Best Teaching Moments

Best Teaching Moments

“Before there are grants, research, conferences, books, and journals there is the experience of being taught and of teaching. Before the research post with no teaching, before the graduate students to mark the exams, before the string of sabbaticals, before the permanent reduction in teaching load, the appointment to run the Center, the consignment of pedagogy to a discipline called education, before the course designed to be a new book, teaching happened.” 

 - Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study

Before everything else, teaching happened. 

What can we learn from transformative moments of being taught and of teaching?

This HASTAC forum on transformative teaching moments asks YOU to share and comment upon stories from within and beyond formal classroom: stories loosely based around the idea of a “transformative moment” in which teaching, or learning, occurred.

Whether it’s an epiphanic insight, a transcendent writing prompt, or a sustained silence that spoke volumes, we ask you to share the meaningful moments that we so often gloss over when protocols of grading and attendance take center stage.

Anecdotes need not offer an ostensibly transferable lesson (“hey, we should have all our students do this”).

Rather, the idea is to move beyond our oftentimes siloed classrooms and connect through the stories of our sometimes incommensurable, sometimes near-identical experiences.

What was a moment in which you were moved by transformative teaching? What can we learn from that magic?

Or have you experienced a moment on the flip side, a transformative moment of learning? What was that like and what impact did it have on you? 

 

Forum hosted by:

Danica Savonick, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Cristiane Damasceno, North Carolina State University
Kalle Westerling, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Fiona Barnett, Duke University

20 comments

Thank you Danica, Cristiane, Kalle, and Fiona for hosting this forum; what a lovely idea!

One of my favorite transformative teaching moments was when my entire first-year writing class "acted up" one day. (Bet you didn't see that coming!)

At first I was annoyed and wanted to scrunch up my face and yell "Focus, people, focus!" but then I realized the reason they were "acting up" was because I had created a relaxed, community-oriented, authentic learning environment where students could be a little silly, yet still learn. So instead of getting frustrated, I just went with it and ended up laughing and learning alongside them.

Cheers,

Lori Beth 

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I love this, Lori Beth. It's so interesting how these moments of possibility come when we're relaxed and confident in our classroom, or in our ability to take things as they come. I think it's a mix between being confident but not over-confident -- being open to change, being open to where are students are, and being open to what they might teach us! Thanks for sharing. 

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For my transformative learning moment, I've included the notes I took on my first day of "Introduction to Literary Theory" with Professor Richard Dienst at Rutgers University, which must have been about five years ago. I found myself in that class because it happened to be what Professor Dienst was teaching, and I had loved the previous course I took with him. Ever since, I've encouraged students to take classes based on the professor and not the topic. If I had let my uncertainty as to what literary theory is discourage me from taking the class, my life would have turned out very differently. Education involves exploring the unknown--and the more you learn, the more you discover how much there is that you don't know. It's an understanding of education that feels very far from the idea of expertise that many people associate with teaching and learning. 

Though the class was called "literary theory" I quicky learned that the actual topics were language, power, representation, economics, inequality, race, and gender. I learned that a cultural artifact--a news article, commercial, painting, literary text, or advertisement--could be interpreted in many different ways, based on whether your framework was Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, or postructuralist (to name just a few). We learned the fundamental assumptions and limitations of these different perspectives, always reflecting on how they changed our common sense understandings of how the world works. 

As the notes indicate, this class was my first exposure to thinking through metaphor. It was a class that taught us to read according to the principle of "what if things were different?" We learned "survival skills" for parachuting into unfamiliar territory, and were encouraged to embrace "the experimental life." The idea that learning is a series of experiments, in which you simply cannot fail, has been integral to my own teaching and learning. I always ask questions and encourage my students to ask questions. There can be no such fear of not knowing when the process of learning involves an increasing awareness of how little you know. In addition, excellent professors have taught me to divorce knowledge from worth by never holding my "stupid" questions against me. Asking smart questions, or even holding a college degree, does not make anyone more worthy of anything.  

