Last week, I posted an essay about an email that I sent to my students 17 days before the start of the fall semester.  I wanted to convince my students that the class was going to be worth the effort.  I just believe having students believe that there is a benefit to be gained is a great way to get them started.  And, I want to begin that “convincing” process before I meet them rather after we are into the semester.

Today, I wrote my students again but for an entirely different purpose.  I am a big believer in class transparency.  I want them to understand what I am trying to do by how I structure the class and why.  I do this by explaining one thing – how they should get ready for the first class.  I am not focusing on the semester.  I am focusing on that one class.  If that goes well, we are off to a great start.

I want that first class to be a real winner.  I want them to walk out at the end and say, “I expected this stuff to be boring but I was ready to learn and it was interesting because I was engaged in the class conversation.”

I know exactly what I want.  Therefore, I need to explain what I want to my students and convince them that it is purely for their benefit.  In 8 days, when they walk in and class starts, we will see how well I have done getting them ready to succeed.

Email to My Students:
Class starts in 8 days.  I hope you are as excited by that prospect as I am. 

Yesterday, I took a couple of my grandchildren to the Richmond Science Museum.  Inscribed on one of the walls was a thought from Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I forget.  Teach me and I may remember.  Involve me and I learn.”  I realize that Franklin was a truly brilliant person but I cannot believe he ever wrote anything that was wiser than those words.

You have been in school a long time.  You probably have had a number of “tell me” teachers and some “teach me” teachers.  And, unless you have been unlucky, you have had some “involve me” teachers.  Which would you prefer?  You are an adult now.  Which type of teacher will have the most positive effect on you? 

I heard a great teacher speak last Tuesday and he talked about education as a transformative experience.  That is what I want for you. 

The problem with “tell me” professors and “teach me” professors is that the responsibility is 100 percent on the professor.  Students show up and sit and take notes or daydream or try to sneak peaks at their phone.   That is not in-depth learning.  Unmotivated students will always pray for a “tell me” teacher. 

The challenge in creating an “involve me” class is that the professor only has half of the responsibility while the students have the other half.  If the students prefer to stay uneducated, they can shut down the process.  I will teach you using an “involve me” type class.  That means that you must do two things.  First, you must be willing to prepare adequately for EACH class.  You cannot be involved if you have not done the work needed in advance.  You cannot just make it up on the spot (I’m sure you know students who try that).  You cannot talk about nuclear fusion unless you have spent some time getting ready for the conversation.  That is the problem that makes a lot of education so darn poor.

Second, you must be willing to try.  I am not seeking perfection or brilliance.  I just want to have a conversation with you.   You must be willing to try.

The key to this class being one where you will learn (one that will be a truly great class):  a willingness to prepare and a willingness to try.  Bingo. 

A day or so ago I emailed you the handout that we will begin covering on Monday, August 26, after we run through the course outline.  You will receive a handout like this for all classes.  There are many types of questions we will explore this semester but ones on the Day One handout are pretty good examples.

Here are four important suggestions as you look at each of the problems on that first sheet.  The better you "prepare" the more likely it is that you will "try" in class and then you will be able to "learn" the material. 

(1) – Read each question and write down the facts provided.  Don’t underline or highlight because that just allows you to turn off your brain.   Problems typically have several key facts presented – a time period, a cost or sacrifice, a method, a theory, a goal, and the like.  Write them down to ensure you know the basic facts before you get too far into the maze.  I always want to bang my head on a wall when a student tries to work a question without even knowing the facts.  That simply will not work.  This is how I often start each question, “Give me the facts.”  Be ready for that.

(2) – Write down what the question is asking you to do.  Most questions have a fairly specific “Ask.”   For example, is this a theoretical or a practical question?   Is the question talking about a past action or a future possibility?  What exactly is the teacher asking for you to answer?  Again, it is almost guaranteed that you will struggle unless you have a good handle on what the “Ask” is.  What are the facts?  What is the ask?

(2a) – Have I asked you to do anything in (1) or (2) that you are not capable of doing?  Heck, no.

(3) – Visualize the following scenario.  I look you in the eye and say, in a calm and friendly voice, “Student A has given us the facts.  Student B has identified the question we are being asked to resolve.  Now, how do we go about sorting through that information to arrive at a logical, reasonable answer?”  What are you going to say?  This is not a dream.  This is going to happen to you.  You need to have an answer ready, not vague mumbling.  My recommendation is that you write down the first two sentences that you will give me if I ask you that question.  Not three words but two complete sentences.  You can write out the whole answer if you want but I will be satisfied if you just write down the first two sentences because that does three things. 
---First, it forces you to think about the answer in real and not vague terms.  It makes the idea of your having an answer a reality which I think is good.  The answer is not simply going to be baloney made up on the spot. 
---Second, by having the first two sentences written down, you are pushing your thinking in a logical direction.  That is a great first step in the solution process.  You are heading off toward an answer. 
---Third, rather than panic, you can read the sentences to me, which will get your brain moving and show that you have thought about the question.  There is a great security in having that first two sentences written down.  With two sentences written down, this is a fun class.

After writing down the first two sentences, just outline the rest of your answer.  Where will you go from the first two sentences?  What is important?  What leads you to a resolution?  The first two sentences and a brief outline for the rest of the answer should get you ready for each question in class.

In my thinking, that clears our two hurdles:  You have prepared and you are ready to try.  That will get us into what I like to call “involved education.”  After that, we will just be solving puzzles and that is always fun.

(4) – Within 8 hours of class being over, organize your notes.  Do it quickly or you will start to lose track of things.  Take each question that we covered in class and write out or outline how to get to a logical answer.  If we covered a question in class and you cannot write out an answer within 8 hours after that, then either you or I (or both of us) have failed.  Again, visualize my asking you to solve the problem and think about how you would respond.  I’m a big believer in the benefit of that type of “visualization.”  Way too many students just say, “Oh, I saw how that was done so I am okay now.  There is no reason to do any further work.”  That is a path that will lead to a C or D.  After class, you should be able to visualize getting to the correct answer or you really have not learned the material yet and probably need to come chat with me. 

If I can get you to do those four steps for every class, I think YOU will be amazed by your own brilliance.  One of my favorite parts of this course comes about halfway through the semester when students start realizing that they really can learn very complicated stuff and do well.  Once that happens then nothing can stop those students.  That feeling is what I want for you.   True learning is wonderfully exhilarating. 

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