by Anne Marie Richard, Education
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2000
I am a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education, and a GSI for an undergraduate education course called “Current Issues in Education.” This course, required for Education minors, is offered to help students think through and become involved in educational practice. In it, we look at how education impacts people’s lives, their visions of society, and their social relationships. Over the course of a single semester we address deep educational questions that have no easy answers and that are subject to great debate within the territory of educational theory and practice. The problem I am addressing here is a straightforward, yet recurring one: How can students learn to read and think critically about deep theoretical issues and learn to clearly articulate their position, even to a layperson not familiar with their subject? This is an important skill for all students, but especially for future educators, who will be challenged to make subject matter clear to their own students one day.
The teaching method I implemented to address this issue was to have students divide into teams and create a children’s book that reflects the issues and concepts of one of the topic areas of the course. Each group was thus challenged to convey complex theoretical issues in simple and practical terms through developing a story (either fiction or non-fiction) that included a plot and illustrations. In addition, each group wrote a short paper to accompany the book that explained the significance and symbolism of the images and ideas employed.
When I presented the assignment to the class, reactions were mixed. Some students thought it sounded like a challenge that might turn out to be fun; some thought it sounded too simplistic; others were surprised by such a wild idea. Each week, a student group presented its book to the rest of the class, allowing time for questions and comments. The response became enthusiastic, as presenters and their peers exchanged feedback and educated each other in terms with which they felt comfortable. One student wrote in her final class evaluation, “At first I thought the [children’s book] assignment sounded tedious, but after my group and I finished ours, I realized what a great learning experience it was for us. It forced us to use simple language our brothers and sisters could understand, but it got across important ideas about multiculturalism, which is a complicated topic.” By answering each others’ questions and presenting the books to their classmates, we were able to assess the strategy as a class and determine that it was helpful as a learning tool. In fact, most students requested the return of their books at the end of the semester so they could show their parents, siblings, friends, and children.
ED 190 instructors meet regularly as a team, so I cannot take sole credit for the development of this teaching idea. In fact, two of us were tossing around ideas of how to make theory accessible, and through dialogue we came up with this approach. It worked so well the first semester I assigned it that the next semester three or four GSIs tried it!