Friday, March 11, 2011

My teaching philosophy

Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 10:21pm
I had some excellent teachers along my long academic journey, and there is no way I can ever repay them for what those teachers did for me. The best thing I can do to honor them is to attempt to "pay it forward" by teaching a new generation of students while trying to "channel" those who inspired me in the classroom. [See my Facebook note on my Top Ten Teachers for some (but not all) of the wonderful teachers I experienced.]

When I started teaching Political Science courses, I knew that I wanted to include classroom discussions, to liven things up and make them think on their feet. I also knew that I wanted to put an emphasis on writing skills—but not just writing assignments for the sake of writing. Instead, I promote participatory citizenship by requiring them to write both "letters to the editor" and "letters to an elected official" as actual tasks (extra credit is given if they do send the letter to the editor and it is chosen for publication). In addition, I require students at the very start to write an autobiography paper (with a minimum of 500 words), so that I can get to know them better and so they can see how I grade their grammar, spelling, etc. Reading their stories helps me to better tune the class to their interests.

I also knew that I wanted multiple assignments over the course of the semester, so that one gets regular feedback on their progress in class. I hated the way law school classes were void of intermediate assignments—100% rode exclusively on the final. In my classes, the final exam isn't even worth 50% (usually about 30%). By the way, I also believe in setting up the grading component to be on a one hundred point scale, in order to keep it simple (one previous teacher had used a cumbersome 2700 point system for his ConLaw classes). With the same purpose of simplicity, my letter grades are based on a 90/80/70/60 scale.

One unique aspect of my classes is the "songs of the night." I have a friend from grad school with a humongous music collection who I knew could assist me with this idea. Since colleges don't have bells to ring to signify the start of class, and since I like to get things started on time, I play a song with some relation to the class just before the 7:00 starting time. In other words, if the song is three minutes long, I start the music at 6:57. It helps to draw students in from the hallway (both to begin class and when returning from the break), as they know it is a bit like musical chairs—everyone should be in their seats when the music stops. When I started, I would walk down the hallway carrying my briefcase and a giant boombox—I have since upgraded to an MP3 player with smaller speakers. I often play "Revolution" by the Beatles on the first night, and many students are amazed that a teacher would do that. It really gets their attention! There are plenty of other great tunes that I play, from artists such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, etc. Sometimes the students even volunteer their own songs. I've had more than a few tell me they had never really listened to the lyrics of these songs, but now they pay more attention whenever they listen to any music.

Besides the songs of the night, I also place on the whiteboard a "quote of the night." I want my classes to spark some intellectual thinking, so I devote a portion of the whiteboard to a significant quote related to the night's topic. The authors range from the Founding Fathers to world leaders to ancient Greek philosophers. I see many students record these thoughts into their notes before class begins.
Because of the importance of the Internet, I create a website for each class, using the commercial free "Internet Classroom Assistant" (available at no cost from The songs and quote of each night are recorded there, as well as any followup that I feel is necessary. There is a page to share "links" to interesting websites related to the class, and students are required to find and post at least one for others to enjoy.

The website is involved with another one of my writing assignments. Ever since seeing the movie "Freedom Writers," I have required students to keep a blog on the class website. They must write at least 100 words per week, hopefully about something related to the class. The blogs are open for all other students to see, which helps to promote classroom discussions.

The listing of Kennedy Award winners is also posted on the class website. In order to promote reading with a critical eye, I give a reward to anyone who finds a mistake in the textbook (and despite the high cost of college textbooks, there are plenty of mistakes). The reward is a John F. Kennedy silver medallion (actually, a 50 cent piece) that I refer to as a Kennedy Award. [Speaking of JFK, I have been known to play his inauguration speech ("Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country...") for my students, as well as other famous political speeches, using my MP3 player.]

I always make a point to bring a small American flag to my classroom and put it up proudly each night for all to see. I also bring my "source document"--one of these souvenir copies from the National Archives of the actual U.S. Constitution. I generally also carry a pocket Constitution as well. One of my former students worked for Senator Byrd, and as they were closing out his office recently she sent me one like what he carried with his autograph (I taped her business card in the back).

The first night of class, I have always given them a test (which gets graded and returned to them but doesn't count as part of their overall grade) based on the U.S. citizenship test. It is usually a humbling experience for them to realize how little they know about their own country's government, and makes them realize that maybe they should learn this stuff. In the ConLaw classes, when we get to the chaper on civil rights, I also give them a test (for extra credit) based on questions that Alabama would give to blacks who wanted to register to vote. Seeing how unfair these questions are helps to sensitize them to the situation.

Speaking of Constitutional Law class, I also require students to memorize the Preamble and stand before class to recite it. Elementary students used to have to do this, so I felt like today's college students should be able to handle it. It provides an excellent opportunity to improve their public speaking skills. While many are skeptical at first, it has proven to be a good thing. We practice the preamble collectively at the end of each class by saying it together (sort of a benediction before they exit the class). Sometimes I have ran into former students, and they tell me that they still remember the Preamble!

Another ConLaw practice was a major writing task that I call the "Judicial Legacy" paper. Here is how I describe it in the syllabus:
Imagine that you have served as a Supreme Court justice yourself, and recently decided to step down. You have accepted an invitation to speak to a Constitutional Law class at your alma mater (with stipulations such as no media in attendance). Prepare a paper to describe the position you took on three recent major Supreme Court cases (how far back you go depends on how old you can imagine yourself, but I would guess that the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case might be the limit). Hopefully, you will find several cases in the textbook (although you are not limited to only those Supreme Court cases presented in our book) that will arouse your interests and thus make it easier for you to express your personal opinions. Write the paper as if it is the script for your speech, but the focus should be on the cases you select, and not on overly elaborate introductory and summary statements (i.e., opening and closing remarks are expected, just don't minimize the "meat" of the assignment). Remember, this is about you imagining yourself as a justice—not about you researching and assuming the actual role of a specific Supreme Court justice.

