Posts by scottharpt

All Aboard the Steam Train

In the middle of the 1980’s, Peter Gabriel had a #1 hit song called Sledgehammer. The overall meaning of the song is an absolute mystery to me, but there is one lyric that has always stood out as meaningful. Gabriel declares (seemingly at times, to me directly):

You could be a STEAM TRAIN, if you’d just lay down your tracks

After months of research, I’ve discovered absolutely no hard evidence that Gabriel was singing about teaching at a technical college. Still, there is obvious transferability in the message. If I want to be a Steam Train Educator, I need to consistently spend time and effort getting myself prepared for that.

  • Each time I seek out and attend professional development, I am laying down tracks
  • Each time I seek out and share best practices, I am laying down tracks
  • Each time I tweak a lesson to make it more applicable for students, I am laying down tracks
  • Each time I plan to incorporate employability skills, I am laying down tracks
  • Each time I read an article or watch a video, I am laying down tracks

I believe that each of us has the opportunity to be a Steam Train again with every new moment in the classroom? Since we already do a good job though…and maybe have been doing so for a long time, we may forget that we still have to opportunity to go from Good to Sledgehammer.

This may not happen, however, if you don’t spend time in the “off-season” laying down our tracks.

Get Them Taking Notes

I was talking with Marc Ditty about some best practices recently. We were discussing how offering small quizzes, early and often, can help us to take the temperature of a class…note how they’re doing so far, etc. We both shared that our students are not allowed to use notes on these quizzes.

We examined this policy a bit further, and came to the realization that allowing notes on quizzes really has some merit. The main (likely) positive outcomes to allowing students to use notes on quizzes include:

  • Opportunities for students to experience success — This is potentially encouraging and motivational.
  • Students see obvious value in taking good notes, making them more likely to be engaged in this process going forward.

I’m going to make this change and try it out this semester. It may seem minor, or even commonsensical, but if it makes even a slight difference, it will have been worth the small effort.

Checking In So They Don’t Check Out

I had been thinking about the classroom evaluation that students fill out at the end of the semester. If students realize that their input may facilitate positive change for future students of the course, many of them may earnestly make suggestions. If an instructor looks at those comments honestly and attempts to make the course better based on the feedback, the system really works well.

I realized at some point that I want to also make positive changes for the students in the current class, and that much of their feedback may feel more relevant since it relates to them specifically. Beyond the everyday CATS that also play a role in checking the temperature and determining what medicines to prescribe (or keep prescribing), I thought it might be interesting to administer a version of the Course Evaluation in the middle of the class, so that there may still be time to make positive changes that will impact current students.

What I found was that the feedback is much more specific. Further, students respond well when they see their instructor making an effort to react to the feedback. They feel valued, and take a stronger ownership in the course going forward.

I realize I am not exactly re-inventing the wheel here, but I know that the thought process was a good reminder for me.

The TEAM Scholarship

The Communication Skills Team Scholarship is a source of pride for team members on the 3rd floor of the Student Center.

As a team, we’ve created and fund a $500 scholarship for students in the General Studies Tranfer program. This year, we have enough money in the pot to offer two scholarships. It feels great to make such a very tangible difference for students. What’s really incredible about this, however, is that this scholarship is funded because each team member gives (literally) a buck or two out of each paycheck. It is nearly impossible to even miss that handful of quarters. That $500, on the other hand, may feel like quite a windfall for a deserving student.

Most faculty members at NWTC already give money to the foundation. The percentage of those who give is really quite incredible.

As a specific outreach to a student in your program, however, I wonder if your team will consider creating your own scholarship. You pick the criteria for eligibility (Based on need? Based on grades within program classes? Based on another type of merit? Based on an essay?), the dollar amount, how often the funds are dispersed, etc. Then, some student in your program gets one step closer reaching their academic dream.

Not only is the Team Scholarship great for students, it is team-building as well. Discussions about creating and dispersing the scholarship are enriching, and serve as a constant reminder that in so many ways we are our student’s most important resource. It feels awfully good to remember that once in a while.

Accelerated Student Success–The Handy Checklist

When packing 15 weeks of content into a 7-week package, the average student in an accelerated course may need some extra help now and then remembering what items remain on their plate. While the syllabus offers the course calender with due dates, an additional assignment checklist may be just the ticket for instructors seeking quality resources for their learners.

