Train the Trainer: There’s More to Class than just the Glass
January 30, 2012 4 Comments
As a full-time wine educator, I have found myself teaching classes and leading wine tastings in some unusual spots. Many of my classes are held in my super-comfy, perfectly designed, high-tech enhanced wine lab college classroom. This setting is as conducive to learning as a setting can be. Wine and food conferences, and in my case mostly wine and food education conferences are also good situations for teaching and learning…at least people are sitting down, facing the speaker, and we can assume the audience wants to listen and learn.
However, part of a wine educator’s life is spent on the road, and I have also taught classes in winery barrel rooms, in restaurants during the dinner rush, and at wine bars in the midst of happy hour. Add to the list the seminars I have led outdoors at wine festivals, trade tastings, womens’ retreats and rock concerts. (You will note I did not include private homes…Miss Jane does not do private homes.)
Let’s face it: it can be hard to engage and actually teach students about wine when they are outside, at a rock concert, or even at a wine bar; and my educational philosophy and practice is all about engagement. I want my students to be not just at attention but fully engaged. Attention is great – you need to have a full repertoire of attention grabbers. Once you have gotten your audience’s attention they should be listening, observant, and interested in what you are about to present. Attention is valuable but it only lasts for a few minutes until minds start to wander.
Engagement, on the other hand, goes deeper than attention. When your class is fully engaged, they are physically energized, emotionally connected, and mentally focused on the subject at hand. Engagement in the material at hand should be one of the main goals of instruction, and “points of engagement” should be pre-scripted into your lesson plan just as carefully as your course objectives and class material.
Obviously, a wine class has a few built-in advantages when it comes to student engagement. First of all, it’s about wine (a fascinating subject and one with broad appeal.) Secondly, we usually have a built-in activity (also very appealing) when we lead a tasting.
The challenge for me, I have found, in leading a tasting class is not in just keeping the audience engaged, but keeping them focused on learning and not merely engaged in the tasting itself – in other words, enjoying the wine more than the class. As we all know, this type of “tasting” can devolve into “drinking” quickly if not managed.
I am sure that we have all found that during an instructor-led tasting, students tend to get excited and chatty. Left unmonitored, it gets louder and louder – which is great if you are at a party, or maybe if you are leading one of those tastings at a wine bar or rock concert. However, if you want to balance fun with serious learning, this can be a challenge.
Over the years, I’ve developed my own system for walking this fine line. When leading a tasting activity, I generally let the students taste and talk amongst themselves for a few minutes – after all, talking is the ultimate engagement – and then try bring them gently back to attention for further instruction. To do this effectively, you need an abrupt attention grabber. Most teachers whistle or scream or bang a spoon on a glass. There’s nothing really wrong with this technique -it certainly does work – but it can also leave students unfocused, annoyed, or even angry. (Note: nothing halts learning quicker than anger.)
What I do to avoid this backlash is this: I introduce the wine, tell the class I am going to give them five minutes to taste and talk amongst themselves and will then bring them back to attention for group discussion and further instructor-led content. Then I play some background music appropriate to the theme and setting. When the time for tasting and talking is over and I want to turn their attention back to my presentation, I turn up the volume briefly and then turn it off. Works everytime, and no one shoots me a dirty look or complains!
Here’s my advice to you: try to develop a your own signature style of focusing the class after a tasting break or other group activity. You might use a call and response, flick the lights, have everyone stand up, or use music like I do. In a pinch, you can always bang a spoon on a glass.