Ploughing through the First Day

Why do I feel exhausted? It was my first day back, I only had three, 50 minute classes and I covered the same material in each of them! So if it was such an easy day, where does the strain behind my eyes come from?

The exhaustion comes from my snowplough imitation. With a quick and steady advance, I made my way through the participants’ attentiveness. I can just imagine how my big, round, fully animated eyes must have seemed to them: like looking into blinding blue headlights with too much self-powered energy. I speculate I have a teacher’s gaze that could cause my participants to topple over with either giggles or confusion. But with their cultural composure, they listened and held back on any social slip ups.

My eyes were saying this, “I REALLY want you to understand what I’m saying. Do you understand that this is important?”, and with the strength of a plough, I pushed through the course expectations, trying to pack all the information onto the snow banks of my participants’ minds.

“This folder is for your writing portfolio. You keep your writing tasks here, but don’t keep your classroom notes in this portfolio. Your portfolio is a learning tool, and it will help you see your writing progress. You also keep your reflective dialogue journal entries here. These entries are written at home.”

“What is an entry? An entry is a single written item. For example when you write something in your diary, this is an entry. You have to write two entries per week. If you look at the handout I gave you, I ask you to answer these questions. They are reflective questions. Reflective implies thinking about yourself, and your experiences, and then writing about it. You answer the reflective question and then give it to me. At this point I will read the entry and comment. When you write your entry you can also ask me a question. I will answer this question. This is a private written conversation between you and I.”

“You use the yellow notepad that I’ve given you for your in-class writing tasks. When you are done with the tasks, you rip the paper and put it in your portfolio.”

“…blah blah blah.”

Some instructions went over their heads like the last bits of snow trying to make it to the top of that snow bank.  I was giving them information I knew some of them weren’t understanding. I feel exhausted because I spent too much time talking. What’s embarrassing is that I always encourage participants to decrease TTT (teacher talking time), and here I was using it as my only teaching tool.

I tried to convey information I know will only be understood when it is experienced. This is the beauty. Teachers just don’t need to talk for their message to get across. Being understood is all about action. I know this is true when it comes to giving instructions for a language activity.

So my question is, do I really need to go through this again next semester? Is there a more fun and less tiring way to let them know what their responsibilities are for the semester?

I could have asked them to get in groups to discuss the syllabus and instructions on their handout. I could have given them the folder and notepad, and ask them to imagine what they might be for. Any other suggestions? How can I refrain from acting like a snowplough on the first day of class?

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6 thoughts on “Ploughing through the First Day

  1. Thanks for the response!

    Starting from the back…. I will admit that I love the sound of my voice. Why wouldn’t I? It is great. I also totally agree that there is often a performance artist trapped in a lot of teachers!

    My recent experience with telling sort of makes me uncomfortable to even think about it! I was at the front of the room answering (very reasonable) questions about an upcoming task. I was describing an online task that participants would have to do in the future but my telling seemed to make it seem much more daunting than it was. As is often the case with the teacher droning at the front many people decided to tune out after the first few minutes. I finally cut it off and said that doing it is actually much easier than talking about it and arranged a face-to-face sample the following day of what they would be asked to do online . I was pleased with this decision.

    As I started my new classes this term I was very conscious of “snow-plowing” and tried to avoid it where I could.

    In the one class that I described in my previous comment I asked Ss to fill out an info/intro sheet toward the end of the first day and there were some slots for questions and additional comments. Not everyone had a question, but quite a few (more than 60%) did. I answered the questions in a big email to the entire group. There was quite a mix of questions ranging from my favorite baseball team (most certainly not the Yankees) to more details on the grading system for the class. I can’t say that this was perfect but it was much more comfortable than sitting at the front of the room with a few people paying close attention while I talked and talked about the course. I followed up in class with a short quiz about some of the information in the email and highlighted what I thought were the important points.

    Wow…it is now so long ago! Haha. I think I might revisit this post before the fall term starts!

    Thanks for the great replies and super interesting blog posts.

    Take care and talk to you soon,
    Mike

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    1. Great idea about revisiting this post next semester! I’ll do the same. We need reminders of how we kick old habits.

      I like the email idea, because it starts a personal dialogue bettween the student and teacher immediately at the beginning of the semester. 60% is a good number! How did you get that much interest? You must have put those charismatic performing talents into action :)

      Thank you for writing about your uncomfortable “telling” story. It’s by looking back on these moments that are so uncomfortable and embarrassing that we grow so much. Thank you for your courage.

