On Students’ Names, Teachers’ Stories and Our Magnificent Kathleen O’Donovan

23 Sep

Students’ Names

Kathleen O'Donovan.

Kathleen O’Donovan.

I remember Reggie at the beginning of a semester in which I am teaching… Using simple techniques, I try to learn the correct pronunciation of names before the event as a way of ‘honoring’ those in my presence. I especially stress the important relationship between name and identity with the international teaching assistants (ITAs) whom I teach. 

Kathleen O’Donovan

Where I’m teaching, Week 4 of the semester began today.  Where some of my colleagues are teaching, courses are just beginning.  Week 4 is not “too late” for turning attention to name learning.  If you’ve been immersed in the details of setting up course logistics (learning management systems, formal groups) and classroom dynamics (modes of engagement, links among homework and inclass activities and major assignments), this may be exactly the time to intensify attention to learning students’ names.  A University of Nebraska resource reminds readers that:

Knowing and using students’ names helps to establish a more comfortable, less formal atmosphere in class and shows an interest in your students as individuals.

Early in a course is always the right time to pay attention to learning student names – and to saying those names aloud.  As this first segment of the semester comes around in my smaller enrollment courses I bring a stash of markers and highlighters and colored pencils to class, asking students to illuminate / illustrate the “first name only” name tags they wrote out during our first class.  By this time, they’ve found ways to mark their place in the course, and these become my cues for remembering students’ names and more.

In large enrollment courses, speaking student names may provide one of the best classroom climate boosts of all as it indicates that we do see our students, we do see the students in our classrooms as people in our daily communities.  At Week 4 of a large enrollment course I opened the week by re-stating my aim to learn their names and having students write a “re-introduction” on an index card.  The invitation was to tell me something new about themselves and something new they had learned in the course.  I linked information on the cards to what I’d learned from first day information sheets and to notes I’d made on the class roster during discussion segments of interactive lecture days.

When we know their names, students report – in data from my own courses and in the research-based scholarship of teaching literature – increases in motivation to attend class, to ask questions about course materials, to interact with peers as part of learning, and generally to be part of a classroom community.

Teachers’ Stories

In terms of my teaching self and classroom practice, [my students] taught me a few major lessons: 1) If you give your students the gift of your authentic self, they might be moved to explore (and perhaps embrace) aspects of their own authenticity; 2) If you teach without fear of your own vulnerabilities, you will create a space in which self-respect and mutual acceptance will thrive, and 3) If you engage students in sensory/experiential learning, magic might happen.

Kathleen O’Donovan

Karl Smith, Kathleen O'Donovan and Connie Tzenis heading to workshops on learning & teaching in Egypt.

Karl Smith, Kathleen O’Donovan and Connie Tzenis heading to workshops on learning & teaching in Egypt.

Week 4 is the time of the semester I stop to review what my students have learned about the person and scholar who is the “me” in front of the room as the “teacher of record.”  As O’Donovan notes, and scholars such as Stephen Brookfield report from qualitative research studies, learners value teacher authenticity (and value it over teacher authority).  That authentic teacher makes use of her personal strengths, interests and insights as part of learning-teaching interactions.  In my Week 4 review of class session notes, I look to discover

  • whether my students have gained from examples embedded in presentations understandings of ways I – and my diverse colleagues – came to be passionate about the subject under study;
  • whether brainstorming with students about how course topics link to worlds, problems and possibilities in the everyday worlds where they – and I – live out our lives;
  • whether in modeling learning as unlearning and relearning I sometimes share why and how and when I have stumbled with field-specific threshold ideas we are studying; and
  • whether I have let myself be present in the backing fabric of the course – in selecting session opening music, in using my own photographs as presentation images, in developing learning scenarios and stories from courses before theirs, and in shaping on-the-spot pragmatic informal learning practices.

Part of my teacher story is that I am one of the “youngsters” among fifty-four first cousins I grew up knowing well.  With dozens people modeling “learning” and “critical thinking” and “making a life” in my growing up I am keenly aware that even people who have numerous connections of “likeness” learn in other and different ways.  That we continue to share and make lives together in various ways across this kinship group keeps me aware in the company of my students that people in a web of relationships make use of what they’ve learned in numerous ways.

Kathleen O’Donovan

Kathleen O’Donovan was my first, and best, mentor in teaching some 38 years ago.  One of the lessons I learned that I believe is true for both teaching and mentoring – and child-raising, incidentally – is that there is nothing more important than finding your students’, colleagues’ and children’s strengths and providing the encouragement that brings out the best in them.

Connie Tzenis

Kathleen (Brie 9.17.13)

PhotoQuote by Aubrie Adams. Kathleen was one of the sweetest people I knew at CTL – she was always thoughtful, kind, and patient. Not just within a teaching and learning context, but in her everyday interactions. I think of her as I start my own professional academic career.

Across the full staff here at the Center for Teaching and Learning we could name Kathleen O’Donovan’s peer mentorship as consistent and reflective, constant and supportive, grounded and playful, scholarly and joyful.  In her work and words, she reminded us time and again to teach from our authentic, humane, human selves. and to teach with ongoing awareness that our own stories accompanied us into classrooms.  In KOD’s words:

Humans are storytellers and stories are intricately woven into the fabric of most civilizations and societies.  Similarly, stories form the foundation of any teacher’s professional life.  From their first days in teaching, university faculty begin accumulating an amazing array of experiences, some of which may be informally translated into stories share with colleagues, students or family members.

Kathleen’s mentorship was part of the story behind my blog post last week on developing Designer Statements to guide peer, teacher and self-assessment for assignments involving digital artifacts. In asking me to tell her stories about my own learning and early teaching pasts, Kathleen prompted me to recognize – and make mindful use of – the merging of my journalism, photography, science and literature experiences when I created assignments involving students in drawing, speaking, visualizing and writing to learn.

