All posts in General Teaching Skills

Make Every Minute Count: Strategies to maximize class’ first and final moments

by Jay Rasmussen, Faculty Development Coordinator

When are students most attentive and ready to learn?

Research consistently suggests students are most prepared to learn and retain information during the initial 10 minutes of a given lesson. The final 10 minutes of a lesson tend to be least productive for student learning.

Here I’ll suggest a few simple, but often overlooked, lesson design principles and instructional strategies for an effective anticipatory set (first 3-5 min. of a class session) and closure (final 4-7 min. of a class session). One might consider these two elements the bookends of a lesson. What comes between the bookends is of obvious importance as well!

Anticipatory Set

Many instructors consider this an attention getting device and the opportunity to start a spread of activation in the brain related to the new learning experience found between the bookends. Often 3-5 min. is adequate to pull students into the educational world one hopes to create in the classroom. An instructor who is predictably unpredictable—by using a variety of instructional strategies—is often most effective in providing engaging anticipatory sets.

Key Design Principles
  • Assist students in understanding what they will learn and why that learning is important.
  • Involve the past experiences and prior knowledge of students.
Possible Instructional Strategies
  • Present the learning outcomes in the form of written “I can” learning targets composed in this manner: “I can + verb + core learning.” In order to create the learning targets instructors should consider the non-negotiables of the session. In other words: What learning is essential for every student to attain by the end of the session?
  • Present a limited series of questions related to essential objectives.
  • Pose a problem, scenario, or case study that can be addressed by class content.
  • Share a story, reading, visual, or video clip with some prompt about what to attend.
  • Ask students to do something or observe you do something.
  • Ask students to create a simple mind map related to the essential content of the next lesson elements.
  • Give a quick ungraded quiz or assessment task.


In everyday parlance, closure is often thought to be review. In a sense this is true, but when reading the design principles below notice the nuanced difference between the instructor doing the most work by reviewing important information and the student providing the review and doing the most work. Closure can changed from wasted instructional time, marked by students packing up to leave the room, to a significant learning experience by considering the following:

Key Design Principles
  • Relate any instructional strategy directly to the learning target(s) of the lesson.
  • Involve all students through speaking, writing, or doing. Students (rather than the instructor) are reviewing the essential learning of the class session.
Possible Instructional Strategies
  • Point to the learning targets for the class session and ask students to do complete them. For example, if the learning target says “I can explain_____.” they do this with a partner. If the target says “I can compare_____.” they do this with a partner.
  • Ask students to write down or share with a partner the most important information discussed in the class. Then, hear student thoughts and add instructor comments as appropriate.
  • Have students complete a “ticket out the door” in which they must respond to a specific instructor-created question for each learning target. The results of this can be used as part of the anticipatory set in a subsequent lesson if there is shared confusion about any of the questions.
  • Give a simple ungraded quiz related to each learning target.
  • Ask students to create a simple 4-minute summary of the most essential learning they experienced during the lesson. This can then be shared in a partner, small group, or large group setting.
  • Present students with a problem or situation to solve that is directly based on new learning developed that day.
  • Ask students to create a simple mind map related to the essential content of the completed class session. If the map was started in the anticipatory set it can be added to/corrected in closure.

Many of you have likely developed your own anticipatory sets or closing activities. I invite you to use the comments section here to share your own exercises and strategies.

Course Planning: From Fuzzy to Focused

by Patricia Paulson

With each new year, with each new course, with each new day, we continually make decisions as to what our outcomes are for the course, what instructional strategies we will use, what specific skills and knowledge we expect the students to have at the end of the course, and how we will assess the learning.  Sometimes these decisions are made at the beginning of the course, and sometimes we are building the plane as we are flying it!

We begin with a somewhat “fuzzy” view of the general outcomes based on our own prior learning, other courses we teach, what we know about our students, and what textbooks, videos, and other readings provide. Lattuca and Stark (2009) claim, “Instructors, who are usually well versed in and enthusiastic about the principles and concepts embodied in their fields, tend to start planning by considering content, rather by stating explicit course objectives for students” (p. 117).  

