Hemmerich balances flow and structure in classroom setting

April 28, 2017 — by Sanjana Melkote

New media arts teacher learns balance between motivating and constructively criticizing students. 

“All of a sudden I could hear profanities being shot across the room through my computer’s speakers.”

Media arts and Photography teacher Alex Hemmerich remembers a painful lesson he learned during his first year of teaching at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, a city in the East Bay: Don't trust students to choose the music they play in the classroom.

Even though Hemmerich began teaching here this year, he brings with him his fair share of experience from his past five years on the job.

Wanting to generate a creative vibe in his classroom at Acalanes, Hemmerich let students act as class DJs on a rotating basis.

Hemmerich thought that the DJ rotations would benefit the students because Media Arts and Photography are more project-based classes and students have a lot of class time to work individually.   

Even though the music seemed to be fun for the students, one misjudged song selection ruined it for all. As Hemmerich heard numerous swear words making an unwanted appearance in the classroom, he muted the music for good.

These days, Hemmerich lets students listen to music on their personal earbuds as they work, as long as he can’t hear it.

Another rookie mistake in his first year was letting them sit where they want each day and move around as needed.

“The extreme lack of structure with students sitting anywhere and moving every minute distracted me from teaching as I was so busy trying to find them in the classroom,” Hemmerich said.

Once Hemmerich finally figured out how to tame the music and the movement in his room, the “new school year” time to go over rules and the syllabus had run out, and it was time to dive into the real coursework of the class. But Hemmerich soon realized that what he had planned to teach in a day would take a week or more.

When Hemmerich first started teaching, he underestimated how much planning went into each day’s agenda.

“When I assigned the first project of the year but didn’t have a rubric, demos, means of feedback or time allotted to work on the product set up, I realized that it took a lot more than an idea to get an assignment from my vision to the task board,” he said.

Hemmerich said that the area he has most improved in as a teacher is his way of giving feedback to students. Hemmerich critiqued his first students the way he had been in college, speaking bluntly and holding them to a very high standard. But, he soon realized that criticism as well as appreciation was necessary to keep the beginning media students motivated.

“I had to remind myself that I was working with high schoolers who were learning a tough skill that would take time and effort to master,” Hemmerich said. “If they were put down by their teacher from the start, what would make them want to continue trying?”

Hemmerich is glad he has learned a lot from his first years as a teacher and tries to put his experience to work in his classes here as he tries to create a fun yet creative classroom.

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