Link your stories to students’ lives

Through LinkedIn, I met a graduate student who coordinates the Gerontology Student Association meetings at the University of Southern California. She was intrigued that I am writing books about nursing home visiting and thought other students would also be interested in my experience and perspectives. She invited me to talk to the group via Zoom this past Tuesday.

I organized my presentation in terms of three historical periods—the Baby Boom era of 1945-1970, the Vietnam Era of 1970-1995, and what I call “the Angry Era,” 1995-2020—and the newly-launched Epidemic Era, which will last longer than I will.

The online session was a vivid reminder why I miss teaching college students. On Zoom, I could see them processing what I was saying: it was almost as if students’ skulls were transparent.

What made their eyes light up with an “oh, yeah, I see that” expression were stories about what people did in response to historical events.

As teachers, I fear we often forget that ever since there have been people, those people have learned through stories about their world, how it functions, and how other people in it are likely to behave. People forget facts; they rarely forget how facts affected them. The affect of facts become the stories of a person’s life.

I revisit my teaching in terms of stories.

As I think back on my teaching experiences, I remember stories.

I remember the little boy in the class of multiply handicapped children who banged his leg braces on the floor and yelled with glee, “See what Wuss dooze!” as his hyperactive buddy named Russell, whose birth defect that prevented him from speaking but didn’t keep him from exploring, investigated every aspect of the classroom.

I remember the college freshman who literally broke into a sweat and shook when he was faced with a blank piece of paper. And I remember the story I concocted to get him to write without letting any of the other students notice he had a problem. The class was at 4 p.m. and most students were coming from work so I had the entire class write at the beginning of each class about whatever was on their minds for one minute without stopping , starting with 3×5-inch pieces of paper.

Like me, you also probably remember stories about students you taught far better than your remember their names.

As you prepare to teach future classes, keep alert to opportunities to tell students stories that will fix some important aspect of your material in students’ minds so it can’t readily shake loose. Your students will remember stories you used as teaching tools far better than they will remember facts you tried to drill into their noggins.

I’m going to remember the story Yingxue, my USC gerontology student hostess, told me about how the Chinese traditionally make a peach-shaped, steamed cake with red bean paste for older adults as a birthday gift. For my birthday, which happened to fall on the day of my presentation, Yingxue, drew me this cartoon representation of the Chinese god of longevity, 寿星 (Shou Xing), who holds a peach.

That’s a story and a gift I’m not likely to forget soon.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The key to successful online teaching

If you’re an online teacher, you probably were forced into online teaching. That’s how many people get into distance learning: There’s a need, you’re here, you start tomorrow.

That’s basically how I got started teaching at a distance about 30 years ago. I’ll tell you about that another day.

Today, I’d like to tell you the one thing you absolutely must do when you teach online. teacher presenting to class

You must teach your students how to learn your subject.

Please read that last sentence again slowly. This concept is critically important.

Teaching students how to learn your subject is different than teaching them your subject matter. Online classrooms aren’t good places for delivering the drill necessary to get most students to do well on bubble tests. (Offline classrooms aren’t either, but they have the advantage of more time for drill.)

In online settings, your live presentations (or your prepared and posted ones if you’re teaching an asynchronous course) must focus students’ attention on how to go about learning what they must learn.

Even in classroom settings, you cannot expect your presentations to teach everything students must learn. Online teaching requires even more selectivity. Your distance learning presentations must focus on teaching the terms, facts, patterns, and strategies that are required for learning your subject. Most of students’ learning will need to occur after your presentations.

All subjects aren’t learned the same way. Students don’t learn algebra the way they learn history.  So, in addition to teaching that relatively small core of essential terms, facts, patterns, and strategies, you must craft appropriate activities that enable  students to learn to apply those patterns and strategies on their own after your presentation.

If you are an elementary or middle school teacher thrown into online teaching during this pandemic, you have two sets of students instead of one. You have your pupils, of course, but you also have those pupils’ parents. You should try to

  • put the essential terms, facts, patterns, and strategies where parents can access them and
  • make your follow-up activities parent-friendly.

Giving third graders assignments that mom and dad can’t do won’t win you friends at the PTA.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Above all, do no harm

Writing teachers who have worked with me over the years have heard me say many times that above all they should do no harm.

Reading a blog post by leadership and management expert Dan Rockwell recently inspired me to write about four ways writing teachers can do no harm.

#1. Don’t allow nagging issues to persist.

If Morgan and Mahil enter eighth grade unable to tell whether the sentence they wrote calls for its or it’s, that’s not your fault.

If Morgan and Mahil leave eighth grade still unable to tell whether the sentence they wrote calls for its or it’s, that is your fault.

Give students a list of three serious writing mechanics errors they habitually make in their writing in the first month of a school year.

Insist each student master each of those three, serious, habitual errors before the last month of the school year.

(The simple way to insist is to refuse to give a grade higher than a C to any paper that contains one of the student’s habitual errors.)

#2. Don’t  keep changing the objective.

Learning to write an informative/explanatory text is different from learning to write a narrative.

Don’t keep changing the writing objective just because you’re bored with the students’ writing.

#3. Don’t jump in to save the day.

Trial and error is a powerful teaching tool.

Let students make mistakes.

Then ask, “Where’s the first place in the writing process you could have done something different that would have prevented this from happening?”

#4. Don’t penalize mistakes during practice.

Learning to write is a bit like making pie dough: Even when they know the principles, it takes a long time for most folks to get a feel for the thing.

While students are getting a feel for writing, praise what they are doing right: turning in their work on time, not giving up, putting effort into planning, or reducing the number of their serious habitual errors.

What would you add to the list?