How Humor Can Transform Your Classroom


This post was originally published by Inside Higher Ed on June 15, 2014

At the beginning of my second quarter teaching, I had a major cold sore outbreak that could only be tolerated under thick layers of desensitizing, gross-looking ointment. Within an hour of arriving at the university that day, four people had kindly alerted me to the fact that I had “something” on my lip (big news). It was rather frustrating and embarrassing, so when I entered my classroom that morning, I raised my hand and proclaimed in an exasperated voice: “In case anyone feels the urge to alert me to the fact that I have something on my face – trust me, I know.” And I smiled. The entire class cracked up laughing.

Self-deprecating humor can be incredibly powerful. It’s one of the reasons everyone adores Jennifer Lawrence. The ability to make fun of yourself is a way to open up to the audience and let them into your space and a world that you control. The key is to make fun of yourself, rather than your students, as it makes you seem more human and gets people on your side.

Although I’d discovered the power of self-deprecation by accident, it made its mark on me and on my teaching. My students’ laughter that day instantly relaxed me and changed my attitude as an instructor over the weeks to come. I started being my (overly, some people claim) blunt self, and I discovered that some of the best comedy stems from blatant honesty. Stories of embarrassment and frustration had them holding their bellies while laughing. Gradually, I felt confident enough to start joking about their excuses and failure to deliver. Often a simple “seriously?” or “dude” would have them kicking and jumping and it would, surprisingly, turn out to be just as effective as a stern remark or criticism, if not more.

Of course, there’s a thin line here. One should never ever use humor at the expense of a student’s self-esteem. Joking with students is one thing – putting them down another. Humor is also no substitute for substance: just because you are telling jokes, does not mean you are teaching effectively.

Yet for me, humor has been one of the ways in which I’ve turned disengaged groups of college students into my dream class. Beyond simply making people laugh, it has the rare ability to soften hardened hearts, open shuttered minds, and bring students close to one another. It has been the key that allows me to reach out to the “difficult”, the unmotivated,  and the unhappy.

Whether your humor comes natural or not, below are some humor strategies you can use in your own classroom:

  • Laugh at yourself: You don’t have to have a background in comedy–some of the funniest and most inoffensive remarks are self-deprecating, and they have the added benefit of showing the students that you are human. It’s also worth it in the interest of drawing shyer students out of their shells.
  • Use humor in homework, test, and quiz questions: I currently teach German, which includes a lot of boring drilling and sentence construction exercises. It’s a serious time investment but students really appreciate anything remotely funny that stretches the “this is a red apple” idea. In the case of exams/ quizzes it will also help lift the veil of test-anxiety.
  • Don’t be afraid to be gross: Tell them about that time your period stained through your white skirt on a would-have-been-perfect date or when you presented at a conference with snot hanging out of your nose. It’s a sure way to get their attention. More importantly, get the juices flowing by encourage them to share their own stories of embarrassment.
  • Be miserable together: No matter what course you’re teaching, there’s always gonna be that day or week filled with material that, well, kinda sucks. Flashing your basic anger at the system will always get smiles. Sometimes I make a simple comment about the insane (really) amount of grammar we have to cover in a chapter and their laughter lightens the room. What’s important is that they know I’m on their side.
  • Spice it up with funny clips, pics etc.: Even if you don’t feel funny at all, you can accrue the benefits of humor in class by using the humor of others (youtube videos, pictures and comics etc.) to make a point. A significant part of my job is teaching vocabulary, and I’ve made a habit out of introducing and reviewing it using funny pictures.
  • Be you: My humor is blunt, raw, and sarcastic. Not everyone can handle my directness, and I often say things that could be taken the wrong way. Yet in my classroom this rawness has done wonders for building trust and rapport with my students.

So what if you’re not comfortable using humor as an instructional tool? Although humor is a great way to tell a story, increase student engagement, and foster a sense of community, there are many other ways to spice up your class routine, with music, field trips, and social media feeds being some of them. You don’t have to be a class clown and you certainly don’t have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. The most important thing, really, is to be true to who you are and where you’re coming from.

Image by Flickr user Alan Cleaver used under creative commons licensing.


