Reflection of a Year
It’s almost 2019, which means it’s time for a flood of Best of 2018 and Top 5 of 2018 and What’s New in 2019? posts and articles. While many of those are “fluff” pieces to fill space, reflection can be a very useful way to learn about ourselves. I model this for my pre-service teachers; writing a reflection may seem like busy-work, but it is a great way to find out what classroom activities have worked and what teaching practices need to be revised or replaced.
My teaching practices are no different.
Dr. G’s Top Five Best Academic Moments of 2018
5. Composing Multimodal and Arts-Based Methods of Data Analysis and (Re)Presentation (AERA proposal, University at Buffalo)
Writing conference proposals are often a lonesome and frustrating process. Many times I believe wholeheartedly in my project and I feel strongly that I've submitted an amazing proposal only to find out months later that it was lacking something that completely evaded me at the point of composition.
Last spring Alexia (who I have collaborated previously with on two conference presentations and an article on our arts-based methodology) and I attended our friend Nichole's dissertation defense. Nichole and I had worked together previously in many different ways - we presented together at conferences, we co-planned classes and courses together, we also taught a Digital Literacies course together. Part of Nichole's defense included a video she created as a way to present her Methods chapter. Alexia and I furiously jotted notes down as we watched this section of Nichole's defense and when it ended, we both locked eyes in one of those you-know-what-I'm-thinking looks. As soon as Nichole's presentation ended, Alexia and Nichole and I discussed the all the things we had taken notes on and the possibilities of doing some work together. Nichole's Methods chapter video linked perfectly to the work Alexia and I had been building on; using multimodal methods to analyze and present academic work.
Soon after Nichole's dissertation defense, the American Educational Research Association released the theme for their upcoming annual meeting: "Leveraging Education Research in a Post-Truth Era: Multimodal Narratives to Democracize Evidence." This was exactly what the three of us were looking for! We could connect our individual work through a collaboration while composing a conference proposal. Alexia and I, having already written together, knew how to work together in a successful way; Nichole and I, having had opportunities to work in so many ways, knew what worked and what didn't work when we collaborated. The process of putting our paper session together worked so smoothly and felt very natural.
As many of you may know, conference proposals are due months and months before folks even think about the conference. AERA is no different. Mid-November was the heavy part of fall semester and I was bogged down with grading midterms; I was at a frustrating part of my new career (more on that later) where I felt like I was in meetings more than in the classroom and I felt like I wasn't doing anything educational. It was then when I received an email from Alexia with the subject line "AHHHHH!!!" It had come at just the right time. It gave me that boost I needed to make it through the next couple weeks of the semester and head into finals with a light - rather than heavy - mind and soul.
Since fall semester and the holidays are now over, the three of us plan to spend the next few months putting our presentation together, so watch for a post about how that process goes!
4. Teaching Ethnic American Literature (spring semester, Buffalo State College)
You'd think that since I taught eight classes in the spring of 2018 I would have been stressed out and bogged down, but I really wasn't. Yes, I was busy, but I loved every moment of teaching that semester and my class at Buffalo State College was one of the reasons. The English Education Program Director knew I had taught a very similar course (Multicultural Literature) online at the University at Buffalo and got in touch with me to see if I was interested in teaching this as a seated course for him. I jumped at the chance! I loved teaching the content, but I had only ever taught it online and I thought teaching it in person would be a great chance to create, try out, and implement some cool classroom activities with a real live classroom that I'd not been able to do with my virtual students.
The English Department at Buffalo State is a great group of professors and even though I was only a lecturer, I still felt like part of the department. It helped that a few of my former classmates from my doc studies at UB were now working there. From the moment I started teaching, I felt like I had been there for years. My students were a mix of English majors, Education majors (both English Ed and Elementary Ed), and other "non-majors" (a few Fashion majors, two Communications majors, and one ROTC major).
There were a few hiccups in the first third of the semester - I needed to find some work-arounds for the folks who were not going to school to become teachers - but most of those revisions were helpful for me to figure out as an educator; teaching a class should not be thought of as a one-class-fits-all situation. We need to be able to support all of our students to be successful. But this was one of the best classes I've ever taught on my own. I learned so much from my amazing students (and I'd like to think they learned quite a bit from me too)! I actually wrote about this class once before; to me it was one of those classes I wished met every day. My mind was going a million miles an hour after class just thinking about all the things I wanted to add to what we'd discussed!
By the time the end of the semester came, it was almost as if we could have gone another three months and we still would have never gotten to everything we all wanted to talk about. In the many difficult spaces that were created through our discussions some of us cried and some of us got angry and all of us grew. Many of us (I include myself in that group) changed a lot over the course of the semester through reading and discussing the literature; some were able to see the connections they had to the characters or stories of other marginalized people and some were able to start to understand our privileges.