Looking back, I realize how privileged I was to be taking this class--in the financial sense of the term. I happened to be attending college for free since my mom was an administrator at the school. She was also a college graduate and a history major, who never put any pressure on me to pick a major that would yield a lucrative career. Had I been paying my own way through college with the goal of getting a well-paying job, I likely would not have taken classes in things I had never heard of like "literary theory." Though this first day of class was only one moment in a long educational journey, it radically altered the path my life would take, and the very happy place that I'm in now. The theory classes I've taken have taught me about the radical conditions of unjust economic inequality that we live in, and have inspired an ethical demand to address these conditions in which the fortune of of the few takes precedence over the suffering of the many. They've taught me to take seriously discrepancies, contradictions, and nuances, to embrace and proliferate the moments in which things don't add up, or are not easily understood. They've led me to aesthetics and to protests: explorations of the collective histories, wills, imaginaries, and actions that reverberate beneath the surface of atomistic common sense. 

None of this would have been possible had I been born into circumstances where I had to think about where my next meal would come from. Fighting for public education, a project I'm currently involved in, is just one aspect of a larger fight for the good life for all. If everyone had food, a place to sleep, and access to free public education, we could all take classes in things we've never of, learn how much there is to know, and have our lives changed for the better. 

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I wrote up one of my most memorable teaching/learning moments a couple of years ago as a short piece for Hybrid Pedagogy: "An Encounter with Pedagogical (H)alterity." It recounts a difficult moment that made and continues to make me, a language teacher, much more aware of the effect a teacher's words--my words--have on students. Not a sweet or pleasant moment, but one that I cherish and am glad happened to me early in my teaching career.

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Hi Eric,

Thank you for sharing your story. Like Elizabeth, I think you were extremely brave and humble to admit your mistake. What did happen to this class after this incident? I was thinking about your story and trying to figure a way to engage more students with the class work... Why do you think they were not showing up? Was this common in other professors' classes as well?

 

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Hi Cristiane--thanks for the questions, and sorry for the delayed response! It was a bit of an institutional issue, though not anyone's "fault" exactly. The school had a high number of first-generation students, many from working-class backgrounds. So there were a number of issues at play that affected attendance. First, financial aid was always a complicated factor, and students would often join classes late, drop out early, not have texts, etc. because of personal and institutional financial complications. Also, many of the students weren't socialized into the academic expectations of college in the same way that second- or third-generation college students might be, which also made attendance a little spotty.

On the flip side, I wasn't socialized into the particular networks and patterns of that institution, including the expectations students would/wouldn't have. I taught there two more semesters (a wonderful experience) and never ran into attendance problems of the same magnitude, so I suspect a lot of the absences in the class discussed above were due to my own lack of orientation/attunement to students' preceptions of me, of the university, of the classroom. A lot of what I learned was how to provide metacommentary on classroom expectations, on points of connection between one course meeting and the next, and how many things I took for granted about my perspective on education and classroom spaces. I got better, I think, at anticipating and accounting for students' perspectives on what was happening both inside and outside of the classroom.

As for other professors experiencing similar issues, I'm not sure. I was teaching first-year writing, which--as an introductory-level course--frequently has attendance/attrition issues that are more pronounced than in a sophomore- or junior-level course, or a course for majors.

