Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

After being away for 3 weeks out of the last 7  (2 conferences, 1 job interview trip), I am now in the unenviable position of playing catch up.  Trying to read/respond to discussion posts, catching up on my google reader (I had to admit defeat last week and mark 1000+ messages as read), marking, writing, etc.  This week is Reading Week at 2 of my universities, so I am taking advantage of the relative quiet on my online course discussions to mark assignments and plan out the next few weeks. I have some writing I MUST do (why is it I can always find something else I would rather do than write?) soon and I also have a few papers and reports to review.  My to-be-read pile is growing as fast as my to do list and I am starting to feel slightly overwhelmed with all that needs to be done.

The one shining light in all of this is the assignments I am grading this week.  First, some background.  I am currently teaching a brand new course that I developed for the University of Alberta called Introduction to Contemporary Literacies.  It is my dream course.  It is the course that I have wanted to teach forever and I am lucky enough to be doing it this term. I am working with 30 fantastic students in this class.  They are enthusiastic, passionate, and interesting teachers and teacher-librarians with deep connection to literacy and literature.  They are keeping me on my toes and everyday I admire them for the work they are doing with their students.

The assignment I am marking this week is one I called “Children’s Reading Experiences” and the purpose of this assignment is to explore the ‘big’ world of children’s contemporary reading experiences. Children’s reading is no longer limited to traditional text-based reading experiences. Rather, children today tend to experience books and characters in a wide range of places, both in print and electronically. The assignment has two parts and asks students to explore these different ways of reading.  Students were asked to pick a particular book, series, or character and then explore all the different ways children might actually experience that book/character/series.  They had to put together some kind of pathfinder (using LiveBinders, Jog the Web, or another tool) to display their results.  Then, they had to write a brief reflection to explain what they learned and why it is important for teachers and teacher-librarians to be aware of these bigger reading worlds.

The students have agreed to share their pathfinders on a class wiki and there are many examples of their work already posted.  Please, take a look at what the EDES 543 group have found: http://edes543atuofa.wikispaces.com/Children%27s+Reading+Experiences+Assignment  I know you will be as inspired as I am!


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We are two days away from Christmas and excitement is building at my house.  My kids can’t wait for the ‘big’ day and thankfully have been in school all this week, which means they have been entertained and otherwise occupied.  That gave me this week to prepare: shop, bake, wrap, and yes, even do a bit of work.  Although my fall term work is now finished, with grading done and final marks submitted, I am looking ahead to the upcoming winter term and trying to be prepared for the challenges, surprises, and (hopefully) successes that will no doubt be part of the new term.  On that note, here are a few of the things I am particularly looking forward to in 2012:


  • Going to Dallas in January for the ALISE 2012 conference where I will be presenting with Jennifer Branch on the school library special interest group panel.
  • Going to Toronto in February for the Ontario Library Association’s Superconference, where Jennifer Branch and I are presenting a talk on a research study we did about professional development for teacher-librarians.  While we are in Toronto we are particularly excited about meeting some of our TLDL students face-to-face!
  • Going to San Jose in May for the SJSU SLIS Faculty Institute where I will get to re-connect with other instructors who teach in that program.


  • Teaching a brand new course called Introduction to Contemporary Literacies for the Teacher-Librarianship by Distance Learning program at the University of Alberta.  This is a course I have designed and will teach for the first time starting in January.  I am excited to work with a great group of students (2 sections worth!) as we explore issues related to reading, literacies, transliteracy, and literacy leadership.  We are reading 3 great books (Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf; Free Voluntary Reading by Stephen Krashen, and The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller), parts of 2 other books on new literacies edited by Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear, as well as many blog posts, articles, and online resources.  We will be working in groups to create virtual presentations on topics related to literacy leadership in schools, exploring the ways children and teenagers experience literature in multiple formats, and finally articulating our personal beliefs about literacy in a final project modeled after NPR’s This I Believe project.  I think it will be a great course!
  • Guiding a small group of students through the final course in the graduate program as they write, revise, and finalize capping papers on a topic of their choosing.  From the proposals I have read, there will be a wide variety of topics covered by this group’s papers. This will be the first time I have taught the capping course and I am looking forward to once again working with many students I have taught in the past and seeing them to the end of their programs!
  • Teaching a Web 2.0 course for the University of British Columbia’s teacher-librarianship diploma program.  I have taught this course in the past, but have (once again) tweaked the course to hopefully make it more more accessible to this year’s students.  It is always interesting to teach a Web 2.0 course and see how students who begin the course with great trepidation begin to see the power of technology in schools and libraries.
  • Having the opportunity to teach (for the second time) a youth services oriented research methods course for San Jose State University’s School of Library and Information Science.  I taught the course for the first time this past fall and will now be able to make some adjustments to the course to make it even better for this new group of students.  I will be incorporating more small group discussions and trying to scaffold the assignments in a clearer way for students in this upcoming term.
  • My research partner, Jennifer Branch, and I have a number of exciting ideas for new and ongoing research projects that we hope to start (and finish) in 2012.  We are particularly excited about a grant we received to do a pilot project about how preservice teachers experience reading in digital formats and use ebook readers.  We are hoping to get that research underway in the spring.