5 Reasons To Allow Digital Devices In Your Classroom

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This post was originally published by Inside Higher Ed on November 30, 2014

Amidst reports of Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley CEOs imposing extremely strict technology rules on their children, the debate aroundtechnology use in the classroom has caught fire once again. One of the strongest arguments for banning technology in the classroom came earlier this fall, from media pundit Clay Shirky in a piece titled “Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away.”

In principle, I agree with a lot of what Shirky writes—multiple studies confirm the cognitive toll that distractions and multitasking inflict on learning; his argument that social media is designed both in form and content to distract has merit; and as an email-addict myself, I know that feeling of “instant and satisfying gratification” he describes all too well. Suggesting, however, that enforcing a technology ban is the solution to students’ lack of engagement strikes me both as insecure and a wee bit simplistic.

Surely, learning can take place in the absence of technology. But valuable learning can also take place in the presence of it. In my own experience as a foreign language instructor, I have found that there are many benefits to allowing—and in certain cases encouraging—students to use digital devices in class, five of which are outlined below.

1. They help facilitate conversation.

Many professors opting to impose a laptop ban in their classrooms cite a lack of quality conversation and student engagement as the primary reason. But my own experience largely contradicts this argument. In the 15-25 student classrooms in which I have taught, Google has proven to be an asset rather than a distraction. I have found that occasionally asking students to look up something on the web to add to class discussion can help them re-engage with the task at hand. One example is when students look up and share biographical or historical data that relate to a conversation being had, often adding a fun or obscure twist. Or when they use online dictionaries to share alternate meanings that I wouldn’t be able to list off the top of my head. Sometimes the striking difference between Google Translate and an online dictionary provides a wonderful opportunity to discuss information literacy. But by far the greatest results I have seen come during group work, when students collaborate on small research tasks and report their findings back to the class.

2. They help foster a more inclusive classroom.

Those in favor of banning laptops in classrooms like to demonstrate how handwritten notes lead to better learning compared to notes taken on a computer. However true this statement may be for some people, it disregards students with neurological or medical conditions who have difficulty controlling writing utensils and for whom writing by hand is cognitively and physically challenging. Similarly, there are students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, who may find typing with a spelling assistant easier and less frustrating. Some suggest making exceptions to imposed bans for those students registered with their university’s disability services. But such an accommodation would put some students in the spotlight, “outing” their disability to the rest of the class. What’s more, many students never register with disability services, for various reasons. Even looking beyond special needs, however, people have different needs—different systems for organizing and consuming information and different learning styles, and as educators I think we ought to embrace this diversity.

3. They help foster a more democratic atmosphere.

I have colleagues and students who read exclusively on electronic devices, purchase most textbooks in electronic form and use various apps to annotate journal articles on their iPad or Kindle. When those students are banned from bringing their electronic devices to class, their information and knowledge management practices are turned upside down: piles of paper that don’t “fit” their learning style, and time (and paper!) wasted copying notes from one format to another. But it’s even more questionable when students are coerced into buying hard copy versions of books instead of cheaper electronic versions to use during class, given the exorbitant cost of most textbooks. Of course I don’t doubt that professors mean well, even—or perhaps especially—when they ban things and practices. But even if we accept that many peoplelearn better by reading paper books and writing their notes on paper, I think we should allow our students to choose themselves whether or not they want to do so.

4. They are more environmentally friendly than paper.

I look around me sometimes during seminars and I can’t help but wonder how many trees we would save if we stopped printing out all those course readings. The answer is a lot, probably. It makes no sense to encourage students who read on electronic devices and depend on digital annotation software to print out 300+ pages of paper a week just to bring to class and then discard. While going out and buying an iPad just for note-taking is no less sustainable than using a Moleskine, using a device that already exists actually is. There are of course analog options than one might argue are more eco-friendly than their digital counterparts, like vegetable-based ink and tree-free paper, but they are harder to find and often more expensive.

