Teach Wonder

Do I Start with a Question or Do I Start with a Direction?

October 24, 2021 The Center for Excellence in STEM Education Season 1 Episode 10
Teach Wonder
Do I Start with a Question or Do I Start with a Direction?
Show Notes Transcript

This episode focuses on how stepping off the stage to learn alongside our students can be equal parts rewarding and scary. In our interview with Dr. Troy Hicks, he shares some of the thinking that goes into this style of teaching- workshopping writing, teacher as coach, teaching online. We dig into the challenges and successes that Troy's worked through and worked on over his teaching career. Ashley discusses her perspective as a former student in Troy's classes, and they compare notes to see if her experiences matched the goals he'd set for his course.

Links:
Chippewa River Writing Project
National Writing Project
Primary Sources Program
Dr. Corey Drakes' Episode

Ashley O'Neil:

Okay, now we're recording.

Julie Cunningham:

So welcome to teach wonder. A podcast hosted by

Ashley O'Neil:

Ashley O'Neil and

Julie Cunningham:

Julie Cunningham.

Ashley O'Neil:

This week's interview makes me think a lot about my own classroom. I've had a first grade classroom, a middle school or resource room, a kindergarten classroom. And currently I have an online grad classroom. And in all of these "rooms", I spent a fair amount of time thinking about the setup of my space, I always wanted the room to do as much for the students as I could. So for my younger students, I wanted the things at a height where they could get to what they needed independently. I tried about a dozen different library systems to get my students ready access to books that interested them. I wanted students to have both a sense of our shared space and also some personal space where they could leave their work for another day, knowing it would be as they left it. Even now, in the online courses I teach, I'm pretty regularly reflecting on how the virtual set up in space is working or not working for my students. In today's conversation, we spend a little time talking about the preparation that happens as a teacher, we discuss the role that we play in the classroom, how we view the long game and the way it affects assessments and feedback. Our guest brings a huge wealth of knowledge about teaching in virtual spaces. So you'll hear us move between those environments. Throughout our conversation today. We'll also talk about how we reflect on what's not working and what we do when we look back at our teaching, and it's not always pretty. So with that introduction, let's get started.

Julie Cunningham:

Okay,

Ashley O'Neil:

Perfect. So I'll do our introduction today. So today on our episode, I'm really delighted to share someone that I have known for a while I first worked with Troy in undergrad, I had him for a writing course. And I think it was revolutionary for me to understand that writing is something that I actually enjoy when the right context and some of the rules are removed a little bit. I then worked with him in my master's program again and had a wonderful experience and learned a lot of things specifically about teaching online, which I'm sure we'll dive into a little bit today. And so, without further ado, I'm delighted to introduce Dr. Troy Hicks with us today.

Dr. Troy Hicks:

Thanks, Ashley. Yeah.

Ashley O'Neil:

Would you want to just start by telling everybody a little bit about yourself, your teaching what your what you do? Anything that you think we'd like to hear?

Dr. Troy Hicks:

Yes, thanks. So the one number I can say solidly is that this is the beginning of my 15th year at Central Michigan University that one I can count. As you noted, I started in the English department, I was teaching writing and writing methods courses, I spent one year and what done was called our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. And then on my way back to the English department had the opportunity to move to teacher education and professional development. So for the past five, six years now I really focus on educational technology, especially at the masters and doctoral level. And then depending on how you want to count it, and where you want to start, this is somewhere between your 23 and 25, in education. And to describe my style, I mean, I kind of feel like it's a little bit different. As we were talking right before the show started. Like I'm mostly working with adult learners. Now even the undergraduates I work with are more advanced undergraduates when they do teach those courses. And so I know that not everything I do is always applicable, you know, in an elementary or middle or high school classroom. And yet, I think there are some broad lessons that I've learned over my career that hopefully I should be able to apply. And I appreciate your kind introduction and noting that, you know, thinking about the way I did the workshop format for our writing methods course is definitely something that we could talk more about.

Ashley O'Neil:

Yeah.