Since the audience is a ConLaw class, you can assume that they have some familiarity with the cases. While some general background may be necessary, the emphasis should be on your personal rationale of what the final decision was—or should have been (if your solution to a case is different than the opinions of the real justices). Don't just cut and paste legalistic wording from the official opinions; try to explain your arguments in your own words using terms that the students in your audience will understand. Provide a personal justification of your stand based on the facts and constitutional implications of each case—don't just say "I'm against abortion so I voted against Roe v. Wade." Feel free to be creative in your speech (but don't go overboard).

This major paper is worth 15% of your final grade, and is to be at least 1500 words—feel free to go longer as necessary to adequately explain your rationale (please indicate the total word length in a parenthetical at the end of your paper). ANYTHING LESS THAN 1500 WORDS IN LENGTH—AND ANY PAPER WITHOUT A WORD COUNT—WILL NOT BE GRADED, RESULTING IN ZERO POINTS (this expectation is also true for the other writing assignments).

I like the fact that this assignment forces them to project themselves into a future where they have found success and are now returning to their alma mater. I also like making them take a stand on some cases and justify their own opinions. This unique assignment is also less susceptible to copying from the Internet. While the length is scary to them (earlier classes were given a 2000 word minimum, but I eventually cut it back to 1500), they often find a real sense of accomplishment once it is done.

In order to improve their writing skills, I give each of them a portfolio folder (and I write their name on it in calligraphy). By keeping the various writing assignments together, I can see if they are making any progress by paying attention to my previous feedback, or if they are simply continuing to make the same mistakes. It promotes a more conscious effort on their parts to improve their writing skills.

I have sometimes taken my classes on "field trips" to see a city council meeting (extra credit is given to those who address the council during the public forum part of their agenda) or to hear the WV Supreme Court (the one time they were in town). I also generally bring in at least one guest speaker. These have included current and former politicians, lawyers, reporters, etc. I have also shown movies and video clips (from a great PBS show) in my classes. The movie is usually shown the night of the mid-term exam, after the test has been completed. The movie I showed in my most recent class was "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington."

When I was a student, some teachers would provide not just a syllabus, but also a companion reading list of suggested books to read. Rather than copy this practice, I wanted to update it, in part because it is all I can do to get them to read the textbook. However, I know that many of them watch videos, so I worked with my grad school friend (who not only is a music collector, but also a huge movie buff) to produce a four page listing of suggested movies related to the study of government. It at least provides them with ideas for the next time they claim to be bored and want to watch a movie.

One way I have found to get them to read the textbook is to give pop quizzes. In ConLaw, these are a part of their grade, as explained in this excerpt from the syllabus:
On any given day, one of an undetermined number of pop quizzes may be given, covering the assigned chapter(s) for that class. The quizzes reward preparation and performance and thus reinforce professional work habits. Each of these quizzes is worth 3% of your final grade, and thus your three highest quiz scores will comprise 9% of your final grade. If four or more pop quizzes are given (and that is quite likely), the highest three scores will be used to determine the student's grade, while the fourth highest score can be used for up to 3% extra credit. Your lowest scores after the top four (assuming more than four quizzes are given) will be dropped. Note that pop quizzes are only for those in attendance at the time and CANNOT be made up later (that is one reason why more than three will be given). On-time attendance and preparation are important in this class.
At first they may not be thrilled about pop quizzes, but towards the end of the semester, some of them are begging for pop quizzes so that they can improve their top three scores. It has been a successful practice.

For my mid-term tests in ConLaw, I have invented what I call a "Blitz Test." Through mutual agreement, the class and the teacher identify the ten most important cases so far in the class. On exam night, at 7:00 one particular case name is projected on a screen (along with a countdown timer), and the students have ten minutes to write as much as they can to explain it. When the buzzer goes off after ten minutes, the next case name appears (along with a fresh ten minutes on the countdown timer). Their answers from the previous case are collected so that they cannot go back and add to it if they have extra time on a subsequent case. This testing method gives them experience with working under deadline pressures, while ensuring that everyone gets done in 50 minutes. Afterwards, they get to decompress with a movie.

For final exams, I generally mix traditional multiple choice questions (using "bubble sheets" that can be automatically graded) with essays. I frequently use blue book essay exams, just because they are "old school." However, in a few classes that were abnormally small, I did the final as an oral exam. Similar to the blitz test, significant cases are chosen with the names put into a hat. The students must be prepared to give a verbal discussion of whichever case they pull out of the hat. Both times I did this method, it ended up turning out well and no one "froze."

The night of the final exam, the song of the night is generally "The End Of The World" by REM. Whenever a student completes the final exam, I always try to give them a firm handshake and words of encouragement as they leave my classroom for the last time.

Finally, one other novel aspect of my classes is that I always tell my students that I plan on hosting a party at the college on July 4, 2026 to celebrate our country's 250th birthday, and that all my former students are invited. Some students have become very excited about this 7/4/26 idea, and have even volunteered to bring "refreshing beverages." Hopefully I will be around to join them!

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