NDSU Magazine logo - Spring 2008

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Vol. 08, No. 2


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Teaching is doing

Teaching is doing

Early in the semester, sounds of marching music and chanting fill the south end of Minard Hall's second floor. The energizing refrain rolls under office doors, and a cadence of voices is reciting something unintelligible. The sounds are loud and irresistible. After it happens more than once during the week, it's time to search for the source. The search leads to a tiny classroom crammed with desks, students, a petite drill instructor and a boom box.

Standing before her beginning German class, instructor Stephanie Grollman marks the beat with her hands and speaks to the rhythm of an instrumental jazz CD. She is even louder than her students as they repeat a new language pattern. Their pronunciation and their accents improve with every repetition. If not quite musical, it is mesmerizing and effective. Grollman came to the idea of using jazz serendipitously. She was listening to jazz in her car and spontaneously began speaking in time to the music, giving a new flavor to a time-tested teaching technique. The next day she tried it in the classroom where the ease and fun of the technique were instantly popular. Students might feel a little inhibited, but they memorize quickly and retain what they learn.

Hers is a lively classroom. She plays a choral director for freshmen, but in her upper level class Grollman is a theatrical producer. Students work in small groups to create short skits. They assign roles, write out the dialogue in German, rehearse and present the finished performance to the rest of the class. Students whose eyes are scrunched with the effort of remembering a correct phrasing one minute, are full of laughter in the next as correction and encouragement are gently given. Ist das klar? Grollman calls repeatedly and then forges ahead or backtracks to make each concept klar - clear. Working together makes students feel less spotlighted and allows them to match others if they are struggling. Learning by doing is not just for grade school; it is how human knowledge is advanced.

A fluent speaker of German and English and a learner of French, Portuguese and Latin, Grollman is a native of Germany. She began studying English in the 5th grade and was drawn to the study of languages very young because she loved that moment when she started thinking in another language and was deeply curious about other cultures.

Another Minard classroom: Pine-green chalkboards are rapidly filled with tidy phrases and homework assignments. This is a third year German class and Grollman is acting as historian. The subject of the lesson is the 1960s and 1970s anti-authoritarian movement in West Germany and that movement's connection to protests of the Vietnam War. She explains, in German, how certain perceptions and responses in Germany differed from those in the United States. Concepts are harder and conversation is much more advanced at this level. Students are getting ready to go into exchange programs and experience that great educator, cultural immersion. Like all adept teachers, Grollman incorporates new instructional ideas nearly every semester, whether inspired by her own thoughtfulness, an NDSU workshop on motivating students, or learning about mini-theater from a professional conference. Teaching is doing.

Elegant and gracious, Jo Ann Miller enters the bustling chorus hall unobtrusively. She chats with someone clearly watching for her entrance, touches a piano key, gives a quiet direction and the storm of chairs swirl into a circle around her. Together she and her students stretch first their bodies and then their vocal chords as she signs the vowels she wants them to sing. A little call and response concludes the warm up and the music making begins. Miller advises students to make translation notes in their music, singling out a resistant student with gentle humor and encouraging him to take notes even through he prefers to trust his memory. To practice a complex work by Bach that they are singing in German, the students split into part circles. Miller stands in the middle where she can hear each section and each voice within the whole and yet also hear the whole. The students sing a tricky phrase over and over, building their auditory and muscle memory. "Sing even better than I do," she tells them lightly, "I know most of you can. Sing like angels rejoicing."

Tucked in the warm southwest corner of the music building, the choir room is not high tech in the way of computers and teaching aids. Risers, folding chairs, some music cabinets and a good piano leave lots of floor space. The technology is all in the room design: acoustic panels line the walls, and smoothly curved oak panels are suspended in a cresting wave across the ceiling. Good acoustics contributes to the singers' abilities to listen to one another and listening is a critical skill in singing or conducting. Miller, herself a graduate of NDSU, joined the faculty in 1989 as the director of choral activities. She is an accomplished singer but her passion is conducting.

Though music is certainly a language in its own right, choral conducting is particularly multi-faceted. One of Miller's gifts is her ability to hear things linearly as well as vertically. The gift is apparent when she stands in the middle of a classroom and calls on individual students from the resounding mass; encouraging one to soften, another to crisper diction and the entire bass section to improve its pitch through a challenging phrase. The power of the music spirals around her like a small tornado and she is the wind master.

Training singers is a much-loved aspect of her teaching, training conductors is the advanced practice. Students don't earn the experience of being on the podium until their junior or senior years. At that point, a few will discover the same love and passion that Miller feels for the conductor's art. "Choral music is different than purely instrumental music -we have the best of both worlds - expressive music and harmonies and singing about ideas and feelings," Miller said. "It's when I am working with the students on this music that the satisfaction and fulfillment of being a teacher takes place. The music is what inspires me and the ability then to share it and teach it to my students is the fulfillment of my passion for this choral music." It is possible to see Miller's experience of deep listening being communicated to her choir. There is an inaudible poetry in the way she leads the choir to sing beyond each individual's potential. She's given them the language of music and they do indeed sing like angels rejoicing.

Humming Bach, hot coffee and notebook in hand, I wind through the labyrinth of Minard to the 3rd floor classrooms in the Annex. This mini-Minard tucked between the main hall and the music building was completed in fall 2003. The yellow brick and red sandstone architecture is a good match for the campus' second-oldest building (101 years) and nicely connects to the modern styling of the music education building. I've taught in these classrooms and like them. They are web-enabled, light-filled and pleasant. But it's a freezing Saturday morning, so why would anyone be here? Math is the reason. Today is the annual Math-In. Held on the Saturday before finals week, it is the gift that NDSU's Math Club gives back to the university. Like most service projects, it started small and grew as word spread and test scores improved. This year more than 300 students take advantage of the event, setting a new club record.