Julie Cunningham:

Well, Iwas just gonna add that also you often work with current in service classroom teachers that that is... I know you've said adults, and that should include any adult but often that is one of your your pockets of individuals that you work with. So sort of understanding what does go on in a K 12 classroom, both through your own experience and the teachers that you regularly work with as well.

Dr. Troy Hicks:

Yeah, thanks, Julie. Definitely. It's one of those things where when people ask me like what I do, and my wife will often joke at this too, like if you only did your day job, think how much time you would have. One of the things I really find passion is working with teachers, most often through the Chippewa River Writing Project, which is our side of the national writing project, but also through a variety of other professional development programs. Last year, I worked with a teaching with Primary Sources Program through the Library of Congress, I'm probably going to be working on another similar program to that this year. I've worked with you all at the STEM Center or Beaver Island Institute. So Those are those opportunities where you get to work with teachers and really help inspire their passions that, you know, brings me -my teacher heart gets full and brings me joy when I'm able to do those things within for teachers.

Ashley O'Neil:

So Troy, I think I alluded to it a little bit, how your writing or your teaching style was new for me in undergrad. And then I felt like it was new again, for me and in my master's work, because it was such a shift. And part of that shift was that the master's program was all online, and none of it was face to face. And then undergrad program was all face to face and very little online. But I think there is more to it than that. So I can share a little bit about how it felt to be a student. But I am curious, what led you to that style? And what does that look like for you, when you think about developing your pedagogy and your format?

Dr. Troy Hicks:

Yeah, I'llanswer that quickly. And I would like to hear more of your experience, and then I can you answer it more fully. I appreciate you sharing that question early, because it got me thinking about quite a few things. And I would describe my style right now as a coach consultant. And that comes out of my work originally as an undergraduate writing consultant, when I was an undergrad at Michigan State, and we had our English education methods course for teaching writing, we visited the Writing Center, I fell in love, I said, "this is great, I love this style, I want to work with writers and help help them bring their voice out." I didn't go through the traditional Writing Center training, pedagogy class, but I was fortunate enough to get a job there because I was an English education student. And that changed everything for me. And bringing that kind of consultative style to say, "Tell me what you're working on what questions you have, where are you at? "And yeah, I'd really like to hear your perspective on how that showed up in the writing methods class, as well as the ed tech class, because I think that that's what carries me through all of my teaching and my professional development work.

Ashley O'Neil:

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So in my undergrad work, I don't remember the course number specifically. But I was uh, had a Language Arts minor, and was going to be a classroom teacher. So we were writing, it was a writing methods course. And I remember feeling a little bit like there was not a teacher in the room. But that felt really good. So you had shared a lot of your writing in your work. And then we did a lot of sharing of samples and examples. And most of your instruction, when I look back at it, was done by talking through the writing that our peers had done together. So you'd kind of introduce this project, and then, we would go out and work on it, have these parameters that we kind of work through, and then a lot of your instruction, and the fine tuning that would come and the learning I felt came from listening to the conversations that we had about about classwork. I think in and seeing you do online work, it felt like there was a really strong infrastructure up front. So your course was quite detailed and developed. And then you were kind of sitting alongside as like this one-on-one mentor, as like the course ran itself. And maybe that's inaccurate to how your experience was. But that's, that's how it felt to me. Do you want to speak to that a little bit?

Dr. Troy Hicks:

Oh, yeah. No, I deeply appreciate you describing those things that way. Because, Yes, exactly. You're seeing inside the black box. That is what I tried to do, whether I'm in the face to face classroom, a fully asynchronous online classroom or a classroom with some level of real time learning through zoom, or WebEx or whatnot. I definitely, again, try to provide that structure, give just enough parameters- I, I had a mentor teacher once who described this as choice within reason, right? Like, I'm going to give you just enough to get you started. And there'll be things to fall back on. Like if you're stuck or you're lost, I can give you more resources. I'm happy to meet with you. In fact, I really enjoyed meeting with you and want to do you know, one-to-one coaching, whether it's 30 seconds or 30 minutes. And that's one of the great things about the online that that affords we can talk about that a bit too. But yeah, I definitely provide that structure. Let's look at this together. Let's examine it as a writer or as an educational technologist should give you a framework for thinking and then go. You know write or create a want you to try to do something and build something and make something and then share what you've created and reflect on that process and to hear you describe it that way means that it must be doing something right. It must have been coming through in the teaching practice. So I really appreciate them.