Research (Diamond, 2008; Lattuca & Stark, 2009; Wiggins & McTighe, 1998, 2005, 2011) has demonstrated that the more focused we can be in our design, the greater the probability that students will reach the outcomes we have set.  Wiggins and McTighe (2005) developed the model for Backward Design often used for curriculum development:

Microsoft Word - Faculty Development Blog from fuzzy to focused.

Diamond (2008) affirmed, “The most important concept in bringing quality to any curriculum or course is the fundamental relationship that must exist between goals, outcomes and assessment” (p. 148), Fink (2003) recommended an integrated model for course design through the Taxonomy of Significant Learning, while holding true to the concept of connecting outcomes, teaching activities and assessments. Posner and Rudnitsky (2006) advocated the need to “teach with a purpose” (p. 183) using a set of “intended learning outcomes” to guide the learning process.

Based on these models, the following key questions can guide the planning process:

  1. Why are you teaching this concept? What are the “enduring understandings” you want students to gain?(Goals)
  2.  What do you want the students to know and be able to do with this concept? (Outcomes)
  3. How will you know if they understand this concept? (Assessment: Formative and Summative)
  4. What instructional strategies will assist in developing the desired outcomes? (Instruction)
  5. What supporting materials will you need to effectively deliver instruction? (Texts, videos, etc.)

Microsoft Word - Faculty Development Blog from fuzzy to focused.

The three overriding principles in the boxes are based on current knowledge on the brain and learning. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) in How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School (a free download from National Academy Press) articulated specific strategies that differentiate experts from novices.  A more recent publication is Brown’s (2014) book, Making It Stick, which many faculty have read and discussed.

Diamond (2008) summarized essential factors for determining successful course and program design (p. 150):

  1. High-quality outcomes stated in performance terms
  2. The translation of these goals into course-specific goals
  3. The match between goals and assessment
  4. The match between objectives and the instructional method selected
  5. The ownership of the initiative by participating faculty and the academic unit

Steven Covey’s (2004) second habit of highly effective people spoke of the importance of starting with the end in mind. This holds true for curriculum development as well, for, as Forest Gump stated, “If you don’t know where you are going, than you probably won’t end up there.”  



Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R., (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Covey, S. (1989, 2004, 2013). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Diamond, R. (2008).Designing and assessing courses and curricula: A practical guide (3rd Ed.) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, L. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lattuca, L., & Stark, J. (2009). Shaping the college curriculum: Academic plans in context (2nd Ed.).. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Posner, G., & Rudnistky, A. (2005). Course design: A guide to curriculum development for teachers (7th Ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA:ASCD.


Supporting Multilingual Learners– No additional degree required

by Jessica Samens

Being a community of experts, we can begin to believe certification is prerequisite for good work. However, some of our good work can come without extra degrees.  I began working with multilingual learners unexpectedly when I was offered a pubic speaking course for international students in 2007. My task consisted of hosting interviews with each student who wanted a spot in the course and deciding who needed the course the most. 30 students were trying to get into 12 spots, and by the end of the interview process I knew I had a group of students I desired to help and a calling. My students learned a great deal, and I learned anybody can offer support and understanding.

My crash-course in working with multilingual learners– and the experience I’ve gained since– suggest ways any teacher can begin to engage these vibrant, often overwhelmed, students:

Use of common language

Several of the students I have worked with ask for help deciphering their course assignments. The academic language they can decode, the slang terms aren’t so easy. What we may decide is “common sense” because we have heard a phrase or term all of our lives doesn’t always translate to everyone. Plain language makes the assignment easy for anybody to understand and adds clarity to the directions.

Acknowledge drafting and process

The most terrifying line on a syllabus is “After three grammatical errors, the paper will be returned.” While I value accurate grammar and mechanics, the message this sends to students is “content is secondary.” Instead, offer content support and then focus on editing. Make sure students realize their content was strong but editing was the issue. Provide feedback that highlights the strength of the content and make recommendations on where to find editing support.

Honor diversity of experience

We come from different backgrounds and experiences. I had a student who was unable to write an assignment because her family structure didn’t fit any of the examples given in the assignment. Her apprehension to share her family structure (which she feared would be judged) was even more difficult. Have conversations, learn about students’ lives, and make sure students would feel comfortable talking to you if they can’t relate to the assignment.

