Teaching and learning are at the heart of my professional life. Before teaching at the college level, I earned a Master of Arts in Teaching degree and spent four years as a middle school science teacher in two high-poverty schools. Through that experience, I gained a great deal of knowledge about pedagogy and best practices for teaching and learning as well as knowledge about myself as an educator. I also gained a keen awareness of the educational and societal inequities faced by so many students in our nation – inequities that, in many cases, persist into post-secondary education and adult life. My interests in science education, school librarianship, teacher-librarian collaboration, and diversity and equity form the backbone of my research agenda, and they also inform and enrich my teaching.
As an educator of future librarians and as someone with a firm belief in education as a basic human right, I believe that one of my greatest responsibilities is to prepare my students to work with people of all races, gender identities, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. For the first time in American history, the majority of students in public K-12 schools in this country are students of color. Ample research has documented barriers to the attainment of high quality education for students of color, students living in poverty, LGBTQ students, and students belonging to other marginalized groups. Libraries and librarians have an immense but underutilized power to address some of these barriers, for example barriers related to the lack of access to high quality instructional materials in urban public schools. As an instructor, I attempt to make my students aware of educational and societal inequities, for example by examining and discussing statistics related to the digital divide. I also explicitly call attention to issues of diversity and equity in every course that I teach. For example, in my research methods course, I facilitated a class discussion about various ways to ask for a respondent’s gender on a survey, an exercise which (according to students’ post-class response journals) opened several students’ eyes to the implications that question phrasing might have on a survey’s inclusiveness, or lack thereof, toward the full diversity of respondents.
When I prepare to teach a college course, one of my first goals is to get to know my students and their learning needs. In a professional school such as UNC’s School of Information and Library Science, students often and appropriately have very practical learning goals; their ultimate objective is to obtain a job and to excel in their chosen field. My role, in part, is to facilitate their achievement of those goals through course activities and assignments that are grounded in practice, but which also encourage them to understand and apply theoretical knowledge. For example, when I taught a course titled Youth and Technology in Libraries, I developed an assignment for which my students (future youth services librarians) created an e-textile product using the LilyPad Arduino. In creating and sharing their products, which ranged from light-up bags (see image, right) to musical Christmas sweaters, my students learned practical skills that included coding, problem solving, and design of instructional materials. By writing an accompanying reflection on the assignment, students also linked their experiences to current trends and theories in Library and Information Science including the Connected Learning framework, which focuses on equity-oriented instruction at the intersection of youth culture, media, and academics.
I design my courses, assignments, and individual class sessions with principles of social constructivism in mind. I believe that students learn best when they have the opportunity to authentically engage with the material and with each other in ways that encourage them to identify and critique their existing conceptions of course material, encounter diverse ideas and ways of knowing, develop new understanding, and reflect on their own learning. To that end, I employ a variety of strategies to activate my students’ background knowledge at the beginning of a unit, including entrance tickets, brainstorming sessions, and think-pair-shares. I design practical, hands-on activities that students typically work through in pairs or small groups. For example, students in my research methods course worked in pairs to conduct quantitative, deductive content analysis on a set of images from children’s nonfiction books. I used this activity as a springboard to engage students in a grounded discussion of methodological issues related to content analysis, including the impact of multiple coders, the benefits and drawbacks of using an established coding scheme, and instances where subjectivity and bias may creep into the analysis even when examining visual, manifest content. I also integrate reflective components into my course assignments, for example a journal or in-class presentation, that require students to think critically about what and how they have learned and ask them to consider the “so what” of their learning – what will they do with their new understanding?
Throughout the semester, I closely monitor the effectiveness of my teaching. Receiving honest feedback from students can be uncomfortable and at times painful (as I experienced many times with my middle school students, who were not shy about letting me know what they thought about me or the class). However, it is also the best way to grow as an educator and to ensure that I am meeting my students’ needs. I incorporate a variety of feedback techniques into my courses, including private response journals that take the form of a back-and-forth written conversation between individual students and myself, anonymous online course feedback surveys administered at several points during the semester, and periodic verbal check-ins during class sessions.
The most valuable way that I assess my instruction is by assessing my students, keeping in mind the maxim often repeated in my MAT program, “if they didn’t learn it, I didn’t teach it.” My student assessment methods are continuous and varied, and I aim to provide students with clear, useful, and timely feedback on their work. Students have a variety of learning preferences and strengths, and therefore I look holistically at each course I teach to ensure that activities and assignments are balanced in terms of formats, response modes, and levels of individual versus group work. For example, students in my Curriculum Issues and the School Librarian course completed a community analysis, developed an online professional portfolio, monitored and shared useful information from professional education and school library blogs, summarized and reported on a research model, and worked collaboratively with undergraduate students in the School of Education to write lesson plans that integrated information literacy and science instruction.
Excellence in teaching is a journey, not a destination, and while I am proud of how far I have come since the first day I stepped into my science classroom in 2005, I also recognize that I will always have more to learn about pedagogy, my students, and myself. Each time I teach a course, I set professional goals for myself. Recently, those goals have included improving the representation of diverse voices on my syllabi, which led my to undertake a diversity audit of previous semesters’ reading assignments. After each class session, I write reflective memos as comments attached to the syllabus file so that I can continually improve my practice and students’ learning from week to week and year to year. For example, in one memo written after teaching a class session on focus group methods, I noted that students were not engaged in the discussion, which centered on analysis of a scholarly article. The next time I taught the course, I incorporated a clip from the Jimmy Kimmel show in which Kimmel conducts an “out of focus group” with children about the 2016 presidential candidates. As it was then the middle of presidential primary season, this clip captured students’ interest and, although humorous, provided an effective hook for introducing serious issues related to focus group methodology, such as the ways that a facilitator’s body language can encourage or suppress participation from individual participants. In a college setting where feedback from peers and department administrators can be infrequent or nonexistent, self-reflection is critical for continued growth. As I continue to teach, I know that I will also continue to learn – from experience and, most importantly, from my students.