I have taught English composition and literary analysis at as well as Swedish language since 2009. Although there are significant differences in the material and in the organization of such courses, I have developed a teaching philosophy based on my experiences with these classes that relies on a few core concepts. The most important of these and the concept that informs all the others, is the idea of fluidity and flexibility in the classroom. Students, particularly students in introductory courses, come into the classroom with a wide range of experience and competence with the course material. It is essential to adapt to the needs of the individual students while working from a central philosophy that is reasonable for all members of the class. I tend to favor hands-on activities that encourage students to engage creatively with new material, although I’ve found it is best to combine these activities with a version of the more traditional lecture and discussion model.
I organize my classes around a syllabus that highlights key themes or concepts without making specific promises too far in advance. While the syllabus will set firm dates for exams, written assignments, and major reading assignments, I do not lay out a plan for every single day at the beginning of the term. I find it is counterproductive to attempt to set too specific goals before I have met the students and have assessed their prior knowledge and motivation to master the course material. Instead, I lay out a week by week plan that lets them know what topics we will be covering and when major assignments will be due so that they can plan accordingly. I then provide weekly detailed schedules that take into account the progress that has been made and the particular learning objectives that apply to the individual class. This allows me to adjust the schedule to suit the students, without leaving them feeling unprepared for the pace and goals of the course.
Lectures almost always include a visual aid and most often include a media element such as a film or sound clip. I also find that it is beneficial to include a contemporary or pop culture reference to help students locate a frame of reference for the material. An example of this is my lecture on Ludvig Holberg, which explains the comedy of manners in terms of modern sitcoms. I have gotten excellent feedback on this model, although I must admit, the last class that was presented with this particular lecture told me that I needed to update my example because The Office is outdated. I still consider this a success, however. They were able to show me that they understood the concept being presented by offering several examples of other sitcoms that I could use, proving to me that they had not only understood and engaged with the lecture, but also that they were able to effectively apply the concept to another text.
Discussion activities also vary by class, depending on the feedback of the students. I have a variety of activities that I regularly rotate, including a close reading activity involving a political cartoon, a writing exercise in which each student is asked to cast a play with modern actors and offer a defense of their choices, or a sound design assignment in which students are asked to choose a song that addresses key themes or characters in a text. A particular favorite is a listening activity which prompts a discussion of interpretation and artist intent involving a classroom reading of a selection from Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a video of the Berlin Philharmonic performing “The Hall of the Mountain King” and a video of the Finnish heavy metal cello band, Apocalyptica, performing that same song. Volunteers are assigned roles and the selection is read aloud as a class. We discuss the text as a group – identifying the plot, themes, and devices used as well as speculating about ways in which the scene might be performed onstage. We apply exercises used by actors to speculate about the emotions evoked by a potential performance. After we have established how “our” production would approach the scene, we employ another common actor practice – turning out the lights and closing their eyes while listening to the two performances of the music without other sensory distractions followed by reflection and comparison between the musical interpretations and the text as we had interpreted it. This exercise is a particularly effective way of communicating the flexibility of adaptation and interpretation.
Language classes follow the same basic model as literature courses. The syllabus lays out the plan for the term, offering goals for each week with specific tasks scheduled weekly. This allows me to adjust the pace of the course based on student comprehension, devoting more time to a particular topic and less to others, when necessary. Just as in the writing and literature courses I prefer hands-on activities as I feel that it helps students retain information when they are asked to apply it and repeat it consistently. Again, I make regular use of media in the classroom, including videos and music. Commercials and children’s television and music work well for absolute beginners while the more complicated language found in news broadcasts, films and popular music help students see the progress they have made over the course of semester or year of language study. Particularly with language students, I feel that it helps them to understand a new language when they are asked to listen and comprehend several voices from the beginning.
I find that students are aided in their understanding of the language if it is also applied to lessons about culture. When we learn words about family, for example, we discuss the royal family. When we learn words about clothing or appearance, we look at photos of Swedish celebrities and describe them in full sentences. We use Swedish children’s shows, books, and music to learn vocabulary and concepts, taking time to analyze the material for cultural markers and draw connections between the current lesson and preceding lessons. Grammar lessons are interspersed with vocabulary lessons and applied to the topic at hand. Students are asked to use full sentences and are directed by my questions or assignments to apply the new grammar in combination with grammar from previous weeks. In this way, students learn grammar and vocabulary at the same time as they become familiar with Swedish culture.
I try to find connections between student interests and the material being presented to engage their interest and encourage independent exploration. Music, film and literature are common reasons given by students for studying Swedish. I like to use these interests in class whenever possible, encouraging students to share these interests with their classmates. In the past, I have created a group YouTube channel for students to post music and other videos for their classmates or I have devoted one day a week to group discussion and cultural show and tell. I believe that when students feel as though they have a hand in determining the material and the pace of the course, they invest more energy into learning, both in and out of classroom. At this point, a good number of my go-to in class examples are actually things that I have learned about from past students. I love excited emails from students with a link to a clip or a story about Sweden that they have discovered on their own and are excited to share with their classmates. I am particularly proud of these when I get them from former students, which tells me that they have continued to apply the things we learned in class even when they are no longer my students.
It is my goal, with every class, to develop my students’ interest in the course material. When I look at course evaluations at the end of the term, I place the most value on the questions that ask students what their interest in the course material was before the term began and what it is now. Students will not learn if they don’t care to learn and they won’t retain what they have learned if they did not feel engaged with the material as they were learning it. I make it a priority to ensure that I am transparent in my goals and methods. I need students to understand why they are being asked to complete a particular lesson or in some cases, why they are expected to take the class in the first place. In order to accomplish this, I focus on the needs of the individual students as well as their progress as a group. I encourage group work and a shared learning space that revolves around participation in class and engagement with the material. I plan class in a way that makes the goals clear while still allowing me room to adjust as necessary and make immediate use of student feedback. I consider a lesson or course successful if my students demonstrate an increased interest in the topic and a desire to actively engage in the learning process.