Embrace conversation

When I work on- on-one with students, we build trust and connection. English learner students can feel isolated or disconnected from peers in the classroom, making other social support critical. Asking students to share their stories, hobbies, or why they chose their degree builds connection, which leads to trust, which leads to the ability to provide healthy, constructive criticism in assignments and to offer academic support.  One student with whom I worked was starting a church with her husband. Learning about the excitement she had and hearing about the progress on finding members for the new church helped me to understand the drive behind her earning a degree. I was also able to share some of her accomplishments with other students to show how hard work and dedication can go a long way.

Identify early

I often talk with students who are finally told they need to seek writing support late sophomore or junior year. While the conversation is often tough to have, it is very important. Writing difficultly often translates into a low GPA which can impact acceptance into programs with high GPA requirements and limit students’ opportunities. Not understanding exam structure means the inability to showcase knowledge. Trying to write down PowerPoint notes during lecture can mean not getting the explanations provided. Hold a conversation, connect a student to a TA or other support on campus to get help early on in their academic career.

Being excellent educators means building accessible curriculum, identifying student needs, and building interpersonal relationships to keep the conversational door open. We can all provide these kinds of support for multilingual students– with no additional degrees required.

For more on beginning good work with multilingual learners, view Jessica’s Prime Time Presentation “Starting the Conversation: Building Connection with Multilingual Learners.” 



A Faith-based Context for Culturally-Responsive Instruction and an Experiment in Application

As  Christ followers, how we treat others directly reflects on our faith. James’ epistle discusses how our treatment of others is related to our faith. According to Stulac (2003), James 2:1-7 indicates showing favoritism is inconsistent with our faith. Stulac states that, “If they were to show partiality toward certain people because they are rich, these Christians would be acting as if high position came by wealth instead of faith. In that sense, favoritism is a clear contradiction of faith.”  Furthermore, James 2:8-13 emphasizes that favoritism is not limited to how people are treated in terms of their socioeconomic status: “Favoritism is the sin of extending special favor to some people for self-serving purposes” (Stulac, 2003). In terms of education, this could include factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. As educators, then, it is imperative we show no favoritism and create educational environments that engage all learners.

In this regard, culturally-relevant pedagogy (Ladson‐Billings, 1995) provides important foundational elements. Ladson-Billings (1995) defines culturally-relevant teaching as a “pedagogy of opposition” that is committed to collective empowerment and is grounded on three propositions:

  • (a) students must experience academic success,
  • (b) students must develop and/or maintain cultural competence; and
  • (c) students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order (p. 160).

First, in order to be involved participants in our society, students must learn the necessary academic, social, and political skills. According to Ladson-Billings it is essential that teachers create an educational environment that encourages students to choose academic excellence. In addition, educators must create or make use of curriculum that is relevant and meaningful to the students.

Second, teachers must interweave academic excellence with cultural integrity so that students can become and/or remain culturally-grounded (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 161). Ladson-Billings explains, “culturally relevant teachers utilize students’ culture as a vehicle for learning” (p. 161). Certainly, an important consideration of antioppressive education is reaching the students in the margins in a meaningful way. Kumashiro (2002) maintains that in order to teach the “Other,” the complexity of defining the “Other” needs to be considered (p. 37). Kumashiro contends that to do this, teachers must get to know the students and make a continuous effort to connect with those students on the margins. Kumashiro indicates that “rather than assume that a student’s class background or community has no bearing on how he engages with schooling, educators could acknowledge the realities of day-to-day life that can hinder one’s ability to learn” (p. 36). He reasons that educators should not “ignore the differences in their students’ identities” and should instead “learn about, acknowledge, and affirm differences and tailor their teaching to the specifics of their parent population” (Kumashiro, 2002, p. 36). He makes it clear that antioppressive educators take the time to learn about their students’ lives, backgrounds, interests, communities and cultures and use that information to inform their practices. In a similar way, Delpit (1995) states that, “We must keep in mind that education, at its best, hones and develops the knowledge and skills each student already possesses, while at the same time adding new knowledge and skills to that base” (pp. 67-68). These authors make clear the importance of drawing on the culture of the communities in which the students live, but also find effective ways to build on that knowledge.