Julie Cunningham:

Troy. That's sometimes scary. I think teachers, instructors whether regardless of the level right to think about adjusting your teaching, based on student work, or based on student questions and comments. So can you talk a little about how that feels? Or maybe maybe it's not scary to you anymore, because you've been doing it for a while, but if you could think back to what sort of challenges did you have to overcome, I can think about why it's scary, but I don't want to put words in your mouth. If you could address those challenges?

Dr. Troy Hicks:

Absolutely. Well, I think this also harkens back to one of the conversations you had earlier in your series with Cory Drake about, you know, you learn all these progressive pedagogies. And then you go get your first job and they hand you the textbook and tell you to fill out your lesson plans and you freeze and your you go right back to teaching the way that you were taught. So I'll actually answer your question by starting at the end and what I think about when you've turned your assignment in, and I'm getting ready to give you feedback, like I'm already projecting to that moment, a week or two weeks or a month from now, when I'm setting up the lesson and setting up the interaction, because I want to know, okay, am I just giving you feedback that's really meant for growth, and it's kind of a pass fail, it's an ungraded thing, if we want to use that language, or a gradeless thing. And it really is meant to be a formative assessment, give it your best shot, I'm going to give you feedback and help you grow toward that bigger thing. Or, you know, am I going to be judging you at the end, like I said, there is going to be a rubric, there's going to be some points, you'll have the opportunity to revise and resubmit, which is also part of my pedagogy and my writing background. But then trace that back to that moment that you're feeling, like, you're about ready to step off the cliff, as you start your lesson for the day. Can I give control? Do I start with a question? Or do I start with a direction? Do I provide an example? And we deconstruct it together? Or do I provide an example and deconstruct it for you, and we have all these little mantras to within by sage on the stage versus guide on the side? And we can talk about all that. But I think what, in that moment, like when you are standing in front of kids or adults, you have to be thinking a day from now a week from now, a month from now. Okay- How am I going to give them feedback on whatever we're doing right now? Whatever I want them to produce in the next 30 or 60 minutes? How am I going to give them feedback on this a week from now a month from now, you know, later on at the end of the semester? And then that just changes everything? Because when I think about, oh my gosh, I'm gonna have to agree this essay a month from now, what do I want to be, you know, actually giving them feedback on? Do I really want to be correcting their commas? Or do I want to be talking with them about how they made a nuanced and debatable thesis that that acknowledged the complexity of this really wonderfully rich issue? That's what I want to do, I don't want to just be grading their comments. So I have to think about that, from the moment we step in the classroom all the way to the feedback that I offer them, as we close that cycle.

Julie Cunningham:

And I feel like you also have to know you understand that you know, your content well, right. I mean, you can't give that kind of feedback, that individual feedback if you don't know what end product you want, and also know your content well enough. And sometimes I feel like that's what, and I'm certainly not a writing instructor, right. But even I think regardless of content, that feels intimidating, if you're getting lots of you don't, you don't control or that the path is to get to the end, you might control the end, and you might control the beginning. But that path is kind of an unknown.

Dr. Troy Hicks:

Absolutely, it can be a challenge to just have that moment where you let go. And you know, again, we can say all these little kind of mantra," trust the process", you know, "go with the flow", whatever we want to say, but it really is that moment, you have to trust that student in that moment and lean into that question and then feel free to go with it, you'll you'll get back to all the rest of the content at one point or another.

Ashley O'Neil:

I think it's too- And you can correct me if I'm wrong, but it felt like you had a really clear arc for where we were starting and where we're going. And that a lot of your work in the class was done upfront, right? Like you spent a lot of time building building the course and the structural plan, so that your bandwidth during class could be spent on these kind of dynamic, living conversations and adjustments and pivot points because everything was kind of prepped for the course through the rest of the time. Is that fair to say?