5. They offer an opportunity to educate students about media use.

From alcohol to marijuana, I think that most of us would agree that banning things rarely works. But more than that, by allowing our students to use digital devices in class, we are creating an opportunity to teach them to think critically about technology use in their education and life more broadly. One of the greatest misconceptions about technology, often perpetuated by top tech executives, is that technology nowadays is so “brain-dead” easy to use and straightforward that we don’t need to waste any time trying to teach our students how to use it. Yet more and more studies confirm that entering freshmen lack basic information-seeking skills  and critical thinking skills related to information, media, and technology more broadly. At the same time, very little is being done to address this problem. Guidelines for proper and improper technology use in the classroom can create an opportunity for conversation and learning. Dartmouth math professor Dan Rockmore, in a recent New Yorker article, makes another wonderful suggestion that I think educators on either side of the debate should consider: requiring students to read some studies discussing the use of digital technologies in the classroom to get them to think critically about how technology is reconfiguring their brains and educational practices.

[Image by Flickr user Alec Couros, used under Creative Commons licensing.]


4 Reasons to Volunteer While in Grad School


This post was originally published by Inside Higher Ed on June 9, 2015

A while ago, guest-writer Kathryn Young wrote a great post here on GradHacker documenting the professional benefits of volunteering on campus. She wrote from the perspective of a master’s student preparing for the professional world and how her volunteering work beefed up her resume and made her stand out in the crowd.

But besides the benefits of offering free labor to your university and professors, I think there’s a lot to be gained and learned from helping out off campus as well. Paying it forward in your community can offer some much-needed balance to the emotional turmoil PhD work brings along and even help you cultivate happiness in grad school.

From planting corals or teaching kids how to use the Makey Makey, volunteering has been a wonderful experience that has re-energized me, taught me a bunch of things about myself, and given me a fresh perspective on my PhD. Here’s why:

1. You gain perspective. Despite all its hardships, all its draw-backs, all its disappointments, grad school is a world of privilege. We get paid to think and to use fancy words like “vernacularity,” “versimillitude,” “heteronormativity,” and “subalternity” in our daily interactions. We can make our comments as obscure or easy to understand as we wish. We can easily defend any side of an argument with no preparation and win. People outside academia are more likely to listen to us because we’re considered smarter and speak jargon. But we also freak out when we get anything less than an A, a stinging comment from a student, or a “crazy” request from our advisor. Minor things are easily blown out of proportion and start consuming our thoughts. A day teaching juvenile youth or feeding the homeless can readjust such thinking and remind us just how lucky we are.

2. You’re doing something tangible for your community that is also immediately rewarding. During a recent discussion about career goals, a professor told me that the difference between academia and industry is all about the types of questions one gets to ask: in industry you ask questions that take a few months to answer; in academia, you ask the types of questions that can take years. In a world where time is money, we’re incredibly blessed to be working on the time schedules that we are. But waiting for science and the humanities to eventually do good can be exhausting sometimes. When it comes to helping others, it’s refreshing to be able to think in terms of hours or days rather than decades; to be able to help people now, rather than someday in the distant future. Even if it’s in a soup kitchen instead of a lab.

3. You gain real-world experience that can significantly inform your academic work. Getting a PhD takes a long time—time you will most likely spend away from the professional world related to your area of research. Even if you’ve entered your program with substantial professional experience, the world you will re-enter after 4+ years will be a different one. Moreover, while reading and discussing theory is essential for intellectual growth, observing what works and doesn’t work in practice is just as important, especially for those of us committed to producing work that is socially relevant. Volunteering with kids at a local makerspace allowed me to experience technology-in-practice, in a way that isn’t possible through books and lectures.

4. You have the opportunity to pursue your passions outside grad school. No matter how much we love something or how dedicated we are to scholarship in a particular field of study, none of us is only one thing. We are a combination of many occupations and desires, and we all change over time. While my research is on digital media and learning, and while I can spend hours talking about how new technologies are reshaping education, anyone close to me knows that I am just as passionate about marine life and ocean conservation. From underwater beach cleanups to citizen science projects, my volunteer work allows me to actively engage with issues related to the environment as an active participant rather than just as another “interested observer,” which I find extremely rewarding.

I know that volunteering is not for everyone, all the time. I started looking into volunteering opportunities after I finished with my PhD coursework and had the time (at last) to reflect on who I’d become and what was missing in my life. I have the time to get away once in a while, but I know that students who are earlier in the program, or who have dependents, might have different priorities.