In a similar way, James reminds us that “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers” (James 2:8-9).  Stulac (2003) make the case that:

Loving your neighbor as yourself requires an openness to friendship with any neighbor–regardless of that neighbor’s wealth, position, status, influence, race, appearance, attractiveness, dress, abilities or personality . . . The royal law absolutely prohibits the Christian from joining in the favoritism. The follower of the royal law will reach out to any neighbor.

Christian educators are indeed called to teach all students. To do this effectively, teachers need to take the time to get to know each student and differentiate accordingly.

However, despite the efforts of even well-intentioned educators attempt to address issues of diversity in their teaching through the use of the cultural and background information of students, their approaches to teaching and learning can still marginalize students. Davies (2003) claims that, “despite the multiplicity and variability of teacher knowledges” students often lack the freedom to challenge, reject, or reinvent the interpretations presented by the teacher (p. 41). She reasons that while student experiences and background knowledge are often welcomed and used by educators that mean well, “what is brought must conform to tightly set knowledge boundaries and to acceptable forms of saying or knowing, and will be subjected to teachers’ authoritative scrutiny, interpretation, and evaluation” (p. 41). In this regard, Kumashiro (2002) contends that, “Antioppressive educators have an ethical responsibility to reflect constantly on students that they may be disposing of, and on how to rework their practices” (p. 203). Said another way, teaching must be informed by how students learn and not based on the expectation that students learn by adapting to our instruction (Noguera, 2003). Clearly, in addition to the use of cultural and experiential information, the foundational and structural aspects of approaches to teaching and learning are critical.

The third component of culturally-relevant pedagogy according to Ladson-Billings (1995) is that, “Students must develop a broader sociopolitical consciousness that allows them to critique the cultural norms, values, mores, and institutions that produce and maintain social inequalities” (p 162). In addition, Ladson-Billings argues that students must become agents of change, equipped to challenge institutional and societal injustices. Likewise, Kumashiro (2002) reasons that simply discussing differences is not enough and is one reason that the education system continues to be oppressive. Kumashiro states that, “We resist learning that will disrupt the frameworks we traditionally use to make sense of the world and ourselves” (p. 57). To move forward, the practices of educators must challenge the current system that privileges certain identities, social relations, and worldviews.

This is in line with our commitment as followers of Christ. Anderson (2011) indicates that the words justice, just, or justly are used 530 times in the English Bible. Isaiah (Isaiah 58:6) speaks of fasting from injustice, rather than fasting from food. He states: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). In a similar way, Micah was calling the Israelites, as well as Christians today, to live in a way that is fundamentally different than from the worldly standards (Gilliard, 2013). The Israelites were being challenged to confront the injustices of their institutions and of their society; God was expecting more than religious rituals and sacrifices. Both Micah’s (Micah 6) indictment of the treatment of the marginalized populations in Israel and Judah and Isaiah’s bold words should be a call to action for all educators. Gilliard (2013) states that,

Most believers today acquiesce to societal injustice because we do not feel convicted when we see or learn about them. We act apathetically because we know how radically different our lives would look if we were to intentionally step outside of our comfort zones into the faithfulness to which Scripture calls us.

According to Gilliard, Micah is challenging us to step out of our comfort zones in order to address injustices that marginalize individuals not just on an individual level, but on an institutional and societal level. For educators who are followers of Christ, this takes on a dichotomous nature. First, are called to address societal and institutional injustices. Moreover, we are called to prepare our students to be aware of injustices as well as equip them to extinguish those injustices.

In the end, culturally-responsive pedagogy allows educators to live out their faith in real and meaningful ways. This is accomplished through laying a foundation that is built on the expectation of academic excellence for all students, by designing an environment where students will continue to mature as culturally competent individuals, and by creating the expectation  that students will develop an awareness of injustices in the educational system that prompts them to action.

An Experiment in Application

As a Christian scholar at a Christian university, I attempted to  incorporate culturally-responsive pedagogy in my courses. Initially, I used Ladson-Billing’s (1995) three propositions of culturally-relevant teaching as a framework for course development. Within this framework, Brookfield’s (1995) lenses for becoming a critically reflective teacher are used to inform the creation of the outcomes, assessments, and experiences for teaching and learning that make up the course. Brookfield lays out four critically reflective lenses through which we can view our teaching: (a) our autobiographies as learners and teachers, (b) our students’ eyes, (c) our colleagues’ experiences, and (d) theoretical literature. My experiment in developing curriculum using a culturally-relevant teaching framework and Brookfield’s critically reflective lenses produced four touch points, and a variety of practical applications, that may provide inspiration to other teachers seeking to implement culturally-relevant instruction:

My experiences as a teacher and learner provide grounding for my approach to teaching and the structure of courses. These experiences encouraged:

  • Making use of materials and resources which are relevant, rigorous, and practical.