Of course, I am also looking forward to spending time with my family, watching my daughter’s art skills improve with her next set of art classes, seeing my son play soccer and tennis each week, the impending arrival of a new nephew, and exploring more of Montreal.  One of my goals for the upcoming year is to try and find a better work/life balance and learn to shut off my computer to focus more time and energy on my family.  I hope to continue running (I am almost finished the Couch to 5K learn to run program…I can almost run for  30 minutes straight. We’ll see how far backwards I slip over the next few ‘holiday’ days!) and walking the dog.  Maybe I’ll even find some time to read a book for fun!

2012 is shaping up to be a busy, interesting, and, no doubt, challenging year.  I look forward to seeing what the future holds, but in the meantime, I am very much looking forward to two weeks of rest, relaxation, good food, family, and Christmas cheer!  Happy Holidays!

cc licensed image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/37906028@N00/2153614467

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I am very fortunate to work closely with a fantastic colleague, mentor, and friend.  Dr. Jennifer Branch is the Coordinator of the Teacher-Librarianship by Distance Learning program at the University of Alberta and I have been able to work with her for the last 8 years as one of the instructors in the program.  During my PhD program, I worked as Jennifer’s research assistant and I learned so much from her about research and teaching and publishing and academia in general. It was a great year!

Our work together has continued since then as we have developed and taught new courses, conducted research, and attended conferences together.  One of the courses we have developed and taught over the last few years is the Exploration of Web 2.0 course that encourages students to play with Web 2.0 tools and blog about their experiences.  Since teaching the course for the first time in Winter, 2008, we have taught over 100 students.  The course won a Faculty of Education Technology in Teaching Award 2011, which was given “in recognition of excellence in the performance of teaching duties using technology”.

This fall, Jennifer and I are teaching 3 sections of our Web 2.0 course between the two of us and last spring we started talking about what we were going to do with the course and the changes we wanted to make to the course content and assignments.  As we were talking about these course revisions, I had a crazy idea that we should team teach the course, combining all 3 sections of the course into one big classroom with both of us equally responsible for teaching.  To me, it made a lot of sense to combine the sections and teach them together. And luckily, Jennifer could see the advantages of this crazy plan and agreed to team teach EDES 501 with me this term.

'soccer practice'

We are now about 3 weeks away from the last day of classes for the fall term and I am so happy that we decided to approach the teaching of this course in this way.  Team teaching the course with 45 students in one combined class has been a phenomenal experience for me (and I think Jennifer would agree).  Here are some of the things I that I have learned and am thinking about regarding team teaching:

  • It’s a lot of work to teach 45 students in one class.  Even though I am only responsible for marking one third of the students’ work, we are both reading and responding to discussion posts and we have worked hard to get to know all of the students, regardless of which section they are in.  The sheer number of posts (especially in the early weeks of the course) was overwhelming at first (for us and for our students) but now that we are into a regular rhythm we know that our diverse group of students are benefiting from learning with and from one another.
  • Teaching a class with 45 students is MUCH easier with 2 instructors.  Knowing that Jennifer would respond to a question or a post if I couldn’t get to it that day alleviated a lot of stress.  Our students benefit from having two of us available at various times to respond to emails and messages.
  • It is so nice to know that someone has my back.  When I got sick a few weeks ago, I didn’t have to worry about responding to messages or even checking in because I knew Jennifer would take care of things while I was out for the count.  Similarly, when Jennifer was away at a conference earlier in the term, I was able to take over and manage discussions, post weekly announcements, and answer questions posed on the course management system.
  • Evaluating student work is hard…grading is hard, but having someone to talk to about grading criteria, assessment practices, etc. has been really helpful.  Jennifer and I have spent a lot of time creating grading criteria and talking about how to assess our students’ work fairly and these discussions have helped me be a better instructor.
  • Talking about pedagogy and teaching and course content has made the course stronger.  Having someone who is teaching the same course at the same time (in the same virtual classroom) has given me a chance to really talk about and think about some of the issues that come up.  In other circumstances, I might not think so much about what is working (and what is not working), but because we are seeing the same things, we talk about them and we make changes as we go along.  We also have a running list of things to think about and change for the next time we teach the course.

