Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Report: What's in a Name?

As I mentioned in my last post, the first small improvement I wanted to make to my teaching was to use my students' names more often, especially when asking questions.  I had decided the way to do that was to plan out each question I was going to ask through the course of each lesson and assign each one to a student.

So, how did it go?  Well, first off, it turns out that I ask a LOT of questions in each three hour lesson!  In fact, hand-writing EVERY question took almost as much time as teaching the lesson itself.  Since I am paid hourly for my prep time, as well as teaching, I'd have to come up with a pretty darn compelling argument to be able to continue this process.  I did end up with some interesting insights about my own personal biases, however.  After assigning names for the first segment of the lesson, I went back and counted how many questions I was planning for each student, and I found that in that portion, I had unconsciously assigned about 30% fewer questions to the one black student in the class.  For the rest of the planning, I was more intentional in keeping the questions about equal for each student, but it made me wonder how many times in the past I've allowed the same bias to affect my teaching without realizing it.

Once in the classroom, I laid the sheets on the table where I could reference them, and dove right in.  The first fifteen minutes or so of class felt a little awkward, to me, though my students seemed fine.  I attribute my discomfort to the combined effect of using students' names much more than I'm used to and the fact that I kept looking down at my list of questions to see who I should call on next.  As I became more comfortable and my students got used to being called on frequently, I started referring to the list less often.  I noticed as I did this that I started addressing questions to the class more than when I was referring to the list, but still less often than I did in previous classes.

Throughout both classes this week, I noticed my students opening up and engaging more in class.  Since these were the first two classes of the course, it's probable that at least some of this was due to them becoming more comfortable with a new teacher, but I think some also was because I used their names to call on them.  If a teacher doesn't use students' names when asking questions, the students aren't sure who is expected to answer, and it provides an opportunity for students who are shy or who did not do the work to "opt-out" of the discussion. 

My conclusion?

I think a large part of the benefit of planning out was the fact that I thought consciously about how I selected students to answer questions, and less about actually having a plan of who to call on for which question.  I enjoyed the clarity of knowing who was going to answer the question, as well as my students' engagement when they realized that they WILL be called on.  I'm definitely going to continue using my students' names in class.  Given the long amount of time it takes to write out every question, I will not be continuing to do that for the entire three-hour class every week, but will probably focus on doing it for the beginning of class and my transitions instead.

If you have never put much thought into how you ask questions in your class, You should try this for a few weeks.  It will help you think about how to spread questions around more intentionally, and, as it did for me, may uncover some bias you have that you weren't aware of. 

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