But if you feel like you’re losing touch with the real world or just feel the urge to give back, it’s definitely worth looking into. Don’t hesitate! There’s something for everyone out there: tutoring and mentorship programs, homes for the elderly, homeless shelters, street and beach cleaning efforts, and so on. Just be honest about who you are, what you want, and what you can offer!

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Daniel Thornton and used under Creative Commons licensing.]


Invisible No More

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This post was originally published by Inside Higher Ed on March 13, 2016

A while ago, a struggling student (let’s call her Jane) walked into my office to discuss her performance in my German class. Jane was a shy student who rarely participated in class discussion, and her performance on the quizzes and midterm was below average. As I usually do with underachieving students, I asked Jane some questions about her goals, program and current commitments.

 We were talking about her study habits, when Jane brought up dyslexia. She only mentioned it offhandedly, and wasn’t making excuses or apologies. I was surprised to hear about it, to say the least, as neither she nor the school’s disability counselor had gotten in touch with me to inform me of her condition and to request accommodations. When I asked her whether she was registered with our school’s disability office, she said that indeed she was. When I further asked her why she hadn’t asked for special accommodation, she said that she “didn’t want to be a problem,” and went on to give me examples of faculty who had questioned her sincerity or refused to take her seriously when asking for an accommodation.

 Her feeling was, Jane said, that “many professors are more willing to accommodate students with ‘tangible’ disabilities,” such as those who are blind, deaf or use a wheelchair. Students with invisible conditions like learning disabilities, clinical depression or ADHD were often “put on the pile of ‘boutique disabilities,’” i.e. outright dismissed or begrudgingly accommodated.

 There may be several students in your classroom like Jane. Like Jane, some of them will not share their condition with you or request special accommodation, either because of previous negative experiences or because they fear being seen as “lesser” or stigmatized as “pathological.” Some may be unaware that they have a disability in the first place or may be unaware that their condition qualifies as a disability. Most people I know don’t think of chronic illness, brain injury, neurological disorders, mental illness, or oxygen impairment as a “disability.”

 The fact that invisible disabilities are in fact “invisible” poses a challenge for us TAs. If a student doesn’t reach out to us, an entire semester can go by without us noticing or providing the tools that student needs to succeed. So in a way, we are failing the students who need us most, even without intending or realizing it.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “invisible disabilities” aren’t obscure, rare or merely currently “en vogue.” In fact, they are themost common type of disability among college students. Since students whose disabilities are invisible far outweigh those with visible ones, if our goal is to create a truly inclusive classroom, we must do a better job of  understanding 1) who those students are, 2) what obstacles they face and, ultimately, 3) how we can support them to achieve their full potential.

Here are a few steps you can take to create a safe and welcoming environment for students with invisible disabilities:

 1. Educate yourself. If you’ve never heard of the term “invisible disabilities” or are only marginally familiar with it, do some background reading to get an idea of what constitutes an invisible disability and what living with such a condition may look like. You may also want to contact your school’s disability office to inquire about campus resources for students with invisible disabilities, and potential training opportunities for instructors working with them. It’s also a good idea to talk to a disability counselor about the legally correct and ethically appropriate ways to work with such a student. If you’re thinking about going one step further, I recommend looking at research done by theSociety for Disability Studies, which examines disability as a category of identity rather than purely as a medical construct.

2. Let them know you are invested in their success and committed to supporting them. Dedicate a few minutes on the first day of class to addressing students with disabilities (visible and invisible), and let them know that you are there to accommodate them to your fullest ability. Don’t just read the standard disability statement you copy and pasted on your syllabus, but use the knowledge from your research (see point 1) to ensure that they are feeling seen and welcomed. If you too have an invisible disability, consider coming-out to them. In my own experience I have found that students who feel accepted and/or understood are far more willing to request appropriate accommodations and to engage fully in classes compared to when they feel overlooked.

 3. Be discreet, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. Many students feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about their disabilities and avoid talking about them. Students with invisible disabilities sometimes even more so, because the severity of their condition and/or their sincerity is often questioned. Some students may choose not to disclose the exact nature of their disability and/or may have their disability counselor contact you requesting an accommodation instead of doing it directly. While I do believe that student privacy is important, I also think it’s useful to know the nature of their disability and how it interferes with their work. Often these students need more support than a laptop or extra time on a test and that’s something disability offices usually don’t encourage. The only way we can provide that support is through direct and honest conversation with students. I wouldn’t encourage pushing students to disclose information they don’t feel comfortable sharing, but I would suggest explaining to them that a better understanding of their disability can help you improve their learning experience and, possibly, their performance.

