Thursday, September 29, 2011

Perils of Going Paperless

I've been trying to go paperless this semester. Homework is done in the form of "blog posts" on Blackboard (I know, I know, lay off. Baby steps). Papers are submitted electronically. Free writes have been replaced with discussion board questions. I've embraced (or at least I've tried to embrace) electronic interaction. 

But (and, from the title, you knew there'd be a but), it has had it's problems. The first one is that we're almost halfway through the semester and I know only a few of my students' names. I've admitted to this shortcoming before, but now that I don't hand back work to them on a daily basis, I've lost one of the only ways I had to really put names to faces. Now, this is a terrible thing to admit (sorry any of my students who might happen to be reading this). But I wasn't prepared for this consequence of going paperless. Now, I'm struggling with my picture roster, and frantically searching for Prof Hacker posts on the subject. It's not too late, right? 

Another unexpected side-effect of going paperless has been how my lectures have been effected. I teach one-hour periods. In the past, the students typically wrote 10 minute free-writes at the beginning of class, to get us all focused on the task at hand. Now, I've moved the question I would normally ask in the free write as either an online discussion question or a blog post question. This has been advantageous because I am able to read what the students are thinking and where they are in their understanding of the readings before I go into class. But, now my classes seem to finish 10 minutes early, after 50 minutes. Like, when it ended all the other times when I would do the 10-minute free write. My internal teaching clock is still set to 50 minutes. 

Other problems have no been totally unforeseen. Many of my students comes from economically precarious situations, so their access to a reliable computer and internet connection can be... inconsistent. So students, at least for the first few weeks while they learned the lay of the land (where the computers are on campus and when they can access them), were often late getting work in, and I was spending a lot of time explaining (and re-explaining) how to access blackboard, and where tech support was on campus. 

But even when I tried to help my students by bringing them to the computer lab, I hit snags. Can you imagine computers that a) don't have Flash installed and b) won't let you install it? Yeah, neither could I. Until it happened and half my students couldn't complete what I had planned to do in class. Or how the computer in my classroom died and it wasn't fixed for two weeks, severely impacting my ability to put handouts up rather than printing and distributing them. While I appreciate that many of my students have limited access to technology, I get frustrated when we can't help them prepare for the late 20th century, let alone the 21st century. 

So, I'm still figuring this out. And, let me tell you, it's the unreliable technology (don't even get me started on Blackboard) that's really making it hard to keep doing it. And, yes, I know that using Wordpress, Google Docs, Twitter, are easier, more reliable, and more user friendly. Next semester. There's always next semester.

And, unless the students choose pictures of themselves as avatars, I still won't know their names. Wait, on second thought...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Motivating Students

I've had motivation on my mind, in part because of Wednesday's #FYCchat. But a chance conversation on Twitter really started the wheels in my head turning.

Everyone is motivated by different forces. My daughter was potty trained with the reward of M&Ms. My son absolutely refuses to go potty for any other reason than he wants to; no reward we have offered him can motivate him to go potty. Even in my peer-driven classes, I'm having two completely opposite experiences: one class has embraced the opportunity to learn what they wanted while the other hasn't seen it as an opportunity as much as a chore (or so it seems).

We want to master certain skills, like guitar (which, by the way, I never was able to. At all). And, one way or another, we award ourselves unofficial badges, based on which songs we can play. Anyone who plays an instrument knows which songs they aspire to play, and once they play those songs (and often for an audience) they move on to harder songs. I used to swim. I loved swimming for so many reasons, but I also aspired to achieve certain standards set by a external body. In any sport we practice, the idea is to improve, and we know much of the time who is better than we are and aspire to approach or surpass them.

As kids, we always knew who was good, better, and best at anything and everything, from spelling to handwriting to video games to running to everything. Kids know, as Cathy Davidson points out. Taking grades, or badges, or ranking, or anything else isn't going to change. The trick is to then offer kids recognition for what they can do. As much as the people who put together Wikipedia did so for free they also knew that people would read their work, use their work, recognize their work. Super-contributers receive recognition for their contribution, even in a minor way. We might be self-motivated, but it always feels good to receive recognition.

