New Approaches to Old Problems

By Thalia Vrachopoulos
For the past two years, I have been a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Since I needed the daytime hours to write my dissertation, I requested that my required teaching load be scheduled in one day. This keeps me at the school from the morning until the late evening. The daytime student body at BMCC differs a great deal from evening and night classes. Day classes contain mostly younger 18-to-21-year olds, who can be particularly difficult to teach. I have found that they are less motivated than the older students in my evening classes, who tend to be more responsible. These students are much more motivated and tend to do better all around handing in their assignments on time, and completing them more carefully.

The evening students have different problems. There are a lot more foreign students among them who lack the language skills to understand what is being said in the classroom and given in the form of written directions. Thus, the younger groups during the day could present behavioral or motivational problems and the evening classes language or other difficulties. Of course, present in both to some degree is a combination of these challenges.

Teaching at BMCC has taught me to appreciate aspects of my life skills that I previously undervalued. For example, the fact that I am a woman and have been a mother has helped me a lot in dealing with younger students towards whom I feel a great responsibility and who I try to motivate. Having had two children, an older boy and a girl two years younger, I have learned through my mistakes. I drove my son so hard that I took away his motivation and eventually he dropped out of college (much later he returned of his own volition). I learned to relax my vigilance somewhat with my daughter and had better results; she is now a teacher herself.

The lesson I took from this experience is to provide the students with the available pathways for help, request an assignment, and then allow them to exercise their options. Tolerance in permitting the students to redo their papers if the grade is unsatisfactory is essential. I attach a preprinted and checked-off sheet to the graded paper, identifying the problem areas and where to go for help in redoing the assignment, as well as the date it is due back. In this way the English-as-Second- Language students can rewrite the assignment with the help of a school tutor, as can the student who has problems with grammar and style in the writing workshop. Those pupils who have gotten undesirable grades because they did not follow directions need to be addressed personally and given the guidelines more explicitly.

One of the most difficult tasks I have had was how to ensure that the students do their assigned readings. Surprise quizzes was one way, the other was to initiate student presentations. I divided the class into small groups. Each group was then assigned a particular topic to present to the class. Thus after lecturing myself the first 40 minutes of each session, I had each student present one slide or one artist assigned to him/her the previous week. I asked that they read the text on the topic and present the material to the class in their own words without reading from notes. Stress was placed on content rather than the style of presentation, thus assuring a less self-conscious, less performance-oriented delivery.

I was astonished by the high quality of these sessions. My joy at the assured manner with which the students appropriated my role was great. After going up to the screen and requesting my pointer the student would proceed to address the image at hand. Pointing to the characteristics which identified the art work, each student expounded on what he/she had learned from Janson, adding his/her own interpretations about the subject. The presentation model has helped the students make the material their own by formulating an educated opinion and critically evaluating what they have read. They need to read for full understanding, and be responsible for their group and the class's comprehension of the material through their clarification. The resulting grades were overall higher than lecture classes on the same topics I had taught previously.

Subsequently I asked that an anonymous questionnaire be answered by my students about the viability of this type of teaching technique. Overall the answers were positive and confirmed my reasons for instituting this method. 99% answered that because of the presentations they read more than they were assigned and met with their groups outside the classroom. They also studied for examinations with the same groups and felt that they did much better as a result.