One of my students even grew her final project into a conference paper and presented it at a session at the annual meeting of the National Conference of Teachers of English in November of 2018!
3. Co-Teaching Digital Video as a Literacy Tool with soon-to-be Dr. Barrett (spring semester, University at Buffalo)
It was in the winter of 2017, and I was in the my chair's office to meet with him about a student. We had our chat and we were just finishing some small talk and walking back out to where one of his PhD candidates, Nichole, was working. It was at that moment that he asked me if I was interested in taking on another course. "I know you're teaching a thousand classes next semester, but I need someone to teach the DV class... and the two of you were my first choices. But since there might be PhD folks in there, it has to be taught by someone with a DR in front of their name."
As I discussed earlier, Nichole and I have a very successful working relationship; we know each other well and part of what helps us work so well together is the fact that we can kind of read each other and know what the other is thinking and in this moment, even though Nichole had her back to me, I knew exactly what she was thinking. I knew she wanted that class. That was the dream course for both of us - it was one of a handful of classes we took together as PhD candidates; I was about a year ahead of her in our studies and we both got so much out of that class - so when the chair basically told us we were both his first choice to teach it but that she wouldn't be able to teach it because she hadn't finished her degree yet, I could almost feel the heat coming off of her. Immediately I spoke up: "Could we co-teach it?" The chair stared at us both for a moment, and then slowly you could see that familiar spark brighten in his eyes. Fist bumps all around and five minutes later we were set to co-teach DV as a Literacy Tool. It seemed as though Nichole and I started planning for that course before the chair even left the room. We spent almost every day (it seemed that way at least!) between that moment and the beginning of the spring semester revising the syllabus and finding new readings and scrapping assignments and figuring out the schedule and creating new projects and finalizing our syllabus. After the usual tech issues, class started and although we had never actually taught a class together before, it felt as if we had been teaching together all our lives. We both knew each other's strengths and so we were able to give space to each other to shine. Nichole positioned herself as the tech master; she has always been great at figuring out how to do a thing with tech or how to figure out why a thing wasn't working or to discover a work-around when there was a tech-fail. I positioned myself as the only person in the room who had never read Harry Potter, which allowed Nichole and our students to teach me about the books and characters and terminology since Nichole somehow worked that literature into almost every single lesson. Nichole and I had differing ideas about some class topics (ex: the definition of "remix") so we debated and discussed our ideas in class and our students could form their own opinions first through listening to us "argue" and then by engaging with our conversation.
I could go one and on and go into detail about each week of class and all the amazing stuff that came out of that course, but I will save that for an article that I know Nichole and I will inevitably publish on co-planning and co-teaching. Needless to say, our professional relationship grew stronger that semester. Our last class meeting was a film festival where we had popcorn and snacks and invited professors and other guests to join us and our students showcased what they learned by presenting a revised version of one of their digital video projects. For Nichole and I, it was a way to see that our students really did get something out of this course, just like we did so many semesters ago.
That last class just happened to be the day after Nichole defended her dissertation, so she ended up getting that DR in front of her name before the end of the semester!
2. Co-Teaching Secondary Methods with Dr. Paul Vermette (spring semester, Niagara University)
One of the best opportunities of 2018 to learn was provided through one of my former professors, Dr. Paul Vermette, when he invited me into his Secondary Methods classroom. This all started the semester previous when I was teaching one of the Special Methods courses - my class met right after his did and he told me I should pop in to see some of my pre-service teachers in action. So I visited his class and it was just as I remembered it as one of his students--high energy, lots of moving parts, and the exploration of Big Ideas--and so I visited a few more times that semester; he welcomed me as a valued guest and as someone who had something to contribute (which I did).
So when fall semester ended and we were all prepping and planning for the spring, V asked me if I was interested in being a permanent part of his class. "I can't offer you any money, but it may be something you or we can publish on... I've got lots of ideas!" That last part was the thing that sold me; of course he had lots of ideas - he was Dr. V after all and any one who has ever met him knows his mind moves at the speed of light and that he is always coming up with new ideas for his classes and his students and to have the chance to be a part of that... that is the thing. We met a couple times over winter break and then went full steam ahead into and through spring semester.
