Joe Mills shares the blueprint for an engaging classroom
Who is teaching the next virtual reality screenwriter, the must-see breakout actor, the choreographer whose movement combinations captivate you, the animation designer whose work steals the show and the musician whose playing touches your soul? At UNCSA it’s Joe Mills—who was recently recognized as a star in his own profession.
Mills is the recipient of the 2017 UNC Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence. He teaches humanities and writing in the Division of Liberal Arts, where students develop knowledge and skills that enrich the content and style of their work in the creative economy.
“I believe we are educating people to have rich lives as human beings,” Mills says.
Growing up in a factory town, Mills was the first in his family to go to college. He explored majors – business, economics – yet found that being on a college campus is where he wanted to stay.
“I didn’t know that you could be a reader, a thinker, a teacher and make it a career,” Mills says. “I thought I had stumbled on to this wonderful thing.”
While he teaches in various classrooms in the Liberal Arts complex, his main classroom is lined with shelves of books, vinyl records, board games, videos, posters and other eclectic items from everyday life. The materials are classroom-related, but he jokes that he already owned all the stuff and brought it to the classroom really for the storage space.
I try and give the students an environment that is stimulating, safe and an intriguing place to play.
“I try and give the students an environment that is stimulating, safe and an intriguing place to play,” Mills says. “Ideas should be fun! It should be a pleasure to learn.”
An engaging conversation
His style of teaching is collaborative with students. The terms “facilitator” or “coach” fit him better, as he often darts around the classroom asking questions, probing for a deeper understanding and building off what students contribute. His classes are conversations rather than lectures.
“My view on teaching is that this is interesting material. Let’s figure out why it is interesting together and I can show you different ways to approach it,” he says.
Students do a lot of compositions as assignments that can be essays, but can also be podcasts, movie trailers or other types of engagement with the material. It is rare for Mills to give a formal test. His students complete presentation work and project-based work with in-class discussions and small group discussions.