Keeping It Fresh, the Grizzled Way

How do you keep the fires burning after teaching the same course for 30 years? Especially when it is a gateway course that often has 300 students? I used to be able to memorize the names of 300 students – when I was a young plum. The material was fresh back then. The students were close to my own age, and we could talk about lives that had many things in common.

Wax sculpture of Michael Jackson
Wax replica of Michael Jackson. CC0 license.

Michael Jackson was rocking the world with “Beat It” and “Billie Jean,” and Led Zeppelin and Queen were at the intersection of our tastes.

Those discussions are long past. It’s hard to share common tastes when I’m humming Freddie (RIP) and the Dreamers, and they’re bouncing to Bruno Mars.

Keeping it fresh before class.
There is so much that we can share, even chatting briefly before class. “Tell me about your weekend” is a great conversation starter. We can compare notes about movies, shopping, and, to a limited degree, the world situation. Politics? Not so much. I always keep in-mind my power position as the teacher (and grader!) – I don’t want my students to shut down if I rail about politics. Letting the students know that you care about them individually helps keep it fresh.

Keeping it fresh during class –the challenge.
My subject has evolved a good deal since I started teaching it in 1979, but at the introductory level, comparing textbooks then and now shows, perhaps, a 75% overlap in the basic concepts. The current books are flashier, contain more end-of-chapter exercises, have gobs of online supplements, codes that a thief might use to break into Fort Knox, and a price tag to match, but are, at their content core, not that much different.

How do we keep from presenting the same ideas year after year? How do we keep it fresh for ourselves and our students?

quotation markI throw out my notes after every semester, and start a completely new set the next semester. That way, the material is fresh and I can use new case studies. After all, the world changes every day!

Keeping it fresh during class –the opportunity. Learning from the master of basketball.
Kareem Abdul Jabbar is among the top 10 basketball players in history. Now a fine author, he gives us guidance in his recent book, “Coach Wooden and Me, Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court.” His goal is to talk about what he learned from his UCLA college basketball coach, the late John Wooden, perhaps the greatest coach in any sport. Here’s a key segment from the book. I find this useful because I think of my class as a team, which through working together leads to better understanding of the course content and each other. This is what the gym and classroom have in common. We don’t dribble, pass, and shoot, but there is growing evidence that cooperating in class helps students learn. It’s why I value classes more than self-study courses. Jabbar writes:

“Most other coaches would simply have pulled out their familiar list of drills that they use every year with every team.1 But Coach’s philosophy was that teams were much more fluid.2 Other coaches saw their teams as a deck of cards. If one card dropped off, they just grabbed another card from the deck3…Coach Wooden looked at the face value of each card. No two cards were alike, just as no two players were alike.4 Even more interesting, he realized that a particular player was not the same player one day that he had been the day before,5 that each time one player progressed or faltered, the whole team’s ability to read one another and predict what each would do was affected.”6

Let’s disaggregate the paragraph to get to the juicy parts:

  1. Most other coaches would simply have pulled out their familiar list of drills that they use every year with every team. Now we’re getting to the crux of the issue. Pulling out old notes and yellowing acetates (or the PowerPoint equivalent) is the norm because it’s fast and the notes were vetted when they were prepared. I throw out my notes after every semester, and start a completely new set the next semester. That way, the material is fresh and I can use new case studies. After all, the world changes every day!
  2. But Coach’s philosophy was that teams were much more fluid. That is, different students mean that each class is different – different demographics, different history, different backgrounds, different experiences, different preparation, therefore, different ideas. There is the so-called “Richness of Difference” that makes each class different from all prior ones.
  3. Other coaches saw their teams as a deck of cards. If one card dropped off, they just grabbed another card from the deck. Coach Wooden looked at the face value of each card. No two cards were alike, just as no two players were alike. Each student is unique, and brings her or his own perspective to the class.
  4. Even more interesting, he realized that a particular player was not the same player one day that he had been the day before… This is vital. Students change every time we work with them in the class or during office hours outside of class. Each day is a fresh day! Our interactions with students affect how and why they change. This suggests the potential impact of teaching with what we call the something we’ll discuss another time. Here’s a starter pack.
  5. …that each time one player progressed or faltered, the whole team’s ability to read one another and predict what each would do was affected. Basketball is a team sport. Regular classes can be, too. Each student brings her or his fresh perspective to class each day

The bottom line:
Seeing students as individuals who are part of the new class means having new conversations and new notes with new examples, enjoying our time with our new students. Just keeping it fresh, the grizzled way.


Reference:
Pages 83-84 of “Coach Wooden and Me, Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court,” by Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Grand Central Publishing, New York (2017).


prunesThe Grizzled Teacher (TGT) has taught at eight public universities, one private college, two “flagships”, and several regional state schools during 38 years in postsecondary education. TGT has directed and taught in a 6,000-student first-year science program with a typical class size of 300 students, has taught graduate courses with 5 students, and worked with a thousand faculty, instructional staff, and more than 10,000 students. TGT was on short-term contracts for many years, has been tenured for many more, and has won two-dozen university, state, and national teaching awards. TGT hasn’t seen it all, but has seen a heckuva lot.

After all these years, I still don’t know all the answers, but I’m getting better at knowing the questions.

To quote the late, great Joan Rivers, “Can we talk?”


Submit a pedagogical question or comment to the Office of Teaching and Learning (ndsu.otl@ndsu.edu) for answers in an upcoming blog post.

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