It’s the last day of 2019, and perhaps a somewhat arbitrary ending is a good opportunity to think about other, perhaps weightier, kinds of endings. A few years ago, during a conversation with a colleague about how liturgy and pedagogy are related, it struck me that there is quite a contrast in how church liturgies and college classes end. Church liturgies typically end with a blessing and a commission – the last speech acts are “the Lord bless you and keep you” and “go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” or some equivalent. College classes, on the other hand, typically end with a judgement and a dismissal. The last thing that happens is students take an exam, a grade is posted online, and after that there is no further communication. For quite a few years I had been giving careful thought to how classes started. This conversation got me thinking about how my classes ended.
The result has been a change to several of my classes, one that I mentioned in passing in On Christian Teaching. I don’t believe there is any viable one-size-fits-all approach to pedagogical design, so here I am just going to describe the last class I taught, a class on world language pedagogy for future teachers of Chinese, ESL, French, German, Japanese, Latin, and Spanish. My university has a 13-week semester followed by an exam week during which faculty are technically required to offer an exam, though permission can be gained for other assessment options. For more than a decade I have been using collaborative curriculum design projects and student presentations as the final assessment in place of a regular exam. This lets me see students developing lesson plans and actually teaching about them in front of an audience of peers and invited local teachers, rather than just seeing them answer questions, so it provides quite a rich basis for assessment. Thinking about liturgical endings made me more intentional about how shape the end of the course.
I schedule the final student presentations and the due date for their curriculum projects for the final scheduled class session of the semester, the week before exams. I make clear to students that this is the final assessment activity after which nothing further will contribute to their grade. I also make clear that it is not the final meeting. Having used the final class session for assessment, they still owe me a class session, and we still have a time on the exam schedule that is assigned for our class exam. That time by default is the time when the remaining class session will happen.
(In fact, we usually end up meeting at different times, for two reasons. First, because of when this class is scheduled, it is generally one of the last exams on the exam timetable. It is often possible for us to schedule the final class meeting at a time that works for everyone earlier in the week, and that can help students flying longer distances to get home in good time for Christmas. Second, I have realized over the last two years that the final class session works much better if I divide the class down into groups of six or so and meet each group separately than if I have the whole class meet at once. This commits me to a little extra time, but also makes flexible scheduling easier and makes it seem more important to show up. Since I started doing it this way I have not had a single student fail to show for the last meeting.)
So it was that a couple of weeks ago I met with my language pedagogy students in groups of six during exam week. This year I used five questions to structure our discussion:
1. What was the most significant learning moment or process for you during the semester? Why was it significant? Why did it work?
2. What is one thing that you learned this semester that you do not want to get lost in the bustle of life moving on, one thing that you want to be a permanent part of your thinking and your work? How can you carry it forward?
3. What is one thing that you are still working on, one thing that you still need to learn or more fully internalize? How might you continue working on it?
4. What is one way in which the course could be improved pedagogically to help next year’s students?
5. What challenges face you in the coming weeks and months? What makes you anxious about next semester? How can I pray for you?
Several intentions lie behind these questions. The course is about pedagogy, and the exercise gives us one last chance to think explicitly about the forms of teaching and learning in which we are immersed and see if we can critique and improve them. The course is preparing students for a profession in which ongoing learning is going to be vital to their success, and so I want the course to finish with an emphasis on continuing growth rather than completion and banking of credit. Questions 1, 3, and 4 help me (more so than the formal course evaluations) to review the course for next time. Students always have thoughtful and constructive suggestions that can help me teach better. Finally, I want the course to end with a blessing and a commission more than with a judgement and a dismissal. After students have shared their responses to the fifth question, I pray for them, thank them for their work, and send them off into the break.
In On Christian Teaching I quoted Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, from his book The Sabbath, pointing out that in the Bible time is not just a succession of intervals. Rather is is shaped into significant ebbs and flows that shape experience of the world. As he puts it,
“Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious…Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.” (1)
I remain intrigued by the idea of an “architecture of time,” and how it might affect that way I plan courses as well as individual class sessions. After another round of thoughtful and helpful conversations with education students to finish up another semester of learning I wonder again how the overall university experience might be affected if classes typically ended with reflection together on how we have changed, how we still need to change, and how we might bless one another going forward.
(1) Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Company, 1951), 8.