  • Including materials that draw on a diverse collection of perspectives shared through various types of media.

  • Building on the background experiences of the students in the course in order to engage students in meaningful ways.

  • Creating a space for students to analyze and reflect on material before they come to class.

  • Designing a collaborative classroom environment that is built on the reflections and thoughts of the students.

  • Meeting with each student early in the semester for 15 minutes for an informal conversation in an effort to start building relationships.

  • Taking the time to learn each student’s name during the first or second session and being able to pronounce it correctly.

  • Building trust with students prior to engaging in tough conversations


Culturally-relevant instruction draws on the perspectives of students in a number of different ways including:

  • Having numerous conversations with a diverse group of former students about their experiences in a given course.

  • Asking former and current students for feedback related to areas of strength as well as ideas for improvement and growth.

  • Learning about each student in the class early in the semester by meeting with students for 15 minutes for an informal conversation.

  • Committing to making one or two course modifications based on the feedback from a midterm evaluation tool such as the Learner Perspective on Instruction.

  • Making course revisions based on the student responses on the IDEA evaluation.


Initiating conversations with Bethel colleagues, both in and outside of my department, as well as other practitioners or stakeholders, provided crucial information to inform my instruction. These insights included

  • Encouraging students to seek out relationships with individuals who are different than them (i.e., in terms of culture, race, gender, socioeconomic status).

  • Creating a classroom environment that challenges all students to excel and achieve academic excellence.

  • Developing a critical consciousness in students that leads them to see societal and institutional injustices around them and spurs them to appropriate action.


Immersing myself in the theoretical literature revealed the importance of

  • Using culturally-responsive instruction to inform overall course design.

  • Using Visible Thinking Routines (Ritchhart, Church, & Morrison, 2011), or similar tools, to encourage students to think about, discuss, interact with, and dissect articles, blogs, podcasts, and video clips in order to address all three principles of culturally-relevant pedagogy.

  • Providing a space for students to engage with and process the material before unpacking the concepts and ideas in a classroom environment with peers and the teacher.

  • Having students post their responses ahead of class so that the teacher can make use of student insights and perspectives during in-class discussions.

  • Having students work in collaborative groups to interact with the material in meaningful ways.

  • Creating an active learning environment that is beneficial for all students including those that are sometimes marginalized in traditional classroom settings (e.g., Blacks, first generation college students, females; Eddy & Kelly, 2014).


In the end, the use Brookfield’s (1995) four lenses of critical reflection are proving to be effective tools to guide and inform the design and the teaching of a course that embodies the three principles of culturally-responsive instruction (Ladson-Billings, 1995).  This involves creating an environment where students are expected to work to the best of their ability in a way that honors the words of Paul (Colossians 3:23-24):

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

It also entails getting to know every student and using that information to personalize activities for teaching and learning. Moreover, it necessitates providing a structure that inspires students to move beyond their comfort zone and spur them to be agents of social change to eradicate institutional injustices. Our culturally-responsive work with the next generation is essential and part of our own work of being change agents.



Anderson, L. (2011). Act justly. Unpublished manuscript, Wooddale Church, Eden Prairie, MN.

Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco, CA: Josey Bass.

Davies, B. (2003). Shards of glass: Children reading & writing beyond gendered identities. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Delpit, L. (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.

Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2014). Getting under the hood: how and for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453-468. doi: 10.1187/cbe.14-03-0050

Gilliard, D. (2013, March 23) What does Micah 6:8 really mean? [Web log post].

Retrieved from

Kumashiro, K. (2002). Troubling education: Queer activism and antioppressive pedagogy. New York, NY: Routledge Falmer.

Ladson‐Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into practice, 34(3), 159-165.

Noguera, P. (2003). City schools and the American dream: Reclaiming the promise of public education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco, CA: Josey Bass.

