Frequently Asked Questions

Does she really want us to call her “Susan” and not “Dr. Spangler”?

Yes, please call me Susan.  I have a Ph.D., I am a “doctor,” but I want you to call me Susan.  Do not call other professors by their first name unless they tell you to do so.  I am telling you to do so.  It is a conscious pedagogical choice.

My teaching philosophy and the conscious pedagogical choices I make are based on social constructivist theory, which holds, among other things, that knowledge is created when people come together and share their ideas.  I believe that we are all developing teachers, all equals in that regard, and the title of “Dr.” undermines the environment that I would like to create in the classroom.  I want to create an environment in which we all feel comfortable taking risks, speaking our minds, and exploring opportunities as they present themselves to us.

I try to be transparent in my teaching.  That is, I try to explain exactly where my approach and methods come from philosophically.  I think it’s important in an education classroom, especially when I am practicing the kind of pedagogy our program wants you to internalize and practice yourself.  If you don’t understand why you are doing something, why the class is operating as it is, or why I am acting (or not acting) as I am, please ask me.  By the end of the semester, it is my hope that you will better understand what a constructivist classroom is and how it operates.  You may not agree with the way I do things, but I hope you will understand that everything I do is consistent with my teaching philosophy.

Why is the only grade for this class a portfolio?

As a social constructivist, I believe that knowledge is created by people in dialogue with each other.  I do not believe in one-shot assignments with no chance for revision, that learning occurs in many settings, not just in the classroom, and that learning will continue to occur after an assignment is complete or a semester is over.  Portfolios give learners the maximum time possible to show evidence of their learning, and thus it is a conscious pedagogical choice to use portfolios for assessment.

I also believe that grades should reflect growth during a semester and the total work a person completes, not just an average of individually graded assignments.  Portfolios provide teachers with an opportunity to assess growth, revision, and learning processes throughout a semester.   Portfolios allow for reflection, student choice, and long-term assignments.  Portfolio assessment is also currently considered “best practice” in teaching for the reasons I have listed above. 

Why doesn't Susan weight her assignments like everyone else?

Let's take a moment to look at a typical course grading system:
Participation  10%
Reading Responses 20%
Paper 1   20%
Paper 2   30%
Culminating Project 20%

This kind of system does not appeal to me for several reasons.  First, it allows students to selectively fail certain parts of the course.  For example, if the student makes an A on every assignment in the above course before the final project, the student could choose not to complete it (or just do shoddy work) and achieve a passing grade.  I feel that the assignments in my courses are all worthy of completion, they all help the student demonstrate course goals, they all deserve the students' best work no matter what grade is finally assigned.  By not weighting assignments, I encourage students to do their best on all the assignments.  Second, the system is inauthentic.  In most professions, like in teaching, people are evaluated, promoted, or given raises based on overall performance.    Of course, if one messes up on one big task, he/she may be fired, but the same is true for a person who does poorly on all tasks.  Promotions rarely occur because of doing well on one big task, but rather on outstanding performance in a number of areas.  Third, the system is arbitrary.  Why is one paper worth 20% and the other 30%?  Does the student learn more from one paper than the other?  Are more course goals met by one paper over another?  Probably not.  Further, why is participation only worth 10% of the grade and the paper worth 20%.  I could argue that because students are expected to participate every day of class, it should be worth much more.  Students work on a paper for only a limited time.  Finally, the instructor shows what he or she values in a course with this system.  The instructor in the above course values reading and writing over speaking, and one-shot assignments (paper) over daily assignments (participation), as is traditional in academia.   I value all the talents of my students, and I value all the work they do equally.  Sometimes students get mad because I refuse to validate the "commonsense" approach to assignments like they are used to, and that's ok.  I have articulated my reasons for designing my courses as I do.

Why aren’t there clear grading standards for this class?

Ah, but there are clear standards, which are plainly stated on the portfolio rubric for the course.  The standards correspond with course goals and objectives and, in some cases, with NCTE standards.  The standards are there from day 1 of class, or in some cases they are negotiated with the class members, and all you have to do is read them in order to understand how your work will be assessed during the semester.  Through my responses to multiple drafts of your work, you will clarify your understanding of the standards and my high expectations for the quality of your work.  My advice is to take advantage of the portfolio system and revise your work until you are satisfied with its quality.

Why does it seem like I’m doing all the work and the teacher is doing nothing?

The constructivist philosophy means that the classroom operates in certain ways.  For example, you will never see me lecturing you, giving you quizzes, or assigning you things against your will.  Perhaps contrary to your belief, teachers do not have a monopoly on knowledge.  They don’t transmit discreet units of information to be tested and then forgotten.  People who believe that “teaching is telling” will have a hard time with this kind of class environment.  Some believe that a teacher isn’t “teaching” unless there are tests, grades, and a lot of lecturing.  If you are one of those people, then this class will confuse you a lot.  You may not think I’m teaching, that I’m “disorganized,” or that I am purposely withholding information from you when, in fact, I’m encouraging you to construct the knowledge for yourself and find ways to make the class useful to you.   The way that you do that is to use the knowledge actively, not sit passively to be spoon-fed by me.  Thus, constructivists learn by doing.  Be reassured that there is a conscious pedagogical decision behind everything that happens in the classroom.  If I don’t tell you what it is, I hope you will ask.

Why can't we just take a quiz on the readings instead of responding all the time?

Taking a quiz is inconsistent with constructivist teaching philosophy.  First, if I gave you a traditional closed-book quiz, I would be testing your memory, and not reading your response (which I'm more interested in) to the reading.  Second, a quiz would treat the information as discrete bits of data that could be transferred from one person to another through "telling," which is consistent with the banking theory of pedagogy.  Again, I'm more interested in your response to the reading.  Third, answers would be "correct" or "incorrect" on a traditional quiz, reinforcing the banking theory.  In short, I am asking you to construct meaning from what you read and to participate in sharing your ideas with others. 

Why doesn't Susan believe in giving pop quizzes?

See the notes on my presentation, "'Get out a blank sheet of paper," for the answer.