Professional development for graduate teaching assistants

Falcon Restrepo-Ramos and EUS/SPN 4930 students

Falcon Restrepo-Ramos (front row in Gator blue shirt) with his students at the Student Symposium of Language policies in the multilingual European landscape (EUS/SPN 4930), Spring 2019.

by Falcon Restrepo-Ramos
Hispanic Linguistics, Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies
University of Florida

Years in grad school might seem like a tremendous endeavor for anyone pursuing a graduate degree. Such experience entails years of courses, research, coffee, and, in my case and many others, teaching.

Precisely, the figure of graduate teaching assistant (GTA) in one of the biggest state universities in the country (Go Gators!) not only carries a great deal of work but also memorable moments and many opportunities for innovative teaching and professional development.

Aside from the many different responsibilities of GTAs, which at times feels overwhelming, there are also grants, awards, programs and funding support that can make the University of Florida GTA experience professionally rewarding.

Here I would like to list two main lines of teaching and professional development that helped me maximize my GTA experience at UF. As you will see below, this list follows incremental steps towards a set of goals.

1. Seek to offer innovative and engaging teaching approaches

As a Spanish and linguistics GTA in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies, I was always looking for ways to maximize student interaction in beginning and intermediate classes.

New seating arrangement improves student engagement

While observing a senior instructor, I noticed a new classroom layout that made students participate actively in oral interactions. I was amazed at how something as simple as a new seating arrangement could improve student engagement.

For some people at beginning levels, speaking another language with little command in front of a class might boost anxiety levels through the roof.

This new layout required students to sit facing each other in inner and outer circles and rotate clockwise every time the instructor continued with a new topic of conversation.

I adapted this version and asked students to high five and address each other by each other’s name. That way, after some classes the whole group knew the name of everyone in the classroom and interactions became more dynamic and authentic.

By learning the successful approaches of other instructors and adapting these to my classroom, that intermediate class was remarkable and students appreciated it.

While introductory language courses lay the linguistic foundations for undergraduate students, advanced content courses represent specialized and critical skills for the future professional.

In my second year in grad school, I was entrusted with a 3000-level introductory course in Hispanic linguistic.

Every year, selected graduate students can shadow this course in the Fall semester and then they have the opportunity to teach a section of the course in Spring semester. I was fortunate to teach this class for three years in a row. However, it wasn’t until my third year that I came across a new pedagogical approach for the course.

Problem/project-based learning (PBL)

Again, a pedagogical presentation from a colleague at Indiana University showed a new teaching strategy for a similar introductory course in Hispanic linguistics. By bringing insights from problem/project-based learning (PBL), I adapted a version of a semester-long project aiming at examining pieces of evidence to find the main suspect in the fictitious disappearance of a graduate student. (Read how problem-based learning and project-based learning can be integrated.)

Students work together to turn in the findings of their rigorous analysis of the evidence in the form of five scientific reports, each one representing a different course topic (i.e., pragmatics, morphology, syntax, phonetics, and sociolinguistic variation).

Students were able to identify the possible kidnapper of Clara X by using the linguistic knowledge they had acquired throughout the course.

At the end of the semester, almost two-thirds of the students in this class (63%) reported that they felt motivated or highly motivated to take Spanish courses in linguistics in the future.

The inclusion of PBL approaches in subsequent courses has been of great benefit for engaging students in content courses.

Following this first success, another content course entitled “Introduction to Spanish and Spanish American Dialectology” allowed me to further develop these teaching strategies.

Visualizing dialectal differences with Google Earth and Gabmap

Thanks to my own dissertation research, I introduced students to dialectometric analysis. The class project revolved around the visualization and measurement of dialectal differences through technology-enhanced language learning and hands-on activities enclosed in a semester-long class project.

By reserving specific days during the semester to show, model, and work exclusively on this project, students delved, step by step, into the design, development, and finalization of the dialectometric analysis using Google Earth and Gabmap, an online web application for doing dialectometric analysis.

This was done by creating workshops with simple and specific tasks, while providing feedback, guidance, and assistance during class time.

In a class survey delivered at the end of the semester, 92% highly rated this course component as “beneficial in bridging the gap between theory and practice” and 75% deemed this class project “beneficial in applying course concepts to real-world applications”.

The results of this class project were presented at the end of the semester in a student symposium open to the public and the university community.

Falcon Restrepo-Ramos and Student Symposium of SPN 4830 – Introduction to Spanish and Spanish American Dialectology, Fall 2018.

Falcon Restrepo-Ramos and his students at the Student Symposium of Introduction to Spanish and Spanish American Dialectology (SPN 4830), Fall 2018.

Gamification of the classroom

Another one-credit class also made use of problem-based strategies, forensic linguistics, and gamification of the classroom: students in the “The Spanish Language Detective” course designed and presented their own fictitious criminal cases and provided their peers with material evidence, so they could successfully solve the mysterious puzzles.

At the end of the semester, students designed their own escape room scenarios to maximize student interaction while enhancing students’ problem-solving techniques. Gamification of the classroom requires some imagination and lots of preparation, but it is very rewarding in the end.

If you have never attempted this strategy, most likely you will find yourself in a situation where you will have to change some dynamics on the go. However, the more you implement escape rooms in your classroom, the more experienced you will be. I personally encourage instructors of all teaching backgrounds to try it. (You can find resources for escape rooms in the classroom here and here

The culmination of all these experiences, including PBL (both Problem and Project -based learning), the opportunities of teaching content courses, and the gamification of the classroom came together during my last semester of teaching in grad school.

