If you peek through the classroom window during one of Dennis Davis’ lectures, you just might find him standing on a desktop or frantically moving among his interdisciplinary studies students. It may be slightly unconventional, but it is all part of his efforts to bring his lessons to life.
“I think my classes are high energy,” said Davis. “I am not afraid of being silly or whimsical if I have to. I don’t do PowerPoint lectures or just stand in the front of the room. I’m a little bit frenetic and I move around a lot. I try to make the content come alive as much as I can, even with graduate students. I think it’s important to foster a classroom community at the university level where risk-taking and doing activities that may feel odd or non-academic are allowed.”
Davis, an assistant professor of literacy education and a former elementary school teacher, came to UTSA four years ago after receiving his doctorate from Vanderbilt University. During his time at UTSA, he has inspired hundreds of future educators by fostering a unique classroom environment that emphasizes critical thinking and analytical discussions.
“We have a lot of classroom discussions that dig really deeply into the content,” Davis said. “I don’t want students to believe something just because their textbook says it. I want them to ask ‘how do we know,’ ‘where does the practice come from,’ and ‘what is the limit to that knowledge.’ When I was a classroom teacher, it wasn’t good enough for me to know how to do a particular pedagogical strategy. I wanted to understand why we think that is the best way to teach that particular strategy or how we even know it is the best way.”
At the undergraduate level, he takes critical thinking a step further and asks his students to look at different reading strategies through the lens of a new reader.
“We do a lot of digging into our own thinking as readers,” he said. “In my undergraduate reading courses, I begin almost every class with a read aloud that models what the students would do in their own classroom. I ask them to step into a piece of literature and think through the steps they take as readers. I do a lot of connecting the content to what it feels like to be a child who is learning how to read so they can see the steps from both the teacher’s side and the child’s side.”
And while his classes, he said, are by no means easy, they prepare his students for life as a professional educator, even if that means having students leave his class with “their head hurting because they had to think too hard.”
“I ask a lot of hard questions,” he said. “I try really hard to push a lot of critical thinking and critical analysis in my classes. I think my underlying philosophical core, especially at the university level, has been that learning should hurt a little bit. If the conversation feels completely comfortable and you are not having to cognitively grapple at something that is difficult and challenging, then I think the teacher has done something wrong.”
Story by Jo Ann Jones. Photo by Deborah Silliman Wolfe.