Stulac, George M. (2003). IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Vol. 16). Leichester, England: IVP Academic. Retreived from



Summer Reading & Viewing: Recommendations from the faculty development team

When grading subsides and parts of your brain regain normal functioning, consider engaging faculty development resources you may have missed in the craze of the academic year. The faculty development team suggests these highlights:

Keith Brooks recommends:

  • Leah Fulton and Sam Mulberry’s Interviews with Students of Color (Short and Full Versions) These exit interviews provide great insight to some of the easily-overlooked issues relating to human dynamics. This is relevant in regard to changing demographics nationally and locally, and addresses our ongoing task of being a place that communicates effectively across cultures.

Kathy Nevins recommends:

Jay Rasmussen recommends:

  • Making Thinking Visible & Selected Harvard Thinking Routines Over the last several years a number of faculty have been using selected Harvard Thinking Routines to make thinking visible and to create a culture of thinking. When learners speak, write, or draw their ideas, they deepen their cognition. Thinking routines jump-start and make thinking visible so students can direct and improve their thoughts. This narrated PowerPoint and the related routines provide a good starting point.
  • Grouping for SuccessStrengthening Our Use of Groups & Group Contract Form Group work within the college classroom has the potential of being a powerful learning experience for students. Unfortunately, group work often turns into a less-than-desirable experience for students and professors alike. This video shares how groups can be successfully structured and used within a variety of instructional settings.
  • Using Flow Theory to Promote Engaged Learning Flow Theory, as developed by Mihaly Cskszentmihalyi, explains why humans fully engage in certain activities to the point of being fully absorbed, completely focused, and unaware of passing time. This narrated PowerPoint explores the origins of Mihaly’s research, conditions typically present when flow occurs, and how the theory can be applied to an instructional setting.
  • Power of Formative Assessment & Formative Assessment Strategies The use of formative assessment is one of the most exciting developments in the field of education in recent years. Used effectively, formative assessment has the power to double the speed of student learning. These resources provide an in-depth look at why to use formative assessment, guidelines for providing formative assessment, and specific formative assessment strategies.

April Schmidt recommends:

  • Schedule Like Beethoven: How to organize your workday like a genius One of the gifts of the academic calendar is an opportunity to re-approach our work each year with fresh strategies. This DIY Innovation Studio session is chock-a-block with wisdom from geniuses of history and tips and resources from Bethel profs. for making the most of your work day. Take a strategic, proactive approach to next year’s workdays and equip yourself to maximize efficiency and prevent burnout.

Sara Wyse recommends:

  • Top 21 1/2 Teaching Tips If you are short on time and want a great overview and synthesis of the research literature and what we’ve learned through Learner Perspectives on Instruction, check out the 21 1/2 teaching tips.  From course design to interacting with students, these tips will help energize you when you begin to transition back to thinking about teaching come August.

Fighting Over Narrative in Curriculum: Who gets to decide United States American history?

Recently, my students had an insightful discussion after viewing a clip of Schoolhouse Rock “Elbow Room”. I guided them through some key questions:

Where were the people of color during these time periods?
Why did they minimize the removal of land from Native and Latin populations?
Who actually built most of the railroads?
Why are Native Americans viewed as the primary aggressors?
Why did manifest destiny justify violence?
Why were the White Americans viewed as hard-working peaceful settlers?
What if you didn’t have any bootstraps to use?
What about people who were brought to the U.S. against their will?

Our students were learning to analyze what is being communicated and what is also inferred, with factual support and thorough research. These are skills that most colleges and universities claim they like to see in applicants and graduates.

However,  one school district in Colorado and one legislator in Oklahoma are making attempts to remove this sort of critical thinking process from advanced placement history courses. There have been quite a few protests over the past year, mostly over tension related to racial inequity with law enforcement. A recent pattern has emerged most visibly in public high school settings where some school board members and some legislators desire to remove certain aspects from history.

These events have been ongoing from September 2014 to the present, and some say it’s always been a struggle over the narrative. As an avid historian, my lens is socialized to view past events along racial lines because the narrative of people of color has been disregarded, dismissed and/or distorted. In essence, it’s as if people of color are invisible and do not have a story unless it’s a certain month of the year or told from the perspective of people who do not represent the population.

