a sense of accountability in the group.

Building trust to facilitate community-based learning also needs to include the instructor. Students need to be able to communicate with me and each other in a more accessible way than email. Privacy concerns about platforms owned by for-profit companies had me turn to alternative software and platforms. For my seminar on the History of American Burlesque in Summer 2017, I chose to use Commons in a Box—a WordPress-based system developed and hosted by CUNY. It helped facilitate both a blog for student reflections and an internal group system, where the whole class could communicate in one large group, and smaller ones could be created depending on group projects or private communication.

Another meaningful way I strengthened the trust between students and me is by hosting mandatory yet accessible office hours. Since my students were predominantly commuter students, and many of them had challenging lives, I had to be able to speak to them where and when they were able to. The students joined a call with me on Google Hangouts during their breaks at work or from a park bench during lunch. The calls took place mid-semester as a system of midterm evaluations. My questions guided our conversations, but we also spent ample time freely discussing the students’ experiences in the class. Their reflections informed how I shaped the remainder of the semester. By emphasizing the human aspect of the student-instructor relationship, the undergraduates in Speech Communication felt more comfortable speaking and asking questions in class, and the engagement generally increased.

Our students face an unjust world where some bodies are made not to matter, and economic interests and racial injustice undermine livable lives. Cathy Davidson writes that we must “prepare students for careers while educating them deeply enough to assume important roles in a fragile democracy.” I know that I have been successful as a teacher if I help my students to be ready for such a world. I believe I do so by structuring a classroom where students are interested in listening, commit to their collaborative work, stay motivated, vocal, and public, and willing to continue to build trust and a sense of community through the cautious and intentional use of technology.