Take my blogging. I started blogging because I love to write and talking about teaching, writing, and higher education. But I'll tell you, I always had an audience in mind, and it feels good that I'm receiving recognition for what I already love to do. Maybe this is because I've been "trained" to want rewards. I don't know, but I spent 13 years swimming competitively even though for the last half, I knew there wasn't any chance of making the Olympics. So, where was my motivation? My rewards were smaller, but no less significant to me. Each of use has looks to be rewarded in different ways.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow's #FYCchat because these questions don't have any easy answers. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: The Power of Play and Wasting Time

As a follow up to my last post on encouraging play, and the subsequent #FYCchat, I'm thinking about the groups in my peer-driven learning class that have been the most "creative" in their project ideas. One of the worries that was expressed during the chat on Wednesday was that when we encourage creativity and play, it looks too much to the outside observer that we're not "doing" or accomplishing anything. Or, that we're wasting time. 

I've written about this issue before, what my "job" as a teacher actually looks like in practice: Coach? Editor? Maternal Figure? All of the above? None of the above? And when I started this peer-driven learning project, I had to once again radically reconfigure what a teacher does. And, a lot of the time, to an outside observer, it looks like nothing much. In fact, if one was to walk into my classroom, they might assume that none of us, myself or the students, are doing much of anything at all.

One particular group of students, a really good group, was killing time the other day during class time. They had their direction, decided on individual assignments for the rest of the week, and were just hanging out together. They weren't being disruptive, as the whole class is typically a fairly noisy affair, with groups working out their projects. But I knew they weren't "working." One of the students had his iPad out, and the others were looking at it, asking what certain apps do, how he liked using it, etc. Another group member saw the DC app, as in DC Comics. Thus began a discussion about how DC was rebooting their entire line of comics, with each super-hero starting all over again at Issue 1. And then, magic happened. This particular group is working on the broad subject of human nature, specifically examining the question of why people commit crimes/transgress laws. Could we, one offered, make a comic book? Within five minutes, they had found an affordable ($2) app allows you to modify photos to looks like a comic book. The group decided, they were going to make a comic book. 

I was thrilled. Thinking about it, though, this idea might never have occurred if the students hadn't been given the time and the freedom to simply sit around and talk. I know that it helped that I encouraged them to think of different ways they could present their materials, but the idea of the comic book might never have come about had the students not had the time and space to just relax and talk things out. I know that I'm being redundant in this paragraph, but to most, what I let them do is tantamount to misconduct or negligence in my role as their teacher. Instead, they're creating something really interesting. 

Another group, on their own, decided that they were going to use Facebook to communicate and collaborate with each other. As one of the students put it, I'm on it almost all the time playing. Not any more, I exclaimed! Once again, the line between working and playing is blurred; the students are now working in a virtual space that many see as a waste of students' time and a massive distraction, a place where they go to socialize (at best) or gossip (at worst). It made me realize that perhaps I should start using Facebook to better communicate with my students. 

Time. If we want our students to be more creative and playful, we need to give them more time. The pressure of deadlines, the limited resources, the overwhelming amount of work students often are faced with, all of that acts to create students who actively work to avoid thinking about their school work. My students are actually pretty relaxed, loose, and dare I say it, enjoying their experience in class. All because I give them time. 

Even it looks, from the outside, like we're wasting it. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: Forcing Students to Visit the Library

Today, with my Peer-Driven Learning class that is less self-motivated than the other, we went to the library. The class decided that we were going to get our "required essay" out of the way first. The required essay needs to be "an analytical essay that connects multiple texts across disciplines" (to quote our Gen. Ed. Student Learning Outcomes requirement). We are still working on the broad topic of "Wealth, Poverty, and Social Class" and we've been brainstorming ideas as to what to write about. But, the essay requires multiple sources from across disciplines, and I knew that this wasn't going to happen without some help.

So I assigned a short annotated bibliography. I know, this is old-school me assign/they do format that we are trying to avoid, but I am so glad that I am requiring this particular mini-assignment. The annotated bibliography is due Friday, and we met today in the library to do research. Keep in mind that this is a 200-level course and most of the students are Sophomores. About halfway through the class, one of the students came up to me and asked if she was able to check out a book and if so, how to go about doing it.