Is it ironic or coincidental that one of the states  caught in this curriculum battle recently had a fraternity signing a chant, ‘There Will Never Be A N***** In SAE’? The discussions around this situation show conflicting understandings of the place of narrative in teaching history. One proposal suggests

“ giv[ing] the committee the authority to identify materials in the curriculum that “may reasonably be deemed” objectionable, and another that could give the committee discretion to choose instructional materials to “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system, respect for authority, and respect for individual rights.”

Some parents, teachers and students, addressing board member Julie Williams’ proposal, asserted :

Williams’ proposal is a politically motivated attempt to push through a revisionist version of American history that glosses over the uglier parts of the country’s past. One district high school teacher posted on the “Support Jeffco Kids” Facebook page that the proposal would “require teachers to completely ignore certain aspects of American history rather than teach the entirety of American history.”

Supposedly this proposal wants to ensure  patriotism and downplay civil disobedience. Do predominately White colleges and universities also risk offering curriculum that omits or avoids the historical narratives of people of color? Removing these narratives, and the topics they present, means deleting most of United States history, as well as international occurrences. Proponents of the Oklahoma proposals feel as though students are just learning about mistakes and teaching them to hate their country. But whether information makes us feel good or sad, who are we to manipulate factual information?

Last month, the proposal to review the curriculum was stopped in Colorado. In Oklahoma, Rep. Dan Fisher is pushing a similar proposal to remove funding for AP history. To Fisher, it currently has a framework that emphasizes “what is bad about America” and doesn’t teach “American exceptionalism.” Can we have one without the other in any context: marriage, friendships, faith, challenges, opportunities, new ventures, exercising, aging, etc.? How would Minnesotans know how to appreciate the summer without the winter? A better question is who defines what’s good or bad, as opposed to, what just is? There are things I appreciate about the winter that summer could not teach me.

Whose story is it anyway? Who has the right to tell the story, or in these specific scenarios change the story? Can a person change facts? Maybe a person can if they omit some very important details that are relevant to the context. Contextual teaching is one of the most effective approaches because it highlights and provides meaning for not only the learners but also the facilitator.

Personally, I told my students, who are future teachers, last week, “If you don’t love to teach, you won’t teach with love.” Without a context to explain the statement, you as the reader can take that in a number of inaccurate directions.

The context was getting them to reflect on being called to teach. Furthermore, the students are more important than anything I am trying to teach them. It’s not about me as the professor (as some make it), but more so about what is generated and created through the journey together as teacher and student/s: the discovery that takes place, the rapport that is developed, the intellectual inquiry increased, and the growth (teacher and student alike) that hopefully is evident are residual effects. That was the context, that teaching is the people-loving business, and that if I don’t have some level of understanding of the social, political, cultural and lived realities of my students I run the risk of not being as effective as I could be.

I don’t enjoy talking about racial issues. I also do not ascribe to the approach of race-bating and reverse racism does not exist. However, I feel compelled to address these issues because of the level of impact they have on our daily lives collectively. Whether one admits it or not, where we choose to live, shop, who our kids play with, where we worship, attend(ed) school, work, volunteer, or associations we join have a subconscious or conscious racial factor involved.

For example, author Rich Benjamin who writes about whitopias claims that White Americans view cleanliness, high property values and friendliness of all-White communities as indicators of a “good healthy community”. Many people take these things for granted without thinking about how our communities from east and west coasts, north and south have been strategically through policy and practices became and still are racially segregated. The effective teachers dive deeper to explain these phenomena– not as a weapon to make on population look bad for past decision-making– but to help students understand how we have arrived to this current status. The effective teacher explains redlining, blockbusting, housing covenants and sundown towns. To omit these terms and consequential actions is to have a puzzle with missing pieces. As a result, we don’t have an opportunity to see the complete picture.

When most of my students exit my class they usually have a desire to continue the dialogue, but they re-enter a campus and larger society that doesn’t embrace reflection individually and collectively at this level on cultural and racial issues. I teach my sons that a half-truth is a whole lie. I wonder what we tell our students.

Tired Teaching?

