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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Break the Schools Rules, Break Your Rules, Just Teach!

It really was a knock upside the head when my colleague and instructional designer suggested we not have assignments due only on Tuesday nights. Pretty much every other course in the program had weekly assignments due on Tuesdays. Even the course I previously taught did!

"Assignments can be due whenever makes sense!"he assured me. So, after some discussion we revamped the syllabus such that assignments were announced on Wednesdays, but deliverables were due Friday, Monday and Tuesday of each week. Friday and Monday assignments were contributions to our class discussion and the Tuesday assignment included student reflections (what they learned) over the previous week. My grad students may not have liked so many deadlines, but they didn't balk at all. We all settled in to a nice rhythm after about two weeks.

While I know everyone puts artificial rules and boundaries on ourselves all the time, this was the first time I ran into it in teaching. Thankfully, I'm finding more and more instructors who toss out the rules. Here are two more rule breakers who are making news.

Did you read about John Boyer, aka The Plaid Avenger in the Chronicle of Higher Education? He does some crazy stuff to teach cajole 3,000 students (yes, 3,000) at Virginia Tech to learn about World Regions, basically a current events course. He does podcasts, uses language I would not use in the classroom, has no required assignments (students pick from a long list of ways to earn points)... Students love him and more importantly, they learn. Can everyone do what he does? No, but more power to him for doing "his thing" and breaking lots of rules.

Also in the Chronicle I read Jennifer Brannock Cox. She teaches journalism at Salisbury. She teaches in a computer lab and that means students can be distracted by their own or the schools computers. And, they are, of course, distracted, often preferring to check-in with friends rather than watch the PowerPoint slides go by. But Cox is paying attention to her students. She knew she had to be more interesting than Facebook and Twitter and personal e-mail. So, she broke the rules and ditched PowerPoint now and again in favor of ... her own real life journalism adventures.
I find that the keyboard clicking subsides when I take a break from the PowerPoint and provide an anecdote that may help illustrate my point. For example, when teaching journalism students about the dos and don'ts of interviewing, my students are riveted by the list of places I was kicked out of—shopping malls, grocery stores, people's homes—during my days working as a daily-newspaper reporter in Florida. They especially like to hear my stories about a fellow reporter who once hung from a tree over a cemetery to cover a private funeral. And they squirm when I describe the time I tried to contact an accused child molester by knocking on the door of the home he shared with the victim and his mother. (I was on the police beat at the time.)
Students love hearing about my adventures and misadventures as a former journalist, and they are full of questions. The discussion that ensues not only captures their attention (and distracts from the keyboard), but it also allows me to covertly teach them about media law and journalistic ethics.
It's so easy to fall into a habit of doing "what everyone else does" and "what you've always done." And, sometimes that works. Other times it doesn't. That's a good time to pull out the big book of breaking the rules. What educational or institutional rules have you broken? Which ones would you like to break?