Working as a team to teach this course has been a completely rewarding experience.  We are working so closely together that our students have started calling us Jsquared or J²! I have learned a lot about teaching and learning from Jennifer and we have spent hours (literally, hours) on skype talking about how to improve this course (and all our courses), how to make the learning experience more rewarding for our students, and how to become better teachers ourselves.  Those conversations have left me with a lot to think about and have given me goals for changes I want to make to other classes that I teach.

Our experiences teaching this class have also made us realize that if this kind team teaching is beneficial and positive for us (and we are experienced instructors in the online environment), it would be so helpful to provide similar kinds of mentorship experiences for new instructors, especially instructors who are new to teaching online.  For many people, teaching online can be intimidating and scary, especially at first.  If university departments could provide opportunities for new online instructors to teach with an experienced instructor, the benefits could be very worthwhile.

As teachers, I don’t think we often take the time to really talk to our colleagues about teaching and learning. We don’t often have the time (or we don’t feel like we have the time) to think about how to improve our teaching practice.  What I have learned this term is that working as part of a teaching team and taking the time to really talk about teaching and courses and pedagogy and assessment has been very valuable to me.  It has made me a better teacher.  And it has given my students a better experience than it would have been if Jennifer and I hadn’t taken a bit of a risk to try something new.

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I have been thinking a lot about community lately, particularly as I walk and run through the streets in our neighbourhood, looking at the


houses, watching the people go about their daily routines, envying other people’s landscaping or colourful front doors.  I have also been thinking about what it means to be part of a community or neighbourhood.  My family and I moved from Edmonton to Montreal about 16 months ago.  It was a big move for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was leaving behind the neighbours we had gotten to know on our street in Alberta.  In the time we had lived on the street, we had gotten to know some of the neighbours, especially as our kids all got older and started to play together.  We could stand on our front lawns and talk to other parents.  The kids organized epic street hockey games that involved equipment, nets, and sometimes even the dads!  It was nice to know that we would all watch out for one another’s kids.

When we left our old house, we hoped that our new neighbourhood would offer a similar sense of community.  What we have discovered is that it is hard to be the new folks on the street.  In the 16 months that we have lived here, we have met only a handful of our neighbours, and mostly those are the families whose kids go to school with our kids.  We are starting to see our kids organizing some epic street hockey games and play with some of the neighbourhood kids, but we have yet to meet our immediate next door neighbours.  Many people do not even say hello when you happen to run into them taking the garbage to the curb or shovelling snow from the driveway.  I don’t know if it is a language barrier (this is a city where English is not the primary language), or a general sense of busy-ness or something else that prevents people in our new neighbourhood from reaching out.  I do know that it is a very strange feeling to live in a neighbourhood and not really feel like you are part of the community.

All this leads me to think about how communities are built in online classrooms.  How can instructors in online courses ensure that their students feel like they are part of a community of learners? What strategies do instructors and students in online classes use to develop relationships that are supportive and strong and positive?

Over the 9 years that I have been teaching online, I have developed a few strategies that I think have been successful in building community.  For example, at the beginning of every course, I spend at least a week doing activities to encourage my students to get to know me and one another. I introduce myself by sharing a Voicethread presentation I created of my home office (the presentation can be viewed here: http://voicethread.com/share/1641220/).   I am thinking about using this same idea to have students take photos of their own work spaces and submit them to either a Flickr set or a Voicethread so that we can not only picture one another, but also visualize where we each work on course assignments and discussions.

In the early days of the term, I ask students to post their photos to their profile pages in the course management system (in Moodle and Desire2Learn, these photos also appear beside any discussion posts, which is a brilliant way of picturing who is speaking in a discussion) and then to post a personal introduction to the discussion thread.  These two things are critical for not only ensuring that my students are all able to log on to the course and navigate their way around the various sections of the class, but also to ensure that from the very beginning we are starting to get to know one another.  I also ask my students to complete a “Getting to Know You Form” which they share with one another.  Their forms include personal information about where they work and what they do, previous courses completed, goals for and fears about the course, and their favourite cookies.  These forms are helpful at the beginning of the course as we all get to know one another, and continue to be used by students as a yearbook of sorts that they can refer back to throughout the term.

Another strategy that I use is to share a lot of information about myself in my courses.  I make use of regular announcements to my students (a Monday morning announcement and then other announcements throughout the week) to not only remind them of upcoming deadlines, important information, things to remember about the week, etc., but to also talk about my life and my work.  I talk about my family, the weather, and just about anything else that I think is worth sharing.  I am trying to model transparency but also trying to invite my students into my world a little bit and put a human face in front of the typed words of the online course content and discussions.  Students have responded positively to how I use these announcements to keep in touch with them.