Dr. Troy Hicks:

Yeah, the labor of teaching is very interesting when we start to really unpack when and how the work happens. And yeah, I do appreciate you saying that because I the vision is, by the end, you feel confident about who you are as a writer, as well as who you are as a teacher of writing. And there's a lot of different ways we can get to that and I've tried to lay out as best I can a plan that will help us get there but we can be flexible when we can move and we can shift and we can change and yeah, so you so I always have the main ideas in mind. But yeah, it it can change and then there is some skill, right? Like when you get to that last day of class or last week of class and you're trying to figure out how do I tie all this together? Where do we find Meaning where do we find themes? How do we? How do we bring all of this into cohesion? That takes a certain kind of, if I dare say empathy, emotional intelligence, it takes a little bit of content knowledge. And it just takes knowing your students by that point, if you've built those relationships over time, you know, where you can tell a little joke, and you can you can tie something in and you can make those connections? And then, and then try to feel like you've brought that to closure. And it's not just Oh, yep, here's the final test, good luck, have a great, you know, semester break, but actually close as a community and feel like you've accomplished something,

Ashley O'Neil:

Do you find that that relationship building is different, and trickier? And you mentioned before we started that you've basically been online virtual for the last five years. So do you feel like that's different in this space versus in a physical classroom?

Dr. Troy Hicks:

Yeah, so I appreciate that question. And I will start with the caveat of saying that, you know, I am in a slightly different space. Now, I'm not in a K 12 classroom every day, I'm not even in a college classroom with undergraduates every day, I recognize that my teaching context is very different. I'm teaching master's degree students and highly asynchronous only slightly, you know, once in a while opportunity for real time meeting and zoom, or WebEx, and then a doctoral program where we do have some regular meetings, but not to the level of which we would if you're on campus every day. But to your point about building relationships. Again, I think that's about, you know, how do you how do you set yourself up as an educator? Some people will call us like, your social presence in the online space? How do you present yourself. I think that students really appreciate just having, you know, like, a sense of communication. And as long as it's clear, and it's, there's a pattern to it, and it's consistent, they're going to appreciate that. And then I always oper- offer opportunities to meet. So for me, it's, here's my online booking calendar, please book an appointment, we'll connect on zoom. And then when we get together in those virtual spaces, and I know, I know, again, we can unpack this a little bit more, it's a struggle to get every person to participate. And we can talk about whether cameras should be on or off or whatnot, and all these things, but this is my mantra, and I've come to know this more and more, especially in the virtual space is like, yeah, in school, it's like the the nesting dolls, those Russian dolls, right? Like you have the school day, but then you have transition times and then you have a fire alarm, and then you're gonna have this, and then you're gonna have that, and by the time you get done, you only have the little tiny doll. Well, the same thing can happen in zoom, right? Oh, Hi, how's everybody doing? Oh, wow. Oh, wow. 15 minutes have gone by Well, let me give you a quick update on blah, blah, blah, and then 30 minutes have gone by and you haven't engaged people, right? I am like, I'm kind of a start on time end on time person, like, we will chat for about five minutes- by five minutes after the hour. Recording is clicking on. Let me give you the instructions. Set you to work. Here's what I asked you to do before you showed up tonight. Here's our shared Google Doc, add some notes, move you to breakout rooms, have the conversation, come back. Alright, what do we learn? How does this connect to the readings? How does this connect to this assignment? Okay, let's go back to the breakout rooms again. And let's decompress. And let's make new connections. And then let's come back and let's answer with clarifying questions and move forward. And so I really tried to maximize that time, it's always been true in school, like there's no way everybody is on task 100% of the time, nor would you want them to be that just, it's not human nature. And it wouldn't be fair to the teacher or to the students. But you want to honor people's time. And I think that I tried to do that in the way that I facilitate both face to face and online learning.

