Teaching "Religion in Philadelphia"
I have taught undergraduate courses at Temple University (a bit of Jewish Studies but mostly Religion and Women's Studies) for many years, but a pedagogy course I took this past summer transformed the way I defined success in my teaching. While I used to place more emphasis on the quality of my lectures and the dynamism of class discussion, I now also measure success by how well I design assignments and what students learn in the process of doing them. During the fall 2010 semester I had an opportunity to test out my new criteria in a course I created for our general education program, "Religion in Philadelphia," which I taught for the first time.
The most successful assignment was a "Mapping Religious Philadelphia" project. Students ventured out in groups of four to observe together what religion looked like on the streets in a Philadelphia neighborhood of their choosing. I created the groups based on how students rated themselves on the skills needed to complete the project—powers of observation, knowledge of the city and its transportation systems, access to digital photography equipment, the ability to create maps and make PowerPoints, and comfort with oral presentation. In preparation I showed them a PowerPoint I had created that highlighted different aspects of religious life, encouraging them to look beyond churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques to other dimensions, from billboards and graffiti to grave stones and historical markers. The projects they presented in class were fabulous examples of what students can do when asked to work together to discover and create. They also let me know how much they enjoyed not only doing the assignment but learning from each other in the evaluations I asked them to write about their experiences.
The least successful assignment was a final portfolio, in which I asked students to collect their work, resubmit the best examples (and something they revised), and write a short essay reflecting on what was most beneficial and what was most difficult for them. Judging from their essays, I didn't craft the assignment well. The prompts I gave did not evoke the level of critical thinking and analysis that I wanted. In the future, I will write better questions, asking for cumulative and synthetic judgments about their work that I hope will elicit more thoughtful responses.
I highly recommend finding ways to challenge students to do work that encourages their active participation and reflection— it makes teaching more productive and more fun!