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Mine is mundane and embarrassing.  In my first job at a SLAC in the mid-1990s, an LGBTQ lit job, my students came to me and said, here is what we want: a course on race and sexuality.  I said, OK, I'll prep one this summer.  So I did -- I knew a lot of the work on race and sexuality but didn't feel like I'd really head-on faced how that intersection worked, though I certainly had with race and gender.  So I ended up with a syllabus and a group of students, and I told them (vast majority white) at the outset that we were in it together, and that we all, including me, needed to be brave and humble.  At some point during the course I was teaching Toni Morrison's *Paradise,* and asking them to figure out where the characters were in time and space.   They were guessing Africa.  I had smugly put into my little arsenal the fact that there is a dashiki mentioned in that first scene and that the dashiki was not just West African but also popular in the US during the Black Power era.  Fine, fine.  Then someone said, "But that character is wearing Keds." And I said, idiotically and monomaniacally focused on getting them to see that the characters were in the U.S., "Well aren't Keds American?  So they can't be in Africa."  And a soft voice spoke up, the one African American girl in the class (now an accomplished poet), who said, "Um, they have Keds in Africa." 

So.  This was the turning point.  I could bluster my way through it, or not.  And I took a deep breath and said something like, "[Student] is right.  That was an ignorant comment on my part.   And [student] called me on it, and I didn't die.  So, if you're white, you won't die either if someone calls you on racist ignorance.  I hope you'll treat the person you take to task and the person who takes you to task with respect, because we can only become less ignorant by listening to each other and being brave about what we say and hear."  And I didn't lose them. Maybe I deserved to, but I didn't.

Since then I have tried to be brave about standing corrected, in both my teaching and my scholarship, because you don't actually die from it.

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Hi Elizabeth,

Thank you for sharing your story. I think you were very brave admitting your mistake. I would respect you even more if I were your student in that class. When I first start Grad School, I took a class on 'teaching college communication' with Dr. Dannels (NC State) and I always keep in mind a suggestion that she gave me: "Reframe the situation in terms of learning". I think you did that because you not only were brave to say you were mistaken, but you also offered students a learning outcome from your mistake. Brava!

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My favorite transformative teaching moment was described, by my brilliant student Skyler Toyne in this blog post from my Fall 2015 'Images of Women in Literature' course at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.

A close runner-up is another student -- Kelsey Peterson's -- mashup of Green Bay football culture and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (Cantos I & II).


Rebecca Nesvet
Assistant Professor of English, UW-Green Bay
nesvetr@uwgb.edu
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I wrote this piece in early 2001, just after the start of my first semester with a classroom of my own. What I remember most vividly is not my first class, but those few days leading up to it. I was, as I wrote then, "determined to be a good teacher." I, ultimately, learned how to be a teacher from students -- and from realizing that I was (and will always be) still a student. 

Flashforward to Spring of 2010, my last semester teaching at CU Boulder and the first time I made a short film reflecting on a class (which I've gone on to do several more times). The class was "Queer Rhetorics," and I still remember the face of every student in that class vividly. It was a true learning community, of which I am still humbled to have been a part.

In the last weeks of the semester, I brought cameras to class and students passed them around, filming our discussions in the large group, in small groups, they went into the hall and interviewed each other about the class and their learning. I never picked up the camera, never instructed them what to film.

This was, for them, an act of assessment (the loveliest and least standardized kind). They captured bits of learning and their reflections upon them. I took the footage home and edited it into a short film -- my "final project" which I shared with them on the last day of class. Editing together the bits into a film was my assessment of the class, a letter back to them in response to the letter they had been writing to each other and to me all term.

Here's the letter we made. And this is why we don't need grades.

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Hi Jesse. I think the best teaching and learning often occurs in the space where those distinctions begin to evaporate. We know that students learn best by teaching the material to eachother, but as you point out, we teach best when we let students teach us what they need and help us get them there. It's such a dynamic relationship, one that keeps the profession perpetually interesting.

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Jesse, your post (and the other posts here) made me think about my struggle to identify key learning moments in my past. I just don't remember them many that well. Ultimately, though, I want to talk about the thing I learned from looking for them – that they’re all important.

I have distinct memories of teaching moments – the one that comes to mind: one professor, Grant Horner, filling a whiteboard with a variety of different terms we used in our class discussions, then beginning to draw lines between top/bottom dichotomies, to show how endemic dichotomies had been in our discussion of Platonism, and tying this back into the ideal/real dichotomy expressed by Plato.

