Who am I as a teacher?

I am a collaborative leader. What matters to my students, matters to me. “My” class becomes “our” class. Our classroom will be active and cater to different learning styles. We will set individual and group goals. In order to achieve our goals, we will evaluate each other over the course of the semester learning how to give and receive feedback and improve our performance outcomes. Ultimately, I hope students learn as much from each other as they will from me and together we will transform each other and if possible, our wider communities.

How I teach?

Goal 1: To instill the habits of a lifetime learner through self-reflection and a generosity of curiosity.

Process: “How do you learn best?” is the first question I ask my students in any course I teach. I have found that students are eager to describe the characteristics of a good learner, share favorite study methods, and evaluate the best and worst teaching strategies they have encountered. Some students are surprised to find out their peers love classroom activities they hate (lectures), while other students acknowledge there may be value to learning activities they dislike (group assignments). I follow this discussion with an in-class writing assignment of four questions: “Write an advertisement for your dream job, include skills and qualifications. How can this class help you achieve your dream job? What values do you want to live your life by? How can this class help cultivate those values?” On the first day, I make available an electronic draft of the syllabus, collect the writing assignments and tell students I want to incorporate their feedback before finalizing the course.

As a class, we then tailor the syllabus to meet students’ goals. For example, in the American History surveys, students sign up for small groups where they will have a choice in topics to specialize in through assigned readings: environmental history, women’s history, African American history, history of sexuality, science & technology, history of medicine, etc. These small discussion groups introduce History majors to methodologies and topics they may wish to examine in greater depth in a department’s upper level courses, give non-history majors a deeper understanding of their own fields and future professions, and empower minority students, many of whom may be exploring their racial backgrounds and the history of their sexual practices and gender identities for the first time. All students understand a core component of history as a result: subjects and methodologies reflect choices historians make.

Outcome: In an evaluation, a student wrote in my U.S. Women’s History course that, “Professor Donnally did a great job adopting and getting to know her students’ academic interests. She was very creative in her assignments to break away from the traditional coursework.” Another student in my U.S. Social Movements course wrote, “There is a lot of room to experiment and study what interests us.” Students also note that I encourage their experimentation through my support and enthusiasm. “She made me feel like the thoughts I was coming up with, even as a student, were important and meaningful,” one student said, “and always offered extra help and clarification and patience when needed.” 

Goal 2: To empower students so that they better understand cause-and-effect relationships and the power and complexity of the past in shaping contemporary human affairs.

Process: I am constantly trying out activities and assignments that will energize my students and stimulate new ways of thinking. My toolbox – a lunchbox of markers, post-it notes, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, tape and anything but glitter – and my teacher tote – a bag with quiz buzzers, portable white boards, inflatable globes, and beach balls with writing prompts – are becoming legendary. Through a faculty learning committee at Hollins University, I also have been developing digital teaching tools. Thus students know they are in for a treat when I bring the toolbox or teacher tote to class or ask them to pull out their cell phones, whether its re-enacting a bra-burning protest to interpret primary sources in the feminist movement, constructing paper slave quilts to interpret the WPA slave narratives, or taking an online review quiz or survey. Even without my toolbox or tote, I can re-energize a class. When a lecture lulls, I’ve been known to jump on tables, start a one-minute dance off with period music or on one occasion, complete a somersault to illustrate a gymnastics analogy. (I was emphasizing how important it was for the founding fathers to “stick the landing” of the American Revolution. I unfortunately did not stick the landing). At other times, I’ve dived into class silences by prompting students to pause, reflect and process information through writing responses or drawing exercises. When students lead discussion, I hand over power via a green, red and yellow card they can pass to me. Green means, “Help,” red means I should stop talking because I’m interfering with their lesson, and yellow is a warning, “Back off Donnally.” Students and I end each class with a “so what?” moment. Students have to make the classroom material relevant for their lives today. The so what can be a new perspective, skill, inquiry or goal.

Outcome: One student wrote in an evaluation of my U.S. History since 1865 survey that, “It was refreshing to leave class and think that we still have so much to do and much more to accomplish as a nation and as citizens of this nation.” For my Post-1945 U.S. History course, another student wrote, “This class has helped me be more open minded because I’ve seen both sides of a lot of different contemporary issues.” Finally, a student who wants to be a creative writer wrote that my oral history course “gave me a new respect for people’s stories. I think I forget how much people actually go through in their own lives.”

Goal 3: Prepare students for their future careers by advancing their critical thinking, communication and teamwork skills.

Process: To help students to develop mastery, I break down critical thinking and communication skills into progressive activities. I try to tailor these activities to the needs of a specific class through diagnostic writing assignments and/or multiple-choice pre-tests that students can use as a baseline to measure their improvement. I then deconstruct the skills at the heart of the historic discipline into various in-class activities and out-of-class assignments that vary in type and form. For each assignment, I state learning objectives and provide a study guide and/or rubric clarifying what I am assessing and how. I repeat assignments, rewarding improvement by more heavily weighing the later grades. Through this process students learn to identify the purpose of tasks and how to complete those tasks well, to discover their weaknesses and how to improve them, and to understand their strengths and how to explain those strengths to people in authority. These skills are essential for student’s careers and will help them excel in any workplace.

Through in-class workshops students also learn a specific set of exercises to improve their critical thinking and communication skills within a supportive team environment. For example, my first writing revision exercise requires students to use two colors to highlight and compare their summary versus their analysis. The students then step back to observe the bigger picture of their paper’s organization and identify trends in their thinking. “Professor Donnally, I don’t have any analysis!” is a common plea of students after this exercise, and thankfully one a student’s writing group can help him/her/they fix by asking them questions and listening. Students in another all-female class felt empowered when they learned how to breathe, position their bodies, project their voices and take up space when work shopping an oral history performance, skills they easily could translate to boardrooms and classrooms. Finally, at the end of these workshops, students evaluate their group member’s ability to lead a project, listen, complete assignments and collaborate while offering critical feedback. 

Outcome: Numerous students have written that “I am a much better writer as a result of this course” in evaluations while another student wrote, “My time management skills, writing style, and overall college work ethic improved tremendously.” But perhaps most important, students have used class projects to earn internships and as part of their job portfolios and graduate school applications. I help students produce some of their best work in college

I will conclude by noting that I try to model the behavior of a good learner when I teach my own students. I inform students of my failures that have been catalysts for amazing transformations in my scholarship and teaching. Sometimes when one of my teaching experiments – whether it is a role playing game or Kahoot quiz fails – we take time as a class to evaluate why it failed and learn from it together. I want students to know that our best work comes from trying things and understanding what doesn’t work is as important as knowing what does work. Also, you have so much more fun when people are comfortable failing because they then stretch themselves beyond what they thought capable.