I am a procrastinator. If there was a “Procrastinators Anonymous,” I would probably feel pressured to attend meetings. (And then I would flip tables and leave in a huff, because “I am powerless against my addiction” is just about the worst possible lesson to teach people trying to recover their lives. I’ll probably write a whole post about that at some point.) I have developed some techniques to remain productive with school work despite my proclivities, but ultimately it never seemed like all that big of a deal – I always managed to turn in homework on time, even if it might not have been the absolute best quality work that I could have produced.
But when the work I’m doing is not for my own benefit, but for someone else’s, this tendency to put things off becomes an issue. Now that I’m teaching a class, I find myself struggling against the procrastination habit while grading and writing lesson plans, and then feeling guilty about it.
I’ve mostly been fairly good about grading; usually I return assignments with grades and feedback by the next class period. Where I have the most trouble with procrastination is actually in my lesson plans, and I think this is the result of habituated stress responses. When I’m stressed about something, I often put it off. Even when I try to do work on such a project, I struggle to get anything done. Between distractions and the occasional overwhelming sense of panic, even starting can be a nightmare. Though I’ve improved on this front in the last few years, it’s still a fight, every time.
The first thing I did to prepare for teaching this class was assemble a basic syllabus, including a course calendar. So far, the assignment due dates have stayed the same, but what I cover in lecture/discussion bears only a passing resemblance to the original calendar. For one thing, I really had no idea how to gauge time requirements for topics. I didn’t know how long it would take to lecture, or how long discussions would last. I didn’t know what exercises I would have the students do. I just listed concepts I knew would be important to cover, about three per class period, and arranged them based on their applicability to the speeches and papers I was assigning.
So what usually winds up happening is that I will start a lesson plan (an outline/list of things to talk about or exercises to do) for the coming class at the end of class, while I’m waiting for clearance to leave the building. I sometimes add to it during the week, but mostly the night before/morning of class I am updating, rearranging, and cleaning up the previous plan. If I come up with exercises during the week, I’ll jot them down.
I think some of this is lack of experience. One of the things I’m doing right now is experimenting and building a repertoire; I warned my students early on that they were sort of guinea pigs and that I was figuring things out as we went, because I think it’s only fair that they know what they’re getting into. Some of this is also that I am very comfortable, and in fact prefer, speaking extemporaneously. Give me an outline and I can roll with it. More than that, I can rock it. Extemporaneous lecture allows me to respond more organically to questions and discussion points from students.
One thing I try to do is go beyond any assigned reading. Either I will talk about concepts or tools that are from book chapters I’m not assigning, or I will take what they’ve read and walk them through application. Sometimes what I do is give more context to what they’ve read, as with the ethics chapters, when I would expand on the readings’ coverage of theories. I always try to have some discussion (often mixed small group or partners followed by full-class) in every class so that it’s not me lecturing all the time, though I joke about liking the sound of my own voice and my love of writing on the board.
Basically, I ask myself, “What do my students need to know about this topic? What would make this class enjoyable?” and then I play with methods for reaching those outcomes. As I work with my students, I develop a better understanding of what they value out of our meetings – usually practical applications. So two classes ago, we talked about syllogisms. This last class meeting, I had them write a syllogism using the thesis for their upcoming speeches as a claim – basically coming up with the major and minor premises underlying their thesis statements. Then we used the audience analysis we had talked about to discuss what types of people would probably be easier or harder to convince using those premises as a starting point, and how we could gauge that likelihood using audience analysis tools. Then we added types of proof to the mix, discussing when and why we use certain types of evidence. During the last bit of class, we started talking about using language to strengthen arguments or impacts.
Practical application of theory made the theory more accessible and more meaningful. Using their own thesis statements made it immediate and let them see results of that application. Explaining why I was covering certain things the way I was helped them understand that my focus is not just for them to present good speeches and write good papers in this class – my goal is to equip them with tools that help them make better sense of the world and communicate their ideas in a variety of contexts. So far extemporaneous lesson plans seem to be going well, though working in this fashion is sometimes stressful for me, and I feel like I could probably put together even better classes if I was better at planning. So that’s still on my to-do list.
But my students come to class excited and walk out thoughtful. And that’s a wonderful starting point.