But here’s the thing – to get that moment, to be impacted by it, there were so many moments before that that were necessary. I needed to learn about Plato, I needed to learn what a dichotomy was, I needed to learn a way of discussing with my classmates. I don’t remember when I learned about these things, but they have helped me construct conceptualizations that move me into neuroscience and education, without loosing my love for literary criticism. All of this is possible because all of our teaching and learning moments are important – even the ones we don’t remember, we learn from in little, subtle, but vital ways.

Everything we do changes people. That’s not the end of the discussion, but for me, the beginning. There are better and worse ways, more and less impactful and more or less changing moments – but they’re often informed by so many subtle and forgotten moments. So, for me, first, that recognition – and deep thankfulness to be involved in the process.

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All the way in grad school til now, I have been a TA. There are many transformative moments. One happened last semester when I TAed for a GenEd course. As a TA, I led three discussion secitons, each less than 20 students. This is also the size of a class I am most familiar with. I was comfortable with My TA job. However, that semeste, my two TA collegues and I were required to guess lecure, each once. As the lecture day neared, the pressure increased exponentially. The lecture hall had over one hundred undergrads, some in my sections, but two thirds being new faces. Also, I needed to lecutre about 45 minutes instead of leading a discussion for that same length of time. In addition, even if you didn't feel any sense of competition between you and your colleagues, it was there, undeniable. Fortunately my well-prepared lecure turned out to be good, though not perfect. In retrospec, the guest lecture transformed my sense of teaching. Lecturing in a large hall is totally differnt from teaching in a small classroom. Lecturing is not the same as teaching a seminar, or teaching a languge class, or leading dicussions. Lecturing is not exactly monologic presentation either. It has its own structure and dynamic that also required a lecturer to constantly adjust to the need of the topic and the character of the student population. As a PhD candidate who is hoping for a teaching job in a university, lecturing is one kind of teaching we need to have a sense of. The more we lecure, the better.       

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I've had so many great teaching moments I barely know where to begin, but a very recent one happened maybe two years ago when I came back from a Digital Media and Learning conference and my class had decided to tear up the contracts we'd signed (for contract grading), do away with the class constitution as written, and, on their own, in my absence, they had redone the syllabus for the course AND the final project on which they would be graded.  Hey!   Isn't that taking peer-learning and student-led learning too far??  A MUTINY!

 

Well, what they had decided was that they liked this method so much that, instead of each writing research papers that only I would read, they wanted to write a book together on how to conduct a class using these peer-learning, student-led methods.  There were eight students in the class, all graduate students--Phd, MA, MS, MFA--from Duke, University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University.  The fields included American literature, business, computer science, interactive media design, communications, history,  information science, and multimedia interactive arts.   They had divided up the rest of the semester into "chapters."  Each week another student (or students) would give us a reading assignment on a topic, we would discuss it, and they would also write a draft of their chapter on a Google Doc and we would all give them feedback. 

By final exam time, they would have a completed book, ready for a professional copy editor to make it stylistically consistent (I told them no collected edition can survive without a professional to regularize all the details).  Once it came back from the copy editor, after the grades were in, they promised to see it through the entire production schedule.  The would publish it on HASTAC, on Rap Genius, on GitHub, as an open editable Google Doc, and as an Amazon book.  The MFA student would design the physical book.  Each would take responsibility for publishing it on a different online site.

It seemed crazy.   To write a book by exam time?  I had edited many volumes and there's always someone who fails.  I asked what they planned to do then.

One of them said they had discussed this thoroughly in my absence.  They thought that, if they didn't have a full completed book manuscript by final exam time, they should all fail the course.  It was a collaborative effort and that seemd a fair way to judge the success of their collaboration.