Ashley O'Neil:

That is a really important point to building respectful relationships with adults and with with kids. But I hear you saying that you're really consistent and predictable about some procedural expectations. So people aren't scrambling to know what to expect. And you try to give clear communication about that. You try to be like, if I say I'm doing this, I'm going to do this so that they can rely on you. And you do try to embed some of that time for social- I'm just thinking about the fact that I'm not sure I do incorporate social time in some of my zoom calls at the beginning. And would that go a long way and saying, Hey, I noticed that you have a new background? Or did you get a haircut? That that can be a simple and small way to build some of those relationships. Do you think so when I think about your teaching, I'm gonna back up just a little bit, and kind of back up to thinking about this, this structure where you are kind of riding along with students and giving them this dynamic feedback. And I know you mentioned, I think you're alluding toward maybe some larger projects that have these kind of small stepping stone assignments to them that build up to something larger. Are there some challenges associated with that for you as a teacher, and also are there some challenges associated for your students in that way. And can you talk about that a little bit?

Dr. Troy Hicks:

semester, right. But there's a particular program that for many years have been free, openly available. You already know the punchline to this story- suddenly, boom, the freemium model changes from Oh, you get 20 options to get two options. And so my whole assignment just went out the window. Like, Oh, you can't use the free thing anymore. All right. So I can like rethink that. And that particular assignment is one where I'm asking those students to design an online learning object, like you need to take someone else's content and you need to design something new from it. Some students jump right on that they're like, Oh, yeah, okay, I can take someone else's lecture video and you know, build a video with interactive quizzes, or I can take someone else's PowerPoint and record my own audio overtop of it, and then do this, or I could do this other thing. Other students who's like, I don't really know what you're talking about, or how well what, because they haven't experienced that themselves as a student. So then it's okay. Same thing we did in our writing class, let's look at a mentor texts. Let's look at, let's find an example. Let's take this apart, and let's look at it and this is exactly what happened in my conversation with my colleague yesterday. She just didn't, she's like, "I don't even know what you're talking about. Like I i've never created I've never even I don't even think I've interacted with a learning object like this particular software." I'm like, "Okay, well, let's go look at one and let's...", ah, boom, light bulb went off. She's on her way. So yeah, it's just that listening, asking questions. approaching it with some humility. Like, I don't know, the answers, in fact, I'm very clear with my students, like a deck is changing all the time. And writing is super, super complex. So you're gonna ask me a question that's like- and I'm making this little ladder with my hands here- like I'm on one rung of the ladder. And my students will ask me a question that's just that next rung above me. And I'm like, let me get back to you on that. And then I will, I will climb the ladder. And I will figure out the answer to that next question. And I will come back and answer it. And it's this constant pushing forward. So I hope that answered your question and gave you a little bit of a concrete example.

Ashley O'Neil:

I think it does, I think there's um, and we've experienced this in our space in a different way, with K 12 students and with teachers that we're not really used to being confused or unsure, right? Like, worksheets, really predictable. And we can see the end game and we know exactly where a name supposed to go, and I can, I can tackle that's really well. But then it can be tricky when we have this change, where maybe the outcome looks really varied. And maybe not everyone in the classroom is making the same thing. And it looks really different. And so I think we have to kind of deal with students discomfort with being confused. And we there's a negative association with confusion, but actually, that confusion can just can be really helpful for what we've got going

Unknown:

on. Just inspiring that cognitive dissonance. Oftentimes, when I'm in a workshop with teachers, I'll say something to the effect of this, I'll be like, "we're about to do something, and I am intentionally going to raise your blood pressure. Trust me about half an hour from now it's gonna make sense, I did this." And they'll look at me like "what?", and then I lay the task on them, and they're like, boom, deer in the headlights and half an hour later. Sure enough, I will say, Well, how did you feel about that last activity was really stressful? I can't believe you did. But uh, you you'd made us do this online thing. And we'd never done this before. Well, what did you think like, as a writer, or as a technologist, what were you thinking about? Like, Oh, well, I had to do this. And then I had to do that. And my students would have had to do this. And I would have. So yeah, that cognitive dissonance can be really powerful. If you frame it in the right way,

Julie Cunningham:

Troy I do think that you've always been that type of an educator, or have you come to this over time. And if you have come to this over time, do you see a path of how you, you got there? Were there some turning points in your career or important? I don't know challenges?

