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When Teaching Goes Past Your Bedtime

The Moon Window

Last spring, I found myself teaching two courses that ran almost in to the Daily Show’s nightly timeslot. Before the semester started, I worried about the time-frame: how should I keep students energized and engaged at that late hour? And, given that in my post-grad school days I wait for late night TV to hit the Internet in favor of a good night of sleep, how could I keep my own energy levels up to par?

The answers I came up with seemed obvious: drink caffeine. Sleep in the morning of the night class. Bring sugary foods for students (and myself) on marathon days. But as I embraced all these old vices in the first weeks of the semester, I realized that I wasn’t coming up with solutions to late-night energy. I was regressing right back to grad school survival strategies. It was time for new methods.

In the fall, I’ll be teaching the late night shift again, and I’ve been reviewing my notes on successes and failures from last semester as I’m making my plans. Eliana Osborn wrote some great tips for better night classes in community college focused on keeping student interest–but before we can reach an audience, we need to be in the game. Here are a few things I’ll be trying differently this time:

  • Adapt your entire schedule. One of the biggest challenges I found was the problem of being a night owl one day and in for an early morning meeting the next. The first suggestion in “The Geek’s Guide to Optimizing Sleep” is “Wake up at the same time every morning”—just sleeping in one day to compensate can do more harm than good.
  • Don’t skip dinner. My spring schedule had me teaching from 5:30 to 10:45 on Thursdays, with one fifteen minute break. By the end of it on nights I’d skipped dinner in favor of vending machine junk food, I was ravenous and facing a commute home and a refrigerator full of bad options.
  • Plan your class time. Assimilating a brand-new idea is hard under any circumstances—at 10pm, it’s even worse. The last part of class is a good time for strengthening skills, holding discussions, and building things, whatever that might mean in your discipline. Ending on lecture risks bringing on Charlie Brown Syndrome.
  • Schedule Variety. Remember in kindergarten when the teacher brought out hand-puppets or a game to draw a distracted class to a new activity? We all respond to novelty, and sometimes a change of pace can bring everyone back on track. Late night TV has often included variety shows–switching between types of delivery can bring the same results.
  • Save your aces. Your favorite topics? The book you most love? Put it at the worst time of the semester, when you know you’ll be just back from a conference or exhausted from midterm grading or overwhelmed with administrative responsibilities. That way, your enthusiasm for the topic will bolster you when energy is lowest.
  • Embrace the nighttime. If you can, let your students bring food to the class. Find the night owls among your students and draw on their energy in class discussions: for some of the people in your classroom, this is the best time of the day. Sometimes it’s good to call on your inner all-nighter pulling grad student–in moderation.

Do you have experience teaching past your bedtime? What are your strategies for night classes? Let us know in the comments.

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user derekGavey]

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