While the title of this first blog post does not sound terribly exciting, it does describe how I feel at times. For me, now entering my 29th year of college teaching, mustering the energy and excitement I once did as a rookie instructor is sometimes hard. I desperately want to bring my absolute best to each student every time I enter the classroom but it is more difficult to do with each passing year. The words in James 3:1 still haunt me – “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” I often wonder why I did not decide to be a Walmart truck driver. They earn a comparable salary and are not held to such a high standard!

For me, “tired teaching” is not just the result of countless hours put into planning, teaching, and grading. It is also a result of trying to function in a challenging work environment filled with“important” meetings and competing demands for my time. The phenomenon I describe of tired teaching is known in the professional literature. Weimer (2010) characterizes it this way:

it lacks energy and is delivered without passion; it is easily offended by immature student behaviors; it favors the tried and true over innovation and change; it does the minimum, be that feedback to students, office hours, or the use of technology; it decries the value of professional development and manifests a kind of creeping cynicism about almost everything academic. (p. 174)

Now, no teacher sets out to become a passionless teaching machine. Waning instructional vitality sets in with time but it can be dealt with when recognized. It is important, however, to acknowledge that no one institution, leader, or colleague can do this for us. Staying alive and fresh as a teacher will only result from purposeful action that we take.

So, how do we avoid being that instructor who plods through the day counting the years until retirement? Weimer (2010) offers a few helpful suggestions:

  • Contribute toward a healthy institutional environment. Without this type of environment “we get frustrated, then furious. We get depressed, then disillusioned. We get tired, then exhausted. We get skeptical, then cynical” (p. 181).

  • Recognize that there is much to learn about teaching. Most Bethel professors, like those in other higher education institutions, were not trained as professional educators. As a result, many are self-taught. Given this reality one must consider if experience teaches everything one needs to know.  And, are the lessons learned through experience always the right ones” (p. 184)? “Most would agree that experience is a good teacher, but not when it’s the only teacher” (p. 186). “Without an infusion of ideas and information from outside, without openness to other pedagogical methods, without recognition that education is a phenomenon that can be studied systematically and learned about endlessly, teaching stays put; it runs in place” (p. 185).

  • Consider how to marry methods and content. This takes a sophisticated knowledge to accomplish and it often begins with recognition that some forms of content are best understood when processed collaboratively, some by experience, some by example, etc.  “What is taught and how it is taught are inextricably linked” (p. 187). The most effective instructors are not necessarily those with the most sophisticated content knowledge; the best teachers are often those with a continually growing repertoire of instructional strategies that develop along with their content knowledge.

  • Embrace the power of change. A regular amount of change “does for teaching exactly what exercise does to improve overall health” (p. 192). That change can be in the form of new courses, new texts, new delivery modes (e.g., online), new students, etc.

  • Infuse new ideas. Instructional vitality thrives on new ideas. Most would concur that regular pedagogical reading should be a part of every teacher’s life but research has consistently shown that this does not happen. Fortunately, new ideas and fresh insights are readily available in the form of professional development activities, consultation with faculty development specialists, and conversations with colleagues.

  • Explore different conceptions of teaching. What teachers believe about teaching has an impact on how they actually teach. Akerlind (2003) found that teachers typically start as teacher transmission-focused which revolves around covering material. This category is often followed by being teacher-student relations focused which is characterized by developing good relations with students as a way of motivating them. The next category, student engagement-focused, brings attention to what students (vs. the teacher) are doing. The final category is student learning focused. Teaching in this category is focused on assisting students in developing critical and original thinking, questioning of existing knowledge, exploring new ideas, and becoming independent learners. It is important to note that growth in conceptions about teaching does not occur automatically as careers progress. Movement on this developmental continuum requires conscious effort.

Bertolt Brecht once said, “The world of knowledge takes a crazy turn when teachers themselves are taught to learn.” Learning, especially as a teacher, is effectively summed up by thinking about the two characters for the word “learn” in the Chinese language. One character represents “study” and the other represents “practice constantly.”

It is an honor to author this first blog post. What are your thoughts/feelings, experiences, questions, and suggestions about tired teaching as we move into this new semester?

Let us learn together!




Akerlind, G.S. (2003). “Growing and developing as a university teacher: Variation in meaning.” Studies in Higher Education, 28(4), 375-390.

Weimer, M. (2010). Inspired college teaching: A career-long resource for professional growth. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.