Whoa!   I said, as much as I was in favor of collaboration, that pushed my academic ethics . . .   an F in graduate school changes your career, if not your life.  I said I reserved the right NOT to fail everyone if one person screwed up.  I reserved the right to call a SOS meeting if that happened for us to collectively come up with another way.

They indulged me.

I said my second concern was that so much of this--getting the book actually into its published form in these different venues--would be happening after the grades were turned in.  Did they think they could really keep this class spirit and collective ambition together after the course?

Yes.  They did.

 

It was their confidence in themselves that I will never forget.  That moment ranks among my best teaching moments ever. 

 

And the result?  Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies, A Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Teaching and Learningposted on this HASTAC site on August 1, 2013.   So far, it has had 16, 347 unique visitors on this site alonge--never mind all the others.  It includes extremely detailed "how to" information (including the actual grading contracts, peer grading rubrics for badging, a class constitution, and other paraphernalia).  It's been taught at many universities.  And it is beautiufl.  Check it out: http://www.hastac.org/collections/field-notes-21st-century-literacies

 

It is one of my best ever teaching moments--and the real legacy is that, thanks to these eight students, it can contribute to your best teaching moment too.

 

Thank you, forever: Christiane, Omar, Jade, Christina, Patrick, Barry, Elizabeth, and Jenny.

 

NB:  Christiane is one of the organizers of this Forum.  The best teaching moments seem never, ever to stop!

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Hi Cathy,
 
Thank you so much for bringing your experience with our group to this forum. Your course was one of my TOP learning experiences. After two years, the collaborative work we performed in your class and the book we wrote together still provides me with insights on how to make the classroom a more creative, transformative, and democratic space.  I know this experience will keep resonating with me throughout all my career. Thank you!
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One of the most difficult, yet insightful moments I had as a teacher was as TA  for Modern U.S. History. Many of our students at NC State come from very conservative backgrounds and are skeptical of what is taught in university classrooms. I had a student give a presentation in which s/he defended Japanese Internment during WWII and questioned why immigrants fail to assimilate in the U.S. The student was not being mean-spriited, hateful, or racist. S/He honestly did not understand what was wrong with espousing these ideas. After the presentation, other students began discussing infringment on civil rights and liberties and I took the class back to the document reader to have them read the dissenting opinion of the Korematsu case (famous for its denoucement of internment, first use of the word "racism" in a Supreme Court decision, and its analogy to a loaded gun that could be pointed at anyone at anytime). I don't know if the presenter's perspective changed, but the professor I was assisting tried to encourage me about the incident.  S/He told me that the fact students felt comfortable enough to express themselves in the classroom without fear of judgment is important. It started a great conversation and made me keenly aware that students approach material from a wide range of views. Our job as educators is to find out where students are at, meet them there, and then lead them to greater intellectual development. Sometimes students progress in great leaps and bounds, other times it's baby steps. But what matters is that they're learning and that they know they are valued as individuals and human beings.

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Hi Stacy. It is so true that students learn at different speeds--learning just doesn't conform to standardized educational environments. Thank you for sharing this experience. In my class, we are about to move into conversations about racism and state violence. Your post was a helpful reminder that, although I teach in one of the most diverse schools in the country, with that diversity will also come a variety of preconceived ideas about politics. I invite/challenge students to leave the classroom thinking something different than when they walked in, and to challenge their existing assumptions about how the world works. It sounds like your experience was a great example of how much we learn from teaching difficult subjects, especially ones that feel urgent and so important to us.

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Appreciate this discussion a lot.

I am seeing that a lot of the folks who teach tend to focus on what they think happens when they teach. Students talk about what they liked in a course that inspired them. All of this is meaningful and fine. Overall, these discussions leave me with the realization that it is very difficult to disengage good teaching and learning from perspectives, personalities. These make it very difficult to talk about objective criteria about good teaching and learning outcomes. I therefore wonder if there are objective criteria that assess teaching and learning outcomes and make both more tangible. What are the things that make a classroom (or whereever learning happens)  places of learning? What makes are some of the common qualities of good teaching environemnts (which include teachers), etc.