 4. Believe them. Sometimes we have our own ideas about how a person with disability should look like or what they should be able to accomplish for their condition to be “real” or “significant.” Don’t make judgment about what a student may be able to do based on how they look and don’t add to their stress by questioning their accommodation request. Appearances can be highly deceptive, especially among people with invisible disabilities. For some of them just staying upright can be a fight all day, everyday.

5.  Ask for their input. Part of offering an inclusive learning experience is meeting the needs of the individual learner, and there is no one who understands a condition and the challenges it poses better than the person affected directly by it. Without wanting to underestimate the value or significance of disability offices, I have found that they tend to have a rather specific idea of what constitutes an accommodation, which often isn’t enough or appropriate for a given student. Ask students which aspects of your course are working for them and which aren’t, and ask for recommendations on how you can better meet their learning needs. Their feedback will likely be eye-opening and make you reconsider the way you conduct lessons and deliver content.

There has been so much talk about campus diversity recently, but, so far, students with disabilities have been largely left out of that conversation. Invisible disabilities, meanwhile, are completely overlooked, much to the detriment of many students. I believe as instructors we have the responsibility of bringing these students out of the shadows, supporting them and even advocating for them, at least until they feel comfortable enough to advocate for themselves.

Additional Resources

Here at GradHacker we’ve thought and written a lot about disability over time, both from a student and educator perspective. If you’re looking for additional resources on how to make your classroom more accessible for students will all types of disabilities, check out Liz’s post on inclusive instruction.

If you’re interested in reading more on the topic of invisible disability specifically, you can check out Brianne’s post on navigating grad school with learning disabilities and ADHD Leslie’s post on navigating chronic illness.
[Image by Flickr user ramos alejandro and used under Creative Commons.]


5 Great Reads About Graduate Life and Work

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This post was originally published by Inside Higher Ed on December 20, 2015

A while ago, a friend of mine started working on an oral history podcast documenting the experiences of graduate students at different stages in their PhD. One of the project’s goals is to articulate struggle and survival in grad school without ironing out all the imperfections or making up the stories of linear progress and transformation that we’re all – more or less – guilty of perpetuating.

When the first segment was released earlier this year, I was blown away by how brutally honest and beautifully true those featured accounts of graduate life were. But I also realized how rare it is that we hear stories like that: raw rather than glorified accounts of struggle, perseverance and tenacity in grad school.

 Maybe it’s my training as an anthropologist, but I find that oftentimes firsthand accounts and oral histories hold more wisdom than many self-help and how-to books. And yet, biographies of graduate life (and academic life more broadly) – whether books, podcasts or movies – remain scarce.

 So after listening to my friend’s podcast, I set out to find other testimonials of graduate and early academic life and slowly fell upon a number of written works that I found at once comforting and instructive, realistic and inspiring, infuriating and necessary. Luckily, around that time I was also taking a course about academic life and work, which exposed me to some wonderful books about academia, some of which I’ve included in this list (I do encourage you to check out the full syllabus, however):

Mothers in Academia

by Mari Castañeda and Kirsten Isgro

 There are many great resources about the perils of juggling motherhood and academia out there, including the well-known and well-lovedMama PhD: Mothers Write about Motherhood and Academic Life. The reason I’ve opted to highlight Mothers in Academia specifically, is for its diversity of voices and writing styles, and because I think the collection does a great job of illustrating how race, ethnicity, age, class, sexuality and ability are intertwined into the lived experience of motherhood in academia. There are also a number of contributions by doctoral candidates that I think many will find relevant (I particularly enjoyed the chapter by Summer R. Cunningham). I should, however, mention that the collection strongly represents the humanities and social sciences as well as higher ed administration, leaving out the physical and natural sciences. If you’re in the “hard” sciences, Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Outis a nice (and witty) alternative, though its focus isn’t academia but science more broadly.