I invoke Kathleen this week because we as a Center staff gathered at her memorial service last week.  It was a service she planned.  I write of Kathleen this week to honor her work as a lifelong teacher and the lifewide impact of her faculty development career at the University of Minnesota.

My charge today was to link her ideas to this moment in our current semester. And it’s been her voice noodling in my ear as i’ve typed this evening.  Now I turn to Kathleen’s own memoir writing – “My Magnificent Seven: A Memoir of Students Who Have Shaped My Teaching” – to shape overtly the remainder of this post.

Here, then, a segment of that memoir in which she reflects on one student’s insistence on his own name:

On a ten-scale ‘energy-o-meter,’ Reggie [age 3] consistently registered an eleven. He embodied a special type of energy that I started to describe with words such as “sizzling,” “whizzing,” or “zipping.” His descriptive adjective just had to include the z sound. In fact, when referring to him during the video debriefing sessions, I found myself using a bumble bee metaphor. On a literal level, Reggie buzzed around from one activity to another. On a figurative level, he pollinated a couple of ideas that deeply influenced my teaching practice. One of those, not surprisingly, revolved around the concept of energy.

Reggie’s energy affected him, his peers, my co-teacher, the learning environment, and me. After only two or three lessons, I began noticing and reading not only his energy patterns, but also, those of other students in the class. Reggie’s energy spurts and streams became meaningful feedback mechanisms for me. By reading them accurately, I was able to take his ‘learning pulse’ as well as that of other students and the whole group. They also taught me that if I ‘energized’ certain activities and placed them strategically within a lesson plan, I was better able to focus students’ attention, engage them in their own learning, and transition smoothly from one class segment to another.

A second important teaching idea pollinated by Reggie had to do with the importance of one’s name….Carlos, Nacho, Rosita, Marisol, and Miguel were examples of names that Wendy and I assigned to our demo-class students. As we ‘stamped’ their passports, we stated their new names and invited them to repeat what they heard. They all did as we requested with one exception – Pepe. For three consecutive weeks, Reggie refused to respond to his Spanish name. Wendy and I wondered what part of Pepe was SO unappealing to Reggie’s three-year- old ears? The other eight children appeared to melt into their new identities; that is, they learned their names quickly and used them unhesitatingly in songs and finger plays. Reggie, on the other hand, was consistent, concise, and definite in his response. “No!” he would shout. “My name’s Reggie! Don’t call me Pepe!” His adamant and consistent response explains the symbol that I have selected to represent him – an exclamation point. Nothing – Mexican candy, a special name badge, or even the possibility of wearing the mariachi hat persuaded him to change his mind. Wendy and I suggested other names including Raul, Roberto, and Rafael. None of those worked either. Reggie demanded to be called his “good” name. His explanation went as follows: “I AM Reggie, silly, NOT Pepe. I like Reggie. Reggie’s me!”

This little boy’s intractable stance around his name heightened my awareness of how cavalierly I had named students in my previous Spanish classes. It also helped me acknowledge the degree of importance that students might unconsciously place on my knowing their names. Often, I remember Reggie at the beginning of a semester in which I am teaching or workshop in which I am the presenter. Using a couple of simple techniques, I try to learn the correct pronunciation of names before the event as a way of ‘honoring’ those in my presence. I especially stress the important relationship between name and identity with the international teaching assistants (ITAs) whom I teach. I encourage those ITAs who are teaching undergraduate students to bring me their class lists prior to the first day of class. Together, we practice the correct pronunciation of each name. We also talk about how they want to be called; that is, do they want to use their Chinese, Korean, and Indian names or do they prefer to assume an American name. That conversation often generates opportunities for cross-cultural sharing around names and naming traditions.

In a To Improve the Academy article about the memoir project “Making Meaning of a LIfe in Teaching” (co-led with Steve Simmons), Kathleen drew readers’ attention to Stephen Brookfield’s reminder that “The influences that shape teachers’ lives and that move teachers’ actions are … likely to be found in a complex web of formative memories and experiences” (49).

Those influences may be our students – the magnificent seven; our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins; or our colleagues who share naming, classroom examples and lifetime stories will us in that process of becoming peer mentors.

Of herself as teacher, Kathleen O’Donovan – a peer mentor among colleagues at the Center – had this to say at the start of her memoir, My Magnificent Seven:

“By age seven, I knew my life’s vocation; that is to say, my calling. Clearly, it was teaching. When asked, “And what do YOU want to be when YOU grow up?” my response was consistent, quick, and confident, “ I’m gonna be a teacher.” Though teaching was nowhere in my family’s blue collar background, its seed was planted early and deep within my being. ”

Resources

Brookfield, Stephen D. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.

Center for Teaching and Learning Assessment. “Positive Classroom Climate.”

Eberly Center. “Tips for Learning Student Names.”

O’Donovan, Kathleen F.  “My Magnificent Seven: A Memoir of Students Who Have Shaped My Teaching.”  For Making Meaning of a Life in Teaching, University of Minnesota Faculty Memoir Program. 2007.  My Magnificent Seven.

O’Donovan, Kathleen F., and Steve R. Simmons. “Making Meaning of a Life in Teaching: A Memoir-Writing Project for Seasoned Faculty.” To Improve the Academy: Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development 25 (2006): 315-326.

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One Response to “On Students’ Names, Teachers’ Stories and Our Magnificent Kathleen O’Donovan”

  1. Andrew Kidd 5 October 2013 at 10:50 pm #

    Kathleen was one of the most important people ever to enter my life, and did more than anyone to build my skills as an instructor, and my confidence in myself as a person. I will always love and cherish the time that I knew her, and hold on to those precious memories of her.

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