This time it was a new content course during Spring 2019: “Language policies in the multilingual European landscape.” This class targeted interdisciplinary students who sought an open debate to examine linguistic policies and the maintenance and visibility of European languages in different territories.

Grounded in PBL, students engaged in a small-scale study on language policy research to address complex public problems in territories where state and minority languages coexist. Students used Qualtrics for data collection and RAWGraph (rawgraphs.io) for convenient data visualization and analytics.

Drawing upon insights from the European context, students examine the rise of bilingualism in the US by contrasting the European setting with that of Spanish in the United States as a final case study. As done in the previous semester, students presented their results in a student symposium open to the university community.

Although this class was a challenge for me due to being a new 4000-level content course, I also realized the great potential to use all the strategies and approaches that I had honed through the previous years as a GTA.

Using escape rooms to promote learning and teamwork

If in the past I had used escape rooms in Spanish acquisition courses (i.e. The Spanish Language Detective), it was now my chance to gamify the content class. Indeed, the presentation of specific topics and the additional introduction of escape rooms allowed students to reinforce these concepts while fostering teamwork.

The idea was very simple: students were required to “escape” the classroom by working in teams to solve puzzles related to the class content. The activity was conducted after students were informed to pay attention to the lecture for the first 20 minutes of class.

Not only were students able to “escape” the classroom, but the atmosphere of the class changed when they stood up, checked the QR codes (see a sample QR code), and worked together to achieve the different stages of the activity. Escape room scenarios were further included in the semester and their originality served me to obtain a very prestigious university award. I will detail more about this award in further sections.

Reflecting on my five years of teaching at UF, I believe that ingenuity and determination are key to develop your university teaching career. This in turn translates into teaching effectiveness and student success.

By offering your best potential to your students and learning from your colleagues, every semester is a great opportunity to improve using new and engaging class activities.

2. Seek for opportunities to teach new course offerings

I already discussed some of the classes that allowed me to improve my teaching strategies and approaches, but I haven’t mentioned how I obtained such great opportunities in the first place.

To start, most departments have introductory classes for minors and majors. Such classes are a great gateway to more advanced classes. Moreover, sometimes senior faculty have sabbatical years or leaves of absence, and departments need to fill those teaching positions fast and what better instructor than an eager GTA in advanced stages of the degree.

It is not uncommon that these situations occur, and it is a matter of being on the lookout well in advance for such options. In my case, my advisor had a maternity leave, and I found out almost a year before that one of her scheduled classes, “Introduction to Spanish and Spanish American Dialectology,” would need an instructor.

Knowing nothing for sure, I requested the opportunity to the chair of the department and presented a sample syllabus for the class. I got assigned the class!

When the opportunity comes, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Student abroad programs offer teaching opportunities

In addition, study abroad programs are also great opportunities to take advantage of. The University of Florida International Center has an array of options in five continents. These programs are led by faculty and often assisted by GTAs and many departments have partnership programs.

Course development grants

For the rest of the cases when such circumstances fail to occur, then a course development grant would be a very fulfilling option.

Certain humanity departments at the University of Florida offer course development grants known as Foreign Languages Across the Curriculum (FLAC) or Culture and Languages Across the Curriculum (CLAC) to develop one-credit courses that interconnect and complement the offerings of other departments.

Information on grants can be found at the Center for European Studies website and at the FLAC at Florida website.

Thanks to the FLAC/CLAC awards, I was able to teach two courses on topics revolving around the Caribbean (i.e., Livin’ la Vida Caribeña) and forensic linguistics and escape rooms with “The Spanish Language Detective.”

Precisely, the opportunity to design, develop and teach your own course provides a great experience for the GTA, and I encourage anyone seeking a career in academia and teaching to give it a try.

The main professional experience for a GTA is to be able to design and develop a full three-credit offering of a 4000-level class. In these positions, duties include: creating your own syllabus, recruiting students, creating course materials, coordinating and delivering of the course.

Such experiences pertain directly to the professional development and future career of a GTA. It is through some departments that these grants/awards are available, and, in many cases, they are required to focus on course topics relating to that specific university department or center.

If you are in the field of languages and cultures, I recommend the course development grant offered by the Center for European Studies (CES). Other opportunities vary by department fields.

It is through the CES Graduate Course Development Grant that I had the opportunity to create and develop the course “Language policies in the multilingual European landscape.”

Furthermore, through this class I was nominated by my Department to compete for the prestigious Graduate Teaching Awards of the University of Florida.

Looking back at the path that I took over these years as a GTA, the CES course development grant and the nomination for the UF GTA Award couldn’t come at a better time. I was able to establish a teaching methodology that involved innovative strategies and course projects that revolved around student engagement and self-direction.

In seeking ways to develop your own professional path through your time in grad school, perseverance and creativity will be your best allies.

With the appropriate departmental support, motivation, and discipline, lots of professional objectives are at hand in great venues for professional development, such as at the University of Florida.

***

Falcon Restrepo-Ramos received the Calvin A. VanderWerf Award as one of the two top graduate teaching assistants at the University of Florida for 2018-2019. He has accepted a visiting assistant professor position in Hispanic Linguistics at the University of Central Florida.

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