Another strategy I use in all my courses is a “Virtual Starbucks” area in the discussion forums which invites students to sit back with a cup of coffee (or tea, or hot chocolate!) and talk about non course related  stuff with me and their classmates.  I have a Coffee Talk thread (for anything that doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere else), a Favourite Restaurants and Recipes thread, a book recommendations thread, and a professional resources thread.  These are places for students to share their ideas and recommendations on topics that are outside the course content.  But using these informal spaces to connect with one another has been an effective strategy for some students to get to know one another better.

Building relationships in online spaces takes time and some planning.  I always build in 10 days to 2 weeks at the beginning of the term as community building time.  Some people might question my rationale for taking that much time away from the course content but I would argue that this is the best use of our time in those first days of a course.  Laying the groundwork for a strong, positive community takes time, but it also ensures that the rest of the course runs more smoothly and that my students and I have a more successful and enjoyable experience working together.  I only wish that my attempts at building community in my real worlds were as successful!

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I have wanted to be a teacher since I was 6 years old and I used to set up my dolls with my chalkboard and teach them to read and write.  I have always wanted to be a teacher and I am thrilled that I am doing what I love by teaching for 3 different universities.  That’s not to say teaching is easy or even always fun, but I love to learn along with students, I love to see how my students change and grow and develop over the course of a term, I love to push my students to think about things in new or different ways.  In short, I LOVE teaching.

What I don’t love about teaching, however, is grading. I take my responsibility seriously and while I enjoy looking at student work and reading my students’ thoughts and ideas (many of my students are very creative and it is always interesting to see how they turn an assignment into something really great!).  What I don’t like about grading is the time and energy required to grade assignments effectively. I want to provide good feedback, I want to be able to justify the final grade on the bottom of a paper or project with thoughtful, useful comments, but all this takes a great deal of time, especially when I am teaching many different courses each term (right now I am teaching 4 different courses for 3 different universities and I have about 70 students all together).

I also don’t like the anxiety and stress that comes when I return assignments and then have to face a barrage of emails questioning and complaining about the grade.

Overall, grading is the worst part about being a teacher and right now in the university term, it is the grading crunch.  From now until the middle of December, I have to mark: integrated literature reviews, research journals, blog projects, grant proposals, program evaluation reports, final reflections, and final projects.  That’s a lot of grading to get done in about a month.  I see a lot of coffee in my immediate future.

Over at the wonderful blog Hook and Eye, Aimée Morrison talks about how she handles the grading crunch.  She suggests grading in clumps and taking breaks.

Here is what I wrote in a comment to this post at Hook and Eye:

I do the clump approach too…and I often try to mark 1 or 2 that I think will be ‘good’ first and then save 1 or 2 (hopefully) good ones until the end. I am terrible about getting distracted while I grade, so doing small numbers at a time helps. I teach entirely online so my grading is all on the computer…sometimes I use a paper rubric or grading sheet and fill it out by hand (and then scan the grading sheet to return it electronically). I find being able to write on paper helps give me something else to focus on while I am grading and my students often appreciate the handwritten comments (if they are legible!). I have also started using Evernote as a way of providing students with feedback. I create an Evernote notebook for each student and share the private link with them individually. Then, I can just add comments/feedback/marks for each assignment to their notebook. This works particularly well for journal assignments or for other long term or big projects that they work on and which I give them feedback on periodically throughout the term.

Evernote has been a revelation for me this term and I am so glad I added it to my grading toolbox.  It has been a fantastic way to provide ongoing, formative assessment to students throughout the term.

Another strategy I have been using for some time is to mark written work directly from Word (I ask students to submit their work as .doc/.docx or .rtf files) and use track changes to make comments throughout their work.  This means my comments are always legible and I can simply save the paper and return it by email or through the course management system.  Using track changes to make comments, ask questions, etc. throughout the assignment also means I don’t have to make as many final comments at the end.  I see these comments throughout an assignment as a conversation of sorts–and hopefully they are more useful to the student than a lot of disjointed comments at the end.

From the other comments to the Hook and Eye post, I like the idea of setting a time limit for each paper and trying to stick to that–it is very true that it is easy to spend a lot of time on each paper which then means the job never gets done.  Like another commenter, I tend to only do fine edits of a small section (one page or so) of an assignment rather than correcting the entire assignment.

Because so much of my current teaching (and therefore my grading) takes place online, I get a lot of screen time.  While this is handy in some ways, it also means it is really important to take time away from my computer while I am in the middle of a grading crunch.  I’m hoping this afternoon, for example, to take a break and go for a run.  I also tend to get lots of laundry and vacuuming done on the days when I am grading virtual piles of assignments!

What are your strategies for coping with the grading crunch?

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