Shannon, Teaching Beyond Accountability

by Ken Rosenberg

Students really care about their grades. Any educator can vouch for this. When cultivating responsibility and eliciting hard work from students, it is one of the primary tools an instructor has at his or her disposal. Fostering intrinsic motivation is difficult. Responsibility without accountability: it’s tough to achieve at any age, as it requires very high level of self-actualization.

This summer grad student Shannon Schenck had to instill that very sentiment in a group of high school students. For the first time in four years, she returned to American University in Washington, D.C. to teach and assist with one of their summer high school programs, Discover the World of Communications. It was while participating in the program herself several years ago, Shannon met her husband – and he, a former Telecom student, is the person who recommended she join our department. Now, Shannon has gone full-circle, bringing her experience as a Telecom AI to one of the first places she began to develop her production skills.

Years ago Shannon started working at American University as a video lab assistant. Initially, she was asked to lead lots of how-to lab discussions; eventually, was invited to actually teach. However, this time, everything was just a bit different. Most classes in the program were structured as a two-week course, one half of a four-week term. As part of a filmmaker series, she taught an all-day screenwriting class, then transitioned to assistant-directing as part of the students’ 16mm film project. No change of classroom dynamics from one part of the day to the other; no change from one part of the term to the next. All the girls left during the screenwriting course; Shannon was left with seven 15- to 18-year old boys. “We became a dysfunctional family,” Shannon said.

Her students had to write a series of scripts, choose roles for each other (cinematographer, editor, cameraperson, etc.), and shoot and edit a short film. Shannon helped, mostly in a production capacity. She directed the revision of their scripts, secured shooting locations, helped to find talent; they got an IMDB-registered actor, some college kids, and even a local teacher. Having older actors made the film stand out at the end-of-term display of all the classes’ projects. It made the piece feel less “high school” and, between that and the fact that theirs was the only project shot on actual film, “it really showed a difference between theirs and the others,” Shannon said.

Shannon also learned a lot about how to plan lessons and build a course. Common mistakes of new teachers include overfilling lesson plans and holding students to outline-perfect standards and schedules. “I was thinking about T283: how we budget time, what their experience is, and what our expectations are,” Shannon said, “so I had to pull myself back a couple of notches. I had to tell myself, ‘wait, wait. Some of these kids are only fifteen!’” Where college students might sit down and hammer out a script, these kids were learning the components of a script for the first time. ”I put so much prep work into building a syllabus,” Shannon said, “and most of it ended up being improvised, completely on the spot.”

Many athletes train at high altitudes because the steep hills and the thin air make for much more difficult terrain than the typical track or stadium. When they compete, they immediately perform better in the less harsher conditions of the arena in which the competition is held. Teaching without grades is very similar to running with a less-than-average oxygen level. Instead of just focusing on the content of teaching, Shannon helped her students to learn how to take critical feedback and, ultimately, “helped them all try to figure out ‘why they were there,’” Shannon said. The lesson was not lost on her, either. Shannon’s summer teaching experience was new and refreshing and, on some level, reaffirmed her commitment to the classroom. “I think we can all use a reminder of why we are here,” she said. Shannon has plenty of personal reasons. The lab assistant in her loves the equipment. The AI in her loves the students. Now, after reexamining pedagogy to discover how to pass on that intrinsic motivation, she has deepened and sharpened her zeal for teaching. As we return to another semester here at IU, Shannon has some new stories to tell, some new feathers in her professional cap, and summertime experience she will never forget.

See a student video from Shannon’s American University class  here:

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