This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class

by C.L. Dews

Whether or not you’re from a working-class background, this is a fantastic read. It features 24 essays by faculty and graduate students from working-class families who gracefully expose the middle-class bias in academic settings. Some of the stories are deeply emotional, others more polemical, situating academic work in a socioeconomic context, but all of them share an anguish over living in two irreconcilable worlds. If you’re interested in the experiences of working-class women in particular, I also enjoyed the anthology Working-Class Women in the Academy: Laborers in the Knowledge Factory, which is organized around four themes: belonging, individual experiences, teaching and language/cultural politics. I really wish everyone in academia would read at least some of these essays, especially those of us who are very teaching-oriented and who work with diverse groups of students.

Life on the Tenure Track: Lessons from the First Year

by James M. Lang

 This doesn’t touch much on graduate life, but if you’re thinking about the tenure track this is a must-read. Life on the Tenure Track is a memoir of Lang’s first year as an Assistant Professor of English at Assumption College, a Catholic liberal arts college in Massachusetts. From his experience as a “newbie” at faculty meetings and bonding with new colleagues to his honest discussion of departmental politics and the frustrations of student advising, Lang really delves into the nitty-gritty of academia here. He’s an elegant writer and his prose is witty but poised, while his attitude is that of a caring mentor trying to coach you to avoid some of the confusion, frustration and pain he experienced along the way. This is by far my favorite book about the workings of academia and his advice (albeit indirect) about people management and social etiquette is both delightful and urgent.

 Exposure: A sociologist explores, sex, society and adult entertainment

by Chauntelle Tibbals

This one’s an odd one, perhaps. Yes, it is partly about the adult industry, but it is also about the challenges and perils of pursuing a controversial (and to some perhaps offensive) research topic. As a PhD student in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, Chauntelle Tibbals set out to study porn, or, as she fancily puts it, “the sociocultural significance of adult entertainment as it relates to law, media, and gender,” and was shunned by her advisor, her department and her colleagues as a result. Rendered invisible and marginalized as a scholar, Tibbals worked multiple jobs to fund her degree, while pursuing a full-time course load and dissertation research without any guidance (though she did eventually switch advisors), to emerge ultimately as an adult industry expert. Unlike the title suggests, Exposure does not just expose (pun intended) our society’s hypocrisy in regards to porn but also that of academia in regards to groundbreaking research. It is also a lesson in writing about one’s research free of scientific jargon (take a look at those footnotes, seriously), which is invaluable whether you’re interested in porn or not.

Journeys Through Ethnography: Realistic Accounts Of Fieldwork

by Annette Lareau and Jeffrey Schultz

While not as eloquent or elegant as Clifford Geertz’s “Balinese Cockfight”, this collection is gold for the budding ethnographer and qualitative social researcher (sorry quantitative folks). Whether you’re just getting started on your project and you’re feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of ethnography or you’re “just” interested in the discrepancy between narratives of linear progress – which have traditionally dominated ethnographic monographs – and the messy realities of fieldwork, this is book is for you. It’s a collection of real-life experiences of fieldwork, written by a number of well-known scholars (incl. Alma Gottlieb, Philip Graham, William F. Whyte and Jay MacLeod), who write about being beginners in some way. Most of them reflect on their dissertation projects and show how they learned to do research while doing it; how they struggled defining their research questions, working with uncooperative interviewees, organizing their data, managing friendships in the field etc. Sure, there are plenty of textbooks out there that address those issues but there’s something about the types of narratives that show rather than tell, which can’t be matched by dry, prescriptive research manuals.

I have not included here anthologies purely about teaching, mainly because I felt that they are more common and easier to come by, but if that’s something that interests you, you may want to check out Moments of Clarity: Anthology of Stories from Faculty Who Teach For Success. I have also avoided memoirs that span entire academic careers in an attempt to keep this post focused on graduate and early academic life, but Eagleton’s The Gatekeeper: A Memoir or Kermode’s Not Entitled: A Memoir are good places to start if you’re interested.

 [Image by Flickr User Kate Ter Haar and used under Creative Commons license]


Using Music in the Foreign Language Classroom

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This post was originally published by Inside Higher Ed on November 22, 2015

One of the challenges I face teaching a daily language class is finding novel and creative ways to maintain student interest throughout my lessons. One of my favorite teaching “tricks” is using music to motivate learning, improve concentration, create a sense of community and help my students absorb material.

