Focus on Faculty: Field Trips

New Toronto condominiums, old New York City tenements and Robarts Library’s recycling bay: these are three things that seem like uncommon places for students to explore, but for Shauna Brail’s Urban Studies students, they are a part of their regular classroom.

INI 437 in New York City, Reading Week 2010 (Photo by S. Brail)

Brail, Director of Experiential Learning and Senior Lecturer at the Urban Studies Program in Innis College, began incorporating field trip events into her courses in 2006, first with INI 437Y, Experiential Learning in Toronto and the GTA, which typically enrols about 20 students.  She wanted to supplement the service component of the course (INI 437Y also includes an internship placement) by bringing her lectures outside the classroom and taking advantage of opportunities both near and far.  Her basic requirements for a field trip opportunity are that it be easily accessible to campus and that it can be completed in the 2 hour window of class time. On every trip, students are given tasks to complete that set up discussion about urban patterns the areas exemplify. Each area is specifically chosen to match one of the four themes in the course.

While it is certainly easier to travel with a small group, Brail firmly believes “you don’t need the 10-person seminar” to make trips work.  In her 100-person course, INI235, Introduction to Urban Studies, she offers a “treasure hunt” in their own backyard. Four-person teams complete tasks on campus to take qualitative and quantitative observations and learn basic research skills. They also learn about campus infrastructure by investigating the recycling processes in Robarts Library, or counting the number of coffee outlets and their locations.

INI 437 2010-2011 at 401 Richmond St, Toronto. (Photo: S. Brail)

Brail’s key piece of advice to fellow faculty wanting to offer field trips is to remain flexible, and establish an open dialogue with students during the course. When she returns to her class next year, she looks forward to the challenges of finding new field sites, because it keeps her thinking: “You have to see yourself as a scholar outside and inside of the class.”

Read more about Brail’s experiences with field trips on CTSI’s Focus on Faculty.

Reflections on the TA Teaching Excellence Award

For the past eight years, I have had the distinct pleasure of coordinating the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program Teaching Excellence Award. It is always inspiring to read students’ testimonials about teaching assistants who are making a difference in their education. It reminds me of stepping back into the undergraduate classroom (I am taking full advantage of UofT employee benefits by enrolling in classes) and being reminded how intelligent UofT students are – smart, insightful and funny. Much like the 2011 3M Fellows Thank Your Teacher initiative, the TA Award is an opportunity to say thanks but to also offer recognition for a job well done.

(from left to right, 2011 winners William McFadden, Department of History,
Siyu Liu, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering)

Last year we received over 550 nominations (from students and faculty) for TAs – 185 individual TAs were nominated – and this year is looking just as promising. We have almost twice as many nominations as we did this time last year. I certainly don’t want to jinx the number of responses to come but I think we might be heading into a record breaking year. Some of the TAs who make the short-list of candidates receive dozens of nominations from students, others receive only two (the minimum required to be eligible for the short-list). Some TAs are leading multiple tutorials or labs in large survey courses, encountering dozens upon dozens of students, while others lead smaller group sessions, or are working as a Course Instructor. There really isn’t a standard, only good teaching and enthusiasm for the subject matter and sharing that enthusiasm with their students. As one student wrote (in a nomination letter submitted during the short-list stage as all online nominations are anonymous) said about 2008 award winner Chiara Frigeni, Department of Linguistics:

Chiara was constantly encouraging students.  She would find a way to elicit student participation in a manner that didn’t make people feel singled out; rather, she made it fun and enjoyable. She was constantly encouraging, and her passion for course material was unparalleled.

As I have the chance to see the nominations as they come in, I know that this story isn’t unique. We hear from students on all three campuses from a wide range of departments. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times (and will probably say it a thousand times more), enthusiasm counts.

To nominate a TA, please visit the Teaching Excellence Award website.

Thank Your Teacher Today

Do you have a favourite teacher? The one (or maybe more than one) who made the difference in your education? Perhaps it was a different approach to teaching (my grade six teacher, Mr. Zettle, helped me see that learning could be an adventure. He was enthusiastic about every subject and taught us integers by turning the lesson into a murder-mystery. Eight did it, by the way), or opening the door to new materials and ideas (a high school English teacher, Mr. Jonker, asked us to bring in a song and analyze it. Now, I’m not saying that listening to someone’s  analysis of  a Bob Seger song-Night Moves, I believe-was illuminating but we did learn to critically defend our choices. I can’t remember what song I brought in, although a safe bet would be Bruce Springsteen, probably Thunder Road. I would like to blame it on the 80s and living in a small town but that would be wrong. Also, it was the first time that I heard Robyn Hitchcock and that changed my life in a different way). Or a teacher or professor who gave you a wake up call (as Dr. Blanchard did in my 2nd year by reminding us of the importance of coming prepared for tutorials-that we were all in this together).

Carol Rolheiser, Director, CTSI, remembers a high school biology teacher who encouraged her to study science in university. They reconnected years later when she received a surprise fax after her name appeared the Faculty of Education Alumni Magazine.

Yes, it was my high school biology teacher – whom I had not been in touch with for 36 years! I eagerly called him and shared with him the influence he had been in my becoming a teacher. I let him know that the model he had set for me many years ago had helped shape my career. Even though it took 36 years for Dr. Nichol to get feedback from this student, I know it meant the world to him because he told me so.  We continue to maintain our correspondence and share our respective love of learning.

The THANK YOUR TEACHER campaign is an initiative started by the 2011 3M National Teaching Fellows, in conjunction with the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). Throughout this week, ads will appear in Canadian newspapers of 3M winners (please see Nick Mount‘s entry below) thanking teachers who have encouraged, challenged and inspired them. The goal of the campaign is not to simply highlight stories from award winning teachers but to hear from YOU. Much of the media of late has focused on the negative when discussing teaching, whether K-12 or higher ed, and this is an opportunity to remind, and remember, all those times and all those people who have had a positive influence on our lives.


Submit your story to THANK YOUR TEACHER