Class as Experience
By Leigh Hall, Guest blogger and TES author
Leigh Hall is an associate professor at UNC, where she teaches literacy courses in the Elementary Education program, the M.Ed. for Experienced Teachers program, and for students preparing to be scholars in the field of literacy. She blogs about education generally, blogging in the classroom, literacy education, and yoga. Like her stuff? Follow her on Twitter.
At some point, I realized that I didn’t think of my class so much as a series of lectures or objectives or activities or readings or whatever, but rather as an experience. I don’t know when or how I made this shift. I just know that one day I realized that I was planning a class and was working on creating a set of experiences for my students. The idea is that I want my students to have a set of experiences that will push them towards the larger objectives for the course and the smaller objectives for that specific day.
This may seem like a moot point to you, I don’t know, but for me this was a profound shift in my thinking – and realizing it only elevated my ability to think about it more explicitly. Basically, when I sit down, I ask myself:
what is the specific point of this class?
what do I hope students will learn?
what experiences can I design that will move my students in a particular direction?
So, for me, the use of the word experience has changed my whole outlook on what it means to be a teacher and design classes.
Because I am interested in creating experiences, I think it should make sense that I am highly interested in having tons of interactions going on in my class. I believe there is a time and a place for a lecture. And in my two hour and fifty minute classes, I believe that should not take more than 30 minutes tops. Even then, I’m going to expect there to be some interaction embedded within that time frame and maybe even a short video.
But, an even more integral part of my class is the students themselves. Students make or break a class. I obviously do too, but let’s operate under the assumption that I’m doing my part and showing up prepared with a range of experiences for students to participate in. At that point, their learning gets handed over to them. They have to engage with the experiences provided, and they have to do so in as mindful a way as possible (while trying to be fully present in the moment – class is hard, right?). If they choose not to participate, tune out, or limit their participation, then the class suffers. Learning suffers. And no, I am not going to lecture for nearly three hours. I will drag them through the experience if I have to, and it will be painful for us all, but hopefully it won’t have to come to that. What I know about myself that my students don’t seem to know is that I am ok with sitting in silence until they decide to start talking. And when I say sitting in silence, it’s probably not even a full minute.
I got to thinking about this the other day when I received my course evaluations from my fall courses. One of these classes was a Masters class with practicing classroom teachers. As a whole, the class was outstanding. They were willing to engage with the experiences I asked them to partake in. But one of the comments struck me. One person said:
"My peers definitely helped “make” the class worthwhile for me, mostly because of how strong teachers they are. I wonder if the class would have had the same effect if not for the students who were in the class with me."
I have to say, in all honesty, this class could have been terrible or definitely of lower quality IF the students in the class did not do what they did. I am going to be reading into this statement a bit now and going off on my own tangent – possibly in directions unintended by the person who wrote it. I think that’s ok. Comments are supposed to make you think.
My thoughts on this is that it is not entirely me, the professor, who makes the class. It is also not entirely the students. It is all of us together. If I don’t do my job to set up the class for learning, then the students will struggle to get something out of it. If I set it up well, but the students decide they could care less, then they still won’t get anything out of it. When we both come to the table then the magic happens, but at the end of the day, I think the students have a fair amount of collective power over how well their class goes. At least, that’s the case when I’m teaching.
In Masters classes, I give students a lot of responsibility, voice, and choice over the direction of the course. I have general topics laid out, but I expect them to contribute to the shaping of the syllabus, share in leading the class, and often design projects that are going to be relevant and useful to them in their daily lives. On a scale of formal to non-traditional, I lean towards non-traditional. I know this can make students uncomfortable when school doesn’t look exactly like the school they are used to, but I’m ok with that. I spend most semesters asking students in all my classes to trust me, to take risks, to have confidence I will not penalize them for taking risks and falling on their faces, and to fully engage with the experiences they are being presented with.
But I cannot make any class a success all by myself. Class is not about me doing stuff to you to get you to learn. Class is not an isolated event. It is an experience, and it is meant to be lived.