Music is a wonderful tool to integrate into your teaching repertoire, especially if you are a foreign language teacher. It has a way of capturing everything about a culture, its people and their language and it can inspire interest in a subject matter when other methods have failed. Not to mention that students love it and benefit from it intellectually and emotionally (even when they find your music taste questionable).

Fortunately, it’s not too hard to integrate music into the foreign language classroom, and the following are some effective ways to integrate music into your teaching:

 Use it to build community. Music is a way to share yourself as a teacher, and to offer your students a (little) peek into your soul, as well as an opportunity to learn about and from your students. Our music taste reveals how we think. It’s an expression of who we are on an emotional, social and cognitive level. But it’s also a way to connect to other people in a way that a lot of other means of communication (and teaching) cannot.

Use it to teach vocabulary. Arguably one of the most effective ways of using music in the foreign language classroom is through direct music activities. Yet when I’m teaching a Level 1 beginners class, it’s impossible to use music as a writing prompt or to analyze poetry, because students don’t have the vocabulary and grammatical knowledge to engage in complex tasks. One of my favorite activities for starters, however, is “fill in the blank.” For this activity, I provide students with the lyrics to a song after having removed certain vocab and replaced it with blanks. Then students listen to the song as they try to fill in the missing word. This is an easy and fun way to expose students to the target language and can be an effective memorization alternative to physical and online flashcards.

Use it to offer insights into a culture’s worldview and history. Language, culture and history are intertwined but oftentimes it’s difficult to offer meaningful insights into a language and its culture, while also striving to ensure the required grammar/vocab/structure for the day has been covered (and trust me, at my university, it’s a lot). I’ve found that music provides an excellent ground for raising historical, cultural and/or societal issues without overshadowing the linguistic component. The key is to not be too ambitious (unless of course you are teaching a language AND culture class) and to set realistic goals: one song one major point! I usually keep it to seven minutes max, which includes a song, a very short “lecture” and some time for student questions at the end.

Use it to change the mood. We often do drilling exercises in class to practice new structures and/or reinforce the content learnt. But drilling can be boring and tedious, causing the classroom mood to become lethargic and…darker. I have found that background music can dramatically reverse this effect and help students concentrate (you might have to experiment a bit with the volume). Another good strategy is to start the class by playing music, especially if you’re teaching an early morning class, where even the best-intentioned can be thwarted by fatigue. This can boost students’ mood and increase their interest in what is being taught.

Use it for home assignments. Student exposure to foreign music doesn’t have to be limited to classroom time. I once did a very fun project in one of my intermediate classes where I asked students to compile a short (German) playlist that describes their personality, explaining what it is about each song that speaks to them and/or that they identify with. To help them find songs, I provided a larger playlist to draw from (although they didn’t have to use it if they didn’t want to). We were learning personality traits at the time and students absolutely loved it, not to mention that many of them built a vocab that extended beyond what was covered in their textbook.

Use it (to boost creativity and) for extra credit. Throughout the quarter I offer my students multiple extra credit options but among my favorite are the ones that involve music. Some of the best bonding experiences in my classroom have taken place when a student performed a song for the rest of the class. In my more advanced classes I have even had students compose and write their own song (in German of course). Performing in a foreign language is not everyone’s cup of tea (hence it’s only one of the extra credit options), but it’s regularly contributed to creative outbursts and one of a kind bonding among students.

Be the performer. I haven’t done this as a teacher but I have been on the receiving end as a student and it was beautiful experience. When I was learning Turkish, our teacher brought her bağlama to class one day and she asked us to “help” her with the lyrics to a song she had been working on. To this day, I don’t know how how “genuine” her quest for help was, but it got us excited and engaged on a freezing and rather depressing London night.

In the end what it boils down to, I believe, is effective planning. One of the potential pitfalls of using music in any classroom, is making it all about fun and not much else. I’ve walked into a number of (undergraduate) classes at my school where the instructor is playing some song at the beginning of class or during a “break” without engaging with it or explaining it and it always feels like such a missed opportunity. Music can make magic happen, for sure, but I think the results are best when it’s aligned with a with a specific teaching goal.