When I read the comment above (the more we lecture the better), I thought, "really, why?" Isn't lectuing something we have been doing for centuries and we have been noticing its limited impact on learning outcomes. We have to think harder, experiment more, work with students, talk to the teachers and then see where we end up.

I think we need relatively objective measurements for learning and teaching that take both the learner and the teacher perspectives into full account.

Best,  Ece (pronounced A.J.)

 

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Ah, so many transformative moments … But here’s a recent one. In a project-based, interdisciplinary class I just co-taught at Stanford, students in English, Comparative Literature and Computer Science worked in teams on projects developing connected or social media forms of reading, studying, and enjoying literature in the digital age. The format was influenced by design thinking, which asks you to ideate, launch, test, iterate, and try again to make a product and a user experience better. This was both exhilarating and sometimes frustrating for the students, who had to let go of some grand ideas and initial perfectionism to go through the cycle of the course.

My own teachable moment came when I read a student’s final learning reflection. She included a graph that documented all her ups and downs in the course, with a vertical axis for “Affect” (plus above and minus below the line, you get the picture), and a horizontal axis for “Time” (spent in the course—ten weeks, sicne we’re on the quarter system). It was a true up and down, with high Highs at points of emotional engagement and actual success with project milestones, and really low Lows at points where things did not go as expected or hoped. The narrative described those in great detail. The amazing thing about the graph, though, was that it ended on the highest High right at the end—when it was time for the final project report and the final learning reflection the student was writing at that very moment. She was able to look back and understood, to her amazement, how far she had come, and what she and her team had, in fact, been able to accomplish in ten weeks—an astonishing amount. Although there had been frustrations and low points, she realized that those had been crucial as touchstones and turning points in her own and her team’s learning, which would never had happened this way, had they not experienced the difficult phases and worked hard to come out of them.

That’s when it hit me, too. I’m a caring teacher and want my students to succeed, of course, and so I tend not to make enough room for failure and growth that comes from stumbling and trying again. I had read Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset and believe in the importance of failure as an opportunity for learning, and yet, I had not truly applied this knowledge to my own classes thus far. It is hard to stand back calmly and watch while students figure things out for themselves. It is hard to watch them be frustrated by the process. And yet … what rewards. This student (and others in the course) was able to own her learning in such a meaningful, deep, wonderful way.

I’m still processing the lesson I learned this past quarter, but I have a feeling it will be one of the most important ones I’ve learned in my career. Failure is an option, and it is a beginning rather than an end. We need to design for that.

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Taking the Risk

What a great forum to kick things off this year! Thanks for the prompt - I'm enjoying reading about everyone's experiences. 

Looking back, I have so many moments that I could point to, but ultimately, one does stand out more than others, and I wrote about as part of my teaching portfolio, here. In short, I was teaching at Mississippi Governor's School, a residential summer program for gifted high school students when I learned that being myself, which includes opening up, being silly, and having fun, can also improve the academic experience. To quote from original piece:

The trust that was generated during that hour as we all risked being ourselves and letting our guard down reverberated throughout the academic classroom for the rest of that summer. I was asking these high school students to truly challenge themselves by thinking seriously about tough topics like death, to eat “weird” foods, to dance with each other, and ultimately, to learn more about not only themselves, but the world around them. The level of trust that grew out of that Options session fostered the most open, collaborative, and participatory classroom environment in which I’ve ever been.

In many ways, I think opening up in this way in the college classroom is a lot more difficult than it is during a residential program where there's built-in unstructured time. However, the element that I've carried with me is a focus on a pedagogy of play that has ultimately motivated me to try lots of new things in the classroom, like gamification, that are outside of my comfort zone. I've found that pushing those boundaries often leads to very rewarding experiences. 

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