The third floor classrooms are full. Students are assigned to a room according to their level of accomplishment. The largest room is given over to studying the basics, mostly freshmen and students from disciplines that don't emphasize math. Every desk is awash with coats, caps, backpacks and paper. Young men dominate the scene working in large huddles while the young women cluster together in pairs. A half-dozen teachers and teaching assistants wander the room responding to waving arms. Meanwhile, in the room devoted to the more advanced students, the atmosphere is quiet and intense. There are only two teachers here, though the room is full. The students seem to work more singly; the pairs look to be couples and I amuse myself for a few minutes imagining the conversation in a mathematical romance; the murmur of beautiful proofs.

A few days later, waiting outside his office, I overhear mathematics professor Jim Coykendall, speaking to a student: "I'm worried about you. Math is a jealous mistress; you need to be filling up several notebooks a week to survive in this class." Then he walks the student to the front desk and has him take a new math placement test to see exactly where that student belongs. Did Coykendall connect with that young man and will that student work harder? Almost certainly. Or perhaps the boy will decide that he wants a less demanding field and move on without believing he is a failure, only that he doesn't choose to serve such a jealous mistress.

Jim Coykendall has always loved and served her. He began his teaching career as an undergraduate teaching assistant, a rare phenomenon. Twenty-one years later he is chair of NDSU's Mathematics Department, has turned the Math Club into a truly cool place to hang out, and this year is experiencing the best Calculus I lecture group he's ever taught. He was raised in the Appalachian Mountains, so he has a sweet drawl that gets stronger when he expounds on the beauty and creativity of the logic, leaps and proofs of mathematics. Coykendall arrived at NDSU in 1996, seeking a research school with a doctoral program and shunning opportunities to join the National Security Agency (the nation's biggest hangout for top-notch mathematicians) because his love of students is equal to his love of mathematics, which he calls the Queen of the Sciences. Laden with administrative duties as chair, he is quick to seize opportunities to interact with students. The Math-In was his idea and at the tutoring sessions he is as present and engaged as any of his team. Math Club was sinking when he arrived at NDSU. He tossed out the old formula and began staging speakers and discussions that highlighted the controversies and creativity of the discipline. The club began to grow and today is a dynamic student organization that often has 50 or more people in attendance.

Coykendall truly wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his students. He likes their work ethic, their sense of personal responsibility and their honesty. His love of students doesn't soften his expectations, however. His exams are legendary for their difficulty and thoroughness because he knows that advancing students before they are ready does them a great disservice. He says students who don't make it fail because they don't participate, or perhaps don't have the drive. Aptitude in math is almost synonymous with having a love for it and students who get positive encouragement all along the way are most likely to develop that love.

Mathematics is the basic language used in science and technology. Coykendall and other mathematicians will argue that it is the foundation of scientific disciplines as well. Some find it an easy language to master. The rest of us struggle. When teachers share truths like "you need to work harder" or "I know you can do better," they are asking students for self-examination. This, too, is a fundamental aspect of teaching and learning.

Jeanne Hageman carries her grocery bag of faux food into her French 101 class. Students are soon giggling at the plastic hamburger patty and purple Easter egg as they recite le boeuf, and un oeuf. After 18 years of teaching university-level French, Hageman knows without doubt that every class has its own personality and each requires that she adapt her instructional methods. Of course, 18 years of experience also generates a ready reserve of ideas, flexibility and intuition. Some groups of students prefer clear rules, so grammatical emphasis is needed. The students on their way to France want conversation and lots of practical "Where is the bus stop?" language. She responds to those needs while helping them stack the building blocks of language learning: reading, writing, speaking and listening.

Like many who live an academic life, Hageman's campus office is a narrow room lined wall to wall and floor to ceiling with bookshelves, with space only grudgingly given to a filing cabinet (topped with books and papers) and a battered steel desk (piled with books and papers). This quiet, studious Midwestern woman is animated about her students and full of praise for those who teach foreign languages in middle and high schools. Hageman was inspired to pursue a career in language after an experience as an exchange student to Belgium while she was in high school. Students admire her patient teaching style and her love of foreign film stirs their enthusiasm. She teaches them to mine the treasures of being multi-lingual from movies and books, as well as conversation. Understanding a French film without subtitles gives a direct sense of accomplishment. Reading Red Riding Hood in its original form without the "happily ever after" ending imbues a sense of its mystery and ancient age. Teaching is storytelling.

Each semester students arrive on campus in varying states of excitement and trepidation. They enter classrooms with unsullied notebooks set to gather up whatever knowledge comes their way. Whether the classroom is a laboratory, a choral hall, the great outdoors, or a well-worn room packed with skinny desks, their teachers serve them with similar gifts and energies. It seems that excellence in teaching and excellence in learning have the same roots. So perhaps what makes a great learner is also what makes a great teacher. In the middle of the night snippets of conversation are rolling through my mind. Grollman's poignant "I am an ambassador of Germany and I want to do a good job"; Hageman's firm "I don't believe there are people who can't learn languages"; Miller's "All I need from a student is that they want to learn"; Coykendall's passionate "I could not live without the students."

Teachers can be impatient and irascible, consistent, concerned, detached, particular, generous, serious or playful as the occasion and the students require. (And we all recall a few who could be pompous and condescending.) But teaching is doing, it is listening, it is challenging, it is storytelling, it is love.

-- Laurie J. Baker

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.