Dr. Troy Hicks:

Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I was thinking about this question, too. And it relates to a chapter I just wrote for a book about learning from our mistakes as teachers. And so the story I told in that chapter was, you know, I was seventh and eighth grade Middle School language arts teacher, I'd kind of known for my classes and my undergraduate pre service that you know, vocabulary tests and spelling tests were ridiculous. Plus testing was kind of weird, and why did you waste your time on this and use it more in authentic ways? and blah, blah, blah. And then there's, you know, students cheat and how do you set up your classroom norms. Anyway, it all coalesced And of course I wouldn't I didn't know this in the moment, it's only after 20 years of reflecting on this one incident. But one of my best students and one of my most troubling students who are sitting there in a spelling test and the rule was you don't talk bla bla bla while somebody taught the goods good student I'm using air quotes, you know, turned around and said something, probably just repeating the word I just said out loud. It was one of those days I grabbed both their towels. So I'm like, You're cheating, I rip them up, threw him away. Holy cow, you know, hindsight, again, being 2020 Yeah, number one, I would never use failing tests anymore. But number two, just thinking about that moment and thinking about what I was trying to do and the power and pedagogies and policies that I was trying to enact in that moment and the kind of the space I was trying to inhabit and and the role I was trying to wield. No, I wouldn't do that now. Um, you know, I definitely came to where I'm at now over many years, and many trial and error and again, I, I recognize I'm not in a classroom every day with sixth graders or with 12th graders, or even with college undergraduate. So my stance is a little bit different. And yet, I would still hope that people can learn from some of my, the ethos, I guess, why I do what I do, and how I do what I do, I think can still translate into other settings,

Ashley O'Neil:

I think so, I I feel like we all need to share. Not I won't right this moment. But it's I think it's really powerful to talk about the things that we would do differently if we could go back in the classroom or those moments because- I can think of some really important ways that I messed up. Things that I cringe at when I think about now. And a lot of it came out of stress and the moment or not really knowing a different option. So falling back on these default things that I witnessed when I was a kid in the classroom. And I am just as much driven by my desire to not be that teacher, as I am by the good things that I've seen and the great practices that I'm I'm trying to strive for. So it's really interesting, you brought that up. Troy, is theresomething else that we haven't talked about, or something that you want to mention that you feel strongly about when it comes to education that you want to share? Maybe with the listeners,

Dr. Troy Hicks:

I think there's two kind of final points I would make. One is that, you know, again, depend on how you want to count it, I'm somewhere around you're 25 in education. And that whole time I've heard this constant refrain of teach writing across the curriculum, or teach writing in the content areas teach disciplinary, literacies. Same thing, integrate technology in all the content areas, integrate technology. And if there's any moment to do those things, again, another silver lining to the COVID Cloud, not to make light of it. But to say that there will never be another moment in public education, where we have more kids with more devices with more connectivity than we do right now, in this very late this fall. We are at the pinnacle. I won't say it's ubiquitous access, I know there are still some pockets where that is not happening. But Wow, if we don't take the moment to actually finally do a much better job of integrating literacy and technology into all aspects of what we do each day in schools, the moment will pass us by so I would say that's one big thing on my mind this year. The other thing too, is the importance of professional learning and building your own networks. And we talked a moment ago about the national writing project. That's one of my professional homes. There are many other professional homes, I know you're building a network of educators at the Center for Excellence in STEM education. And we just have to find that group. And maybe your group is just two or three other people that you're in a text message chat with. Maybe your group is a weekly writing group. And you're not even writing about teaching, you're just writing and sharing. But it's a group of teachers that can kind of commiserate. Maybe it's a book club, maybe it's going to conferences, hopefully face to face, but still virtual, you must. But finding that network and building that community of support that you can contribute to and then also gain from, I think is just crucial. It's absolutely essential. I can't even tell you how many interactions in a day between social media email, zoom calls, phone calls, text messages. My professional network is what sustains me and I hope that I reciprocate and so I would encourage others to do the same.

Julie Cunningham:

And in our conversation with a focus on the importance of being connected, seems just about right to us. We find tremendous value in the professional relationships we build. They make us better instructors, better listeners and better communicators. We hope you've enjoyed listening today. As always, like serving The show notes and transcripts are available on our website. Thanks again for listening