My Special Methods class met directly after his Secondary Methods course again, but this time it met in the same room, so our classes felt like it was one great big six hour course. And for so much of that time, even though I was supposed to be one of the teachers in the room, I felt more like I was a learner--and it was such a great experience for me to be a part of the planning of V's class, but also to get so much out of it... it's hard to explain and hard to describe, but our co-teaching relationship was like that of mentor-mentee but also father-son and colleague-colleague as well as learner-learner. I felt like I got as much from the experience as he got out of it. He told me many times how our pre-class meetings were the highlight of his week, and that just made me smile every time he said it, because they were the same for me. Many times those meetings were interrupted by a student who needed to vent or tell us something great that happened during their observations/apprenticeship hours and the three of us would talk and talk and it never really seemed like an interruption to us at all, but as a lead-in to our class; it was just another place for Big Ideas to surface.
1. Becoming Assistant Professor of Secondary Education (fall semester, Alabama A+M University)
I honestly cannot believe I've only been teaching at AAMU for one semester. It feels like I've been here so much longer. It probably feels like I've been here for so long because it happened so fast. One moment I'm in a workshop with high school English and Social Studies teachers showing them how to use digital video in their classrooms and then next minute I'm on the phone with the chair of the department of Teacher Education and Leadership being offered a job. I had four different interviews for this position but I still did not think I was actually going to get it. I mean it was the middle of July and fall semester started in just over a month. There was no way I was going to be offered a full time position anywhere, especially at a university across the country. But it was true. There it was. An assistant professor position in Huntsville at Alabama A+M University. And classes started in the middle of August. I had some intense conversations with my wife and emotional conversations with our parents and difficult conversations with all of the chairs of all of the departments at all of the colleges and universities in which I worked, I flew down to Alabama to try to secure a place for us to live. Then I flew home and we packed our entire apartment up and moved to Alabama.
I probably don't have to tell you that Alabama was never ever on my radar of somewhere that I would ever decide to live. I mean, we all know the stereotypes and assumptions that everyone has about The South. Sure, I applied for and interviewed for a job down here, but that was when I was at one of the low points of my job searching; I felt I was never going to be hired, I felt that I was not a quality educator, I felt that I was doing something wrong, I felt I was looking in the wrong places, I felt that I needed to widen my search. And then on August 13th, we arrived in Huntsville Alabama.
Did I mention that classes started on August 15th??
Did I mention that our furniture and all of boxes and bags were not scheduled to arrive for another week and a half?
Thankfully we planned ahead and most of our clothes (and a box full of books I would need for teaching) were packed in our cars.
Did I mention I had never met any of my co-workers face-to-face or had any knowledge of what classes I would be teaching?
In the span of 5 weeks I accepted a position, packed our lives up, drove over 800 miles, and started a new job.
It probably feels like I've been here for so long because I really had to hit the ground running. As I mentioned, classes started two days after we received the keys to our new apartment. But there were meetings and introductions and course assignments to attend to in the days before the semester started. All that plus getting orientated to life at AAMU, receiving keys to an office, learning my way around campus (and the building in which I now work), and don't even talk to me about how long it took to receive an email address. One saving grace was the fact that I was not the only new hire in our department. There were about four other individuals who were hired at the same time as I was and who were all dealing with the same stress and anxiety; I was not alone in trying to figure out how to use the copy machine or get a parking pass or faculty identification. When I say I hit the ground running, I am not exaggerating. The College of Education was to be visited by a national accreditation agency within the first couple months of my arrival, and the preparation for that is enough to fill a book. Needless to say my colleagues and our chair plus the dean of our college met at least twice a week (sometimes more) as a department plus I met with the secondary education program members multiple times a week plus there was a lot of solo work with data that needed to be done and then there were weekend meetings and a mock visit and then more meetings and then we needed to re-do the work we did with the data and then we had to compile syllabi and oh yeah I was also teaching three classes plus visiting interns and advising students and I was also asked to be the interim director of the Learning Lab.
It probably feels like I've been here for so long because so much has happened since I've started. And I haven't even gotten into all the great stuff I've done this semester with my students! My Foundations of Education class was awesome. It is like a hybrid of two or three other course I've taught at other universities. It is a pre-Methods course and it is an introduction to what the filed of education is all about and it is a classroom management course. We did questioning theory and discussed theories of learning and created teaching videos.
My Human Growth and Development class was a struggle for me because I had never taught a class like that before. But in the end it was awesome and my students got so much out of it and I realized that I enjoyed teaching that content and we did some really cool activities and projects and we all learned so much about what a human person goes through in their life in a physical way and an emotional way and all the other ways.
So that is my reflection for 2018. And just like every true reflection, it is not complete and it has huge holes in it and there are large spaces that need revised and expanded on but just like I tell my pre-service teachers and my teacher candidates, you need to just find a point and just stop. It will never be perfect, but you need to be able to submit your work on time. And since the new year is less than ten hours away, I think I will end this here.
But stay tuned!
What's Next for 2019?