If you’re lucky enough to have a teaching assistantship, you know that summer classes can be an extremely rewarding experience. Here in mid-Michigan, the sunny summer weather puts everyone in a good mood, getting dressed means putting on a sundress or shorts, and the exodus of most students means ample parking on campus. However, the shorter semester can mean that courses originally planned for fifteen weeks are scaled back to seven or eight, which puts us TAs in need of a few tips for efficient and effective planning and execution. In this post, I’ll share a couple of tips that I’ve found useful when revamping my summer syllabus, and open up the floor for dialogue in the comments below.
Tip #1: Build Community Efficiently
Relationships are key to teaching and learning. Because there is less time to grow together, or “gel”, as a class in the summer, TAs can be strategic in integrating ice-breakers with content to help build the learning community. In one of my favorite activities, we use a speed-dating set-up to draw out the key themes and questions of readings as a precursor to discussion. This activity helps students learn names and get more comfortable talking with one another about course topics. As a TA, it helps to get ahead of the curve of learning names by associating faces with names using the course management website, and it’s old school, but making a seating chart really helps too.
Tip #2: Trim the Sails
You cannot teach, nor expect students to read, fifteen weeks of material in eight weeks. No, no, you really can’t. What you can do is highlight the most relevant information to meet your course objectives, and plan to effectively drive home those points with activities, assignments, and assessments. For example, I typically use one individual Book Club assignment in one class discussion to introduce students to different narratives of schooling surrounding exceptionalities in learning, like giftedness or dyslexia. In the summer, Book Club becomes an ongoing in-class group activity, which allows students to begin dialogue around teaching students with exceptionalities. By morphing some assignments into class activities, I can get at similar themes from different angles more efficiently.
Tip #3: Anticipate the Doldrums
While my spring course is taught for eighty-minutes, twice a week for fifteen weeks, the summer version is three hours, twice a week for eight weeks. If your course’s schedule is also dramatically changed for the summer, I would caution you away from thinking that means you can teach the same lessons back to back. Instead, I would encourage you to think about the rises and falls of attention spans over a longer period of time, and plan course activities with this in mind. For example, it’s much easier to focus on whole-class activities like mini-lecture and discussion in the beginning of class. Toward the middle, attention begins to drop-off, meaning that smaller group activities with a physical component might be more effective. At the end of class, even I have the fidgets, so paired or individual activities like reflective writing, free reading or peer-editing are helpful. Also know that brains need breaks, so try a timing technique, like the Pomodoro, or a ten-minute walking break to help students refocus their attention.
In closing, know that a student email sent thirty calendar days before the first class has jogged me into activity while I was daydreaming of finishing the semester, reading on the porch and playing catch outside with my dog. Also, keep in mind that my experience is in teaching undergraduates in a summer semester that is split into two eight-week sessions, and may not easily translate to other summer semester structures. Also I’m interested in knowing how other grads have prepared for summer courses.
How have you taught summer courses, and what have been the results of your strategies? What pearls of wisdom do you have to share with first-time summer TAs? Let us know in the comments by clicking here.
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