The checklist below (Formatting looks much different outside of this document) is a very basic tool that I use for accelerated English Composition courses. While it may seem obvious or elementary, I have found that many students have noted value in it. Basic checklists such as this help students to visualize the finish line. They also feel an almost constant gratification and sense of accomplishment because they are so regularly checking items off of the list (in the actual document, there are check-off boxes to the left of each assignment rather than bullet points). It really feels good to make that check mark, and see the “To Do” list dwindle.


English Composition Assignment Checklist

  •           Syllabus Contract
  •           Journal #1 (Introduction)
  •           Grammar Activities 21, 22, 29
  •           Journal #2 (Freewrite)
  •          Grammar Activities 30, 32
  •           Journal #3 (Writing Process)
  •          Grammar Activities 34, 35, 36
  •          Timed Essay
  •          Grammar Activities 16, 17, 18, 20, Glossary
  •          Journal #4 (Words and Sentences)
  •         Grammar Activities 38, 39, 40, 41
  •         Journal #5 (Writing Process for Def/Example Essay
  •         Example Definition Essay Revision Group/Rough Draft
  •         Example Definition Final Draft
  •         Grammar Activities 42, 43, 44, 46, 47
  •         Journal #6 (Writing Process for Comp/Contrast Essay)
  •         Comp/Contrast Essay Revision Group/Rough Draft
  •         Comp/Contrast Essay Final Draft
  •         Journal #7 (Quoting/Paraphrasing)
  •         Journal #8 (Summary/Critical Analysis)
  •         Journal #9 (Research Paper Topic Proposal)
  •         Grammar Activities 48, 49, 50
  •         Annotated Bibliography Revision Group/Rough Draft
  •         Annotated Bibliography Final Draft
  •         Journal #10 (Writing Process for Research Paper)
  •         Research Paper Rough Draft/Individual Conference
  •         Research Paper Final Draft  
  •         Professionalism Rubric

Why Do I Have To Take This Class?

Why Do I Have to Take THIS Class?!?!?

As an English and Communication Skills instructor at a college that offers neither of these as a major, I am faced with that question fairly often. I also imagine college recruiters proudly telling my future students things like: “Don’t go to that other college and waste your time and money studying things like Russian Literature, Ancient Greek Mythology, or Documentary Filmmaking in the 1920’s. If you want to be a welder, we’ll teach you to weld…PERIOD!!”

Two months later, that student is sitting in my general studies course. He’s mad. He doesn’t like me. He thinks I am Russian Literature.

All general studies instructors have faced this issue at one time or another. Attempting to show how the competencies of our general education courses are not just hoops the college makes students jump through to gain more of their money, is a constant battle. It is also, of course, an extremely important one.

The short list of ideas presented here is not exhaustive, by any means. Neither is it an attempt to reinvent the wheel. These ideas may even seem obvious, and good teachers are likely already doing them often. Still, they are offered here because even the most seasoned professionals can use a little reminder once in a while.

Cultivating and maintaining a culture of productive learning may rely heavily on the ability of the teacher leader to keep the learner engaged. To be truly productive though, there must be a connection between that which is engaging, and the students’ perception of value. The activity (a film, scavenger hunt, jeopardy game, etc.) then is not merely a means to entertain, but rather offers the learner the opportunity to understand the concepts and ideas of their discipline in a deeper, more personal way.

Making students aware that your intention is to make your class “worth their time” is a good start toward gaining trust. The next step may be adapting lessons so there is a connectedness to the learner. One way to connect to a learner is to assess what their interests are (specifically related to their fields of study) and attempt to apply the concepts of your discipline to those. Connecting to the learner begins with an effort to understand who the learner is (and what they perceive to be of value).

The main idea behind lean principles in the classroom, of course, is to eliminate waste, improve the quality and relevance of the course materials, and deliver greater value as perceived by students. Students should frequently see lectures, activities, assignments, and even the incorporation of employability skills (aka core abilities) as less ambiguous, and gain a specific understanding of why these things apply to them. The more students can see that events in the classroom have practical application, the less they feel their time is being wasted.

These ideas coincide well with John Dewey’s (1963) seminal writings on collateral learning. He wrote:

Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only that particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning…may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned (p. 48).

Have you had good luck showing students the value in your collateral classroom activities? Please share any best practices that have worked for you.

Dewey, J. (1963). Experience and education. London: Collier.