From TFA to TF: Different School, Same Lessons

Guest Post ContributorToday’s guest post comes from Matthew Mugmon, a Ph.D. candidate in Musicology, who writes about using techniques he learned as a middle school teacher in a different context – the college classroom.

What surprised me most about my first day as a music history TF at Harvard was that my students actually listened to me.

I don’t mean that they turned to me to reveal deep truths about music, history, or life. I mean it in a purely acoustic sense. Words that left my mouth reached their ears without interference from gurgling radiators, screaming children in hallways, or raging adolescent hormones.

My Harvard students’ rapt attention came as such a shock because I’d never run a class full of students who were interested in everything I had to say. Before becoming a graduate student here, I taught math in an urban middle school in Philadelphia for three years through Teach For America. There, behavior and environmental distractions meant that each success — each time I reached a student or made him or her think differently about a problem — was hard won.

One year, to get my class of eighth graders to pay attention to me for more than a few seconds at a time, I instituted a points-for-parties program. Classes competed against each other for behavior points, and each month, the winning class got a pizza party. College students generally don’t need such incentives to behave themselves in class, and it’s not cost- or time-effective to throw a pizza party every month. But with a little revising, many of the gimmicks — and I use that term in the most positive sense possible — that are mainstays of the middle school teacher’s toolbox can become age-appropriate, and useful, in the college classroom. Here are a few that I’ve successfully adapted from middle school math to college music history.

  • Warm-Ups. Sometimes called “Do Nows,” these short activities give your students something to do to get their minds focused — and to break the ice — as soon as they walk into the room. They also automatically provide you with a natural, smooth start to a lesson, rather than the awkward, “OK guys, let’s get started line.” The range of possible activities is endless, as long as it relates to your lesson and only takes a few minutes to execute. *Time-saving tip: As students walk in, have them pick up a sheet that describes the warm-up instructions and other essentials for that day’s class — and make that sheet part of a regular routine, something else college students appreciate just as much as middle schoolers.
  • Lesson planning. This isn’t something we hear a lot about in the college classroom, where we tend to assume that if the content is good, the learning will be good too. We often don’t think of each session as a “lesson.” But students (and teachers) need structure, so having a clear idea of what you want your students to be able to do by the end of each section — along with a series of activities designed to help them achieve that goal — will help you run section more efficiently and effectively. Look around online for lesson planning resources – I particularly like this one. *Pro-tip: share your goal for the section with your students – that way they know what they’re supposed to be learning, and feel more invested in participating in a successful section.
  • Changing up the classroom format. A straightforward classroom setup (rows-facing-the-teacher or everyone-around-the-seminar-table) is one we take for granted as educators in college. The default setup might be great for testing or large group discussion, but may not be the ideal way to get students to think critically, communicate with peers, and build on each other’s ideas. If you want students to fill out a brief worksheet in small groups to practice a basic technique for solving a problem or analyzing a document, you’ll likely need to change the seating arrangement. *Bonus: Because it adds something unexpected to the mix, adjusting the classroom environment keeps students on their toes — instead of asleep — at 8 or 9 a.m.
  • Worksheets. Yes, I did say “worksheets.” They aren’t just busywork, and they aren’t only for little kids. Practicing a concept during class — individually, or in small groups — can be a good way for middle schoolers or college students to get some supervised experience with a method before they apply it on their own. In music history, a worksheet could ask students to practice drawing musical notation for different types of Medieval chant so they can more easily distinguish between musical traditions. A literature or history TF might ask students to complete a venn diagram comparing passages between Moby Dick and a contemporary article on whaling. The best worksheets avoid being busy-work by keeping students in the loop about the skill being practiced or content knowledge being applied.
  • Smiley faces. You might think smiley faces – stickers or hand-drawn – are unprofessional or corny, even when a paper or test is so good it makes you smile. But this is one middle-school gimmick that will never elicit a complaint. Happy faces — along with encouraging words like “Excellent!” and “Fabulous!” — offer concrete, positive feedback to your students in the clearest possible form. They’re also a good way to ease students into your more critical suggestions. Plus, a little levity never hurt anyone.


If all this fails to excite and energize your lecture or section, try exploiting the most basic commonality between middle schoolers and undergrads: bribe them with pizza.

4 thoughts on “From TFA to TF: Different School, Same Lessons

  1. I’ve started teaching night classes and am always on the look-out for good methods for connecting with my classes and getting them to stay interested. I will try some of this. Thanks!

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