      Loving the dialogue!

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  2. Hello Josette,

    I really enjoyed your post and it gave me a lot to think about. I also really enjoyed the “plough” metaphor.

    A question that occurred to me was if the purpose of “ploughing through” is really to convey information. I think that there are often other reasons (Ss expectations, and the T showing that he/she knows what is coming and what is expected.)

    I have had the feeling that you describe of being tired after lots of telling at the start of a course.

    I have also been surprised when observing teachers that generally seem to be opposed to TTT and “telling” spending lots of time telling the details/logistics of a course.

    I always wondered about this message…”Don’t tell—unless it is important.” I have been thinking for a while that syllabus details can be another chance for teachers to make their students active.
    It is not really the same thing but one thing that I have enjoyed doing is having Ss do a “treasure hunt” through the coursebook finding out the features of the book and being pushed to flip through the book at an early stage. I wonder if this type of activity might be useful with a syllabus or other course information.

    I have seen a teacher-trainer ask participants to find 3 questions in the syllabus and test each other. This is something that I found quite interesting. Participants chose what was important to them and quizzed each other.

    I also like the T/F questions that Mr. Giddens mentioned above. I think it is a nice way to get students to actively think about the course and what is coming from.

    As he mentioned , I simply skipped the telling part in a recent class. I did, however, collect questions that I answered later by email. I felt much more comfortable with this.

    Recently (in a different course) I was at the front of the room answering questions about an upcoming assignment .I didn’t really the feeling because I was talking a lot and I felt that they were not really getting it. I sort of felt as though there were diminishing returns… the more I talked the less impact it had. I felt at that time that it would have been much easier, effective and in line with what I wanted them to do to simply have them do this task. From having them do it I could give feedback and guidance rather than talking about doing it what might have seemed like a distant and confusing future.

    Thanks so much for posting about this! (and for reading all of my thoughts here)

    Cheers,
    Mike

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    1. Mike,

      Thank you so much for your in depth feedback.

      I connect to your question about whether or not the actual “ploughing” is for a hidden comfort benefit. The participants may feel comfortable with a teacher who knows what’s coming, and the teacher (me) wants them to have a good impression of his/her preparedness. That being said I also feel that participants need some essential information to move forward in the course. Now having talked about it with you, and after reading Kevin’s comment, I realize that ploughing is not necessary. Providing information can be a much more creative, and enjoyable process. So for my second course, I gave them a mini quiz: I wrote five questions on the board, gave them the syllabus, and in pairs they had to find the answers. This was much less tiring and time consuming, and a lot more engaging for everyone. This could be similar to what you described as the treasure hunt.

      I’m curious about how you collected questions. Did you ask them to write questions on a sheet of paper and then asked them to hand it in? Did you answer emails individually? Did everyone have a question?

      I also liked how you described this “From having them do it I could give feedback and guidance rather than talking about doing it what might have seemed like a distant and confusing future.” It is true that when we find ourselves doing a lot of talking, the activity seems so far away. It is often more effective to guide them through the task, than it is to tell them about the task. I guess “telling” is a teaching habit we need continue noticing, with the hope of someday breaking it. No matter how much we want to increase student talk, I have a sneaky suspicion, that in the heart of all teachers lies an unreleased performance artist. Maybe we just like to hear ourselves talk once in a while :P

      I look forward to more food for thought!
      Josette

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  3. What a fun way to work with the syllabus and class norms! I’d like to know more about how you introduced the concept of class norms and then how the norms were created.

    “Telling” often pops up in teaching, especially in a system that is focused on teacher-centeredness. Maybe it’s about finding a balance between the teacher “telling” and the student “doing”.

    Thank you for your comments as always.

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  4. I love the snowplow metaphor! You raised two great questions. Do we really need to go through the syllabus on day one? If so, how can we do it differently?

    I also began a new class last week teaching university freshman general English. I used a true/false activity dealing with the syllabus and some class norms. This was a student centered way to get them reading the syllabus. However, in the end I still spent about ten minutes going through the “answers” with the whole group. During those ten minutes I did more “telling” than I would like to do if there is another way. Michael Griffin decided not to do the first day of class “telling,” and from the short conversation we had the class was successful.

    Thanks for raising these questions!

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