[Image from Flickr user Miguel Santiago and used under Creative Commons license]


Six Excellent Books for New (and Seasoned) TAs


This post was originally published by Inside Higher Ed on September 14, 2014

With the start of the fall term, many graduate students are entering the classroom as teaching assistants for the first time. While new TAs usually get a day or two of training from their universities, most of us discover pretty quickly that we need more guidance than that as we learn to lead a class or discussion section. Your school might have a center for teaching and learning or similar resource center, and you can also discuss teaching skills with more senior TAs or the professors in your department. But there are also plenty of books out there that can help, too, six of which I picked out for you below.

As I discovered, there are—more or less—two types of books on teaching. Those that tell you step-by-step what to do, and those that encourage you to think about what you’re doing and why. This list features more of the latter—at the end of the day, I have found much more inspiration, food for thought, and practical advice in the titles listed here than in your typical “survival kit” about college teaching.

If you are looking for an introduction to college teaching or a step-by-step analysis of how to teach, then other teaching resources will better suit your needs (for starters, check out First Day to Final Grade: A Graduate Student’s Guide to TeachingOn Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching, or The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple Practical and Pedagogical Tips). I should also mention that the list was compiled from a humanities/social science perspective and might not appeal much to lab instructors, for instance (I’d love to hear from you folks in the comments section).

You may find some of the titles below a little … unorthodox, and you’re probably right. Yet each of these books has shaped my teaching in some substantive and practical way: the way I prepare for lessons, the nature of my homework, how I test for comprehension, the way I communicate with students, the feedback I give them. Whether you’re an anxious newbie or a seasoned instructor eager to improve, I hope you’ll find some inspiration in the pile:

  • How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read – P. Bayard: Far from a permission to dismiss reading, this book is an honest appraisal of what it means to be a “cultured individual” and, by extension, someone well-positioned to function as a teacher. It’s also a tremendously comforting read for anyone who’s ever been forced to express their opinion on a book they haven’t read. Bayard argues that far more important than having deep knowledge of a book’s content is the ability to situate it in relation to other books in our “collective library.”  More provocative is his assertion that you don’t have to be familiar with something to talk about it accurately. I’d highly recommend this one to anyone leading a discussion section—your perception of what it means to read, discuss, and lecture might be altered forever.
  • Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers – T. A. Angelo: TA workshops and prep seminars tend to underemphasize assessment and evaluation techniques. I was lucky to be handed a copy of this handbook by a generous mentor and I recommend it wholeheartedly. If you’re looking for a handbook on grading, look elsewhere. But if you are looking for a variety of techniques to gauge student interest, prior knowledge, attitudes towards specific activities, or to confirm learning, this is the book for you.
  • Are You Really Listening? Keys To Successful Communication – P.J. Donoghue & M. E. Siegel: Listening can tremendously improve the quality of communication with our students and yet, it’s not taught and most of us are really, really bad at it. I used to think of myself as a “good listener,” but reading Donoghue and Siegel’s book made me wonder whether I am only good at listening to the people I like. As a teacher, no matter how much you love your job, you can’t like all your students all the time. And you won’t necessarily always like what they’re saying, either. This book examines the different levels of “listening” and includes concrete, helpful advice on how to build one’s listening skills.
  • Discussion As A Way of Teaching – S. D. Brookfield (with S. Preskill): The students who talk too much, the students who won’t ever talk, and the students who keep hijacking the conversation—we all have to deal with them at some point or another. Here, Brookfield offers a broad spectrum of strategies that can be used to promote insightful, prolonged dialogue, covering everything from ground rules to questioning techniques and dealing with the unexpected. Another great book (and a classic) from the same author is The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust and Responsiveness in the Classroom.
  • Teaching What You Don’t Know – T. Huston. This book gave me a tremendous boost of confidence when I was TAing for a course whose subject matter I really didn’t know that well (but was very passionate about). It helped me get my impostor syndrome under control and reassured me that not having all the answers is OK, really. Although not a teaching manual per se, it does include plenty of advice and strategies on how to “teach what you don’t know”: how to earn students’ respect and look credible, how to prepare material, how to handle questions you don’t know the answers to, and how to use your time efficiently. Having said that, Huston’s book is illuminating even for those teaching within their expertise.