Oh dear. This lead to some very interesting conversations on Twitter about how my experience is not unique. 

In each of my classes I stress how important it is to physically go to the library to do their research. I also mention that their tuition pays the salary of the reference librarians who are there to help them do their research more efficiently and effectively. In the same way that I am a "trained" expert and thus hired to be their teacher, the reference librarians all have Master's degrees in Library Science; they are also "trained" experts hired to help us do research. Their jobs, their raison d'etre is to help you do research. Why else do you  a) get a Master's in Library Science and b) go work at a primarily undergraduate university library? 

But it also brings up a larger issue that I have been struggling with all semester with my peer-driven classes: how much can I "force" or require them to do? How do I find a balance between what they want to do versus what I know they need to (or at the very least should) do? The annotated bibliography was not their idea, but when I introduced the requirements for the essay, they were dumbfounded. Multiple sources? Across disciplines? Research? The library? 

When I typically assign annotated bibliographies, I ask for one book, two peer-reviewed articles, and then two other sources of any type. I expect a very brief (1-3 sentence) summary of their source and then a brief description of how they will use the source in their paper. I think in a class of less-than-motivated students, this can be an effective tool to help them refine their topic and start to move in the right direction. And I'm curious to see how much guidance my other peer-driven class is going to need when we get to that stage later in the semester (they wanted to save theirs for last). 

Needless to say, it was an eye-opening experience today, having students unable to find books on the shelves or know that the books could be checked out. But, like I expect my students to do, I learn and I adapt. And I readjust my expectations. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: Encouraging Creativity and Play

This week, one of my peer-driven classes was finishing up their project proposals. They will be responsible for teaching two classes, which includes presenting a project that they will then hand in (this is a writing class, so they have to hand in something that is written). As I was going around the class, listening as their brainstorms were beginning to coalesce into a more solid proposal, I kept hearing something that troubled me: powerpoint. Four our of the five groups were planning to use powerpoint in their lessons. 

A shook my head. Do you like, I ask, when your professor uses powerpoint? Most of them shook their head. What happens when a powerpoint presentation starts? They answered that they tuned out, only focused on what was on the slide and only planned to learn what was on the slide. Then WHY would you want to recreate that in your own lessons? Blank stares. It's what we're used to, some answered. Because it's easy, others added. 

The students in this class have four weeks to prepare for their presentations. I sincerely hope that they didn't think that they would be spending four weeks on a powerpoint. But it shows how set in our ways we all are when it comes to just about everything. Students want to learn differently, but when presented with the opportunity to create a different learning experience, they chose the same old, ineffective tools. In my other class, when invited to explore options for their class assignment, most students didn't even look at the options I provided for them. 

This inspired me to tweet out to a peer of mine, Kathi Inman (check out her blog/site for her class at USC; this is thinking differently about education). Below is our conversation on Twitter:

Ok, it's a little truncated, but it really did make me think. How do I encourage students to play and explore, and thus find the space to be creative in my class? Should I have perhaps required them to find an example of innovative pedagogy/project themselves, rather than provide it for them? There's still time to do that in my other class, where we are doing projects at the end of the semester. But it also makes me think about whether or not I'm doing enough in my own practice, in my own classroom to facilitate play.

In other words, should I require play in a peer-driven classroom? It becomes difficult for me to think about what I should or should not require of students. I have said over and over again that they are allowed to do just about anything they want to, but it seems like they either don't believe me or have no idea just how creative and free they can be. It feels like I'm splitting hairs, but this is what it takes to make a class like this really work. 

I'm not the only one asking these questions, obviously. Kathi is experimenting with this (see the coding project her students are doing). Dr. Davis is using art and design as a basis for getting her students to think differently about what skills they will need in the future. The 2010 HASTAC Digital Media and Learning competition was based around games (scroll to the bottom). Over at DML Central, they are looking at making education more like Kindergarten for life; more making, tinkering, and remixing. Also, projects are a more creative way to learn, as well as more relevant to what future employers want. 

I'm still working through these issues. How do I introduce these concepts and options to my students without taking the classroom back over from them? There are so many rich and varied examples out there. Here are just a few:

Even just going through this list of fantastic and innovative projects, put together by a group of inspiring education and artists, I feel overwhelmed. And then I remind myself: think about how your students must feel. 

The list goes on. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Efficiency =/= Innovation =/= Quality

I'm going off my blogging schedule. This might turn into a longer, more developed post for uvenus or elsewhere, but I need to write this and put this out there right now. While I'm angry. And reeling. 

Today on Inside Higher Ed, there was yet another post about disrupting higher education. Earlier today, I ran into a colleague who had spent the morning in another department, collaborating. "It's the theme of my semester" she exclaimed excitedly. I sighed. I would love to be more collaborative, more innovative in my teaching. But, I don't have the time. 

Professors are currently being (excuse my language) shit on for being luddites, inefficient, and unwilling to change. I represent the most "efficient" part of higher education; the non-TT instructor who teaches a lot of sections of a large course (not as large as some, but still pretty big considering I'm supposed to be teaching writing). I have limited professional development opportunities/funding (which is better than none at all, which is what many people in my position have access to). I teach five classes. 

I'm efficient. I've figured out how to efficiently grade 100-150 papers, multiple times a semester. That also means that I have to sacrifice quality. This is, obviously, a dangerous thing to admit. We're told we need to be more collaborative. But, when? All the free time that I have when I'm not teaching, preparing to teach, or grading? I've innovated one of my classes this semester, and I have to admit, my other classes have suffered as a result; they are more standard, more "canned" than I would like. Why? Because I don't have as much time to devote to them. But I'm efficient (even if the technology isn't). I'm just not very innovative and I know the quality isn't what it could be.

I want to use technology, but when I do, I find that it fails because the institution doesn't invest in the support needed to help me and my students. Pens and paper never fail. Last week, I couldn't do an activity with the students because the computers in the lab didn't have FlashPlayer (seriously) and wouldn't let anyone install it. "Innovation" is thrown about as a buzz word, and there are software packages being purchased and then "introduced" to us every day. But when do we have the time to learn about them and integrate them into our classes? For example, we upgraded to a new Blackboard version this year. When was it available? A week before the semester started. 

This semester, I haven't had time to breathe. If this semester has taught me anything, it's don't try to change what works because it's exhausting, thankless, and ultimately difficult to measure (which is of course what everyone wants). The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But, what if you decide to change what works? I was a good teacher before, why am I reinventing the wheel? There are few incentives, but also few rewards for changing how we teach. There's no time to slow down and think. 

I want to cry. I'm the model that apparently everyone in higher education wants to recreated: large classes, lots of section, canned delivery. Why? Why do we want to do that? I don't even want to do that. I don't want to be the model that higher education re-creates en masse, like McDonald's. Trillions served the same unhealthy meal, the same way. Sure, we all get to eat for cheap, but at what cost? 

What the hell are education reformers thinking? Innovation is expensive and time consuming. You fail more often than you succeed. But in this world, there is no room for failure. Efficiency is only good if quality doesn't decline. But what if the quality isn't where it could be? We're stuck in a death spiral when it comes to talking about education reform. I'm sick of it. So should you. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bad Female Academic: Admitting I'm Wrong

As someone who writes about literature (and pop-culture!), I know the value of re-reading (and re-reading and re-reading again). I've always been this way; any book or tv episode or movie that I love are often revisited time and time again. Sometimes it's because they provide comfort or familiarity during a time of crisis or volatility (hello, Muppet Movie, Star Wars, or Almost Famous!) or because they are so rich that they demand more than one kick at the can. But even now, I can still be surprised by what I have missed in works that I thought I was thoroughly familiar with.

I was re-reading (and re-reading) Nalo Hopkinson's short story collection Skin Folk for an essay I'm writing (the postcolonial body, in case anyone was interested). Anyway, in one story, "A Habit of Waste," the protagonist (a young woman of Afro-Caribbean descent living in Toronto) is revealed to have bought a new body, a thin white one. I highly recommend this story for anyone interested in the intersection of race, gender, and postcoloniality, and the story became the central part of my analysis for the whole collection.

As I was writing the essay (after having read the story at least fifty times), I noticed something I hadn't picked up before in all my other readings: the body that the protagonist buys is called a "Diana" type. Why had I not ever seen this before? Diana? Princess Diana? The remnants of the monarchy? The fairy-tale princess? In a story involving not one, but two Commonwealth countries in a postcolonial setting? Really? How did I not see this before? Suddenly, I was researching the image of Princess Di, how she is interpreted, etc (there was a Journal of British Studies issue devoted to her, among the hundreds of other peer-reviewed articles dealing with her image, legacy, etc). And now I had a whole new avenue to write about in this essay (which meant I had to sacrifice some of the other things I had planned to write about).

This week, in my FYC class, we are talking about the great dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. I wrote my MA thesis on dystopias, so I've been reading (and rereading) this book for over ten years. I've taught it in various classes at least ten times. And this week, during our discussion about the book and why the world Bradbury creates I realized something I never had before; Bradbury wasn't just making a point about books and education (the three things we need are things that have depth, time to think about them, and the right to act on what we've learned), but it is also about how society has fragmented, with people cut off from each other. Montag finds the strength to act when he connects first with Clarisse, then with Faber, and finally with Granger and the band of nomads. How had I not seen this before?

Of course, I didn't call attention to my revelation, simply including it as part of the discussion. Maybe I should have. Anyone who teaches knows that it's almost impossible to get students to read, let alone re-read anything we assign. The worst is when students ask me if they have to read something because they read it in high school already. I think I was afraid to say, hey, I just noticed this, because it might appear like I wasn't prepared or I didn't know what I was talking about. I could have let me students see my own learning process, a process that didn't end...ever. So many students, heck, people now decide on something (for whatever reason) and desperately cling to those conclusions. I need to remember to show my students that I am open to noticing and learning new things, that I am often wrong and that's ok.

As a young, non-tenure-track female faculty member, I often feel the pressure to make sure that my authority and expertise are unquestionable. But, they aren't. I'm often wrong, and I am open to learning from my mistakes, open to sudden epiphanies, open to changing my mind. That I was afraid to share those moments with my students when they happen isn't something I am proud of. This is one area where I need to work on being the baddest Bed Female Academic I can be. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: I'm No Cathy Davidson

I received an interesting set of questions in the comments on my last peer-learning post: 
I've read Cathy's piece in the Chronicle of HE. I hate to be a bit of a wet blanket but having had some experience of designing, leading and being part of peer driven teaching and having been an early member of the so-called 'anti-university' set up in London in the late '60s-- I have a few questions that I'd need to know in order to determine if this is an idea that can be realistically applied and allow students to graduate with some kind of marketable qualification (however and whoever determines the 'market').The type of class isn't clear. Are they postgrads/post-experience/mature/straight from secondary school? Are they doing an elective or is it a compulsory class?Will their grade make a difference to their degree and does the degree have to meet any institutional or external (eg professional/regulatory body accreditation criteria)?In fact, what does the grade signify? Is it simply a metaphorical 'fig leaf' to cover your back or is it a rigorous measure of the learning and self-instruction?
I've been wanting to do a post since the beginning outlining all of the ways my peer-driven class is different from Cathy Davidson's classes.  I could point "anonymous" to my previous posts on my peer-driven classes that outline more carefully what the purpose of the class is, etc. But, just to reiterate, the class that I am reformulating as being peer-driven in ENG 200 or Writing II. This is a required course for all students, regardless of major. They have already taken ENG 100 or traditional freshman composition. Our student learning outcomes are essentially to have students read primary sources from across disciplines, discuss, and write about them. We have a choice of two almost identical textbooks to assign to them, and a list of required assignments, both large and small. At the end of the day, if the students are using the textbook as a guide, they will be fulfilling the requirements of the course. Most of my colleagues that I've told that I am letting the students decide what they want to read from the textbook have shrugged their shoulders; any readings from the book will be challenging and stimulating.

There are some very important differences, of course, between my course and Cathy Davidson's course. While Cathy Davidson seems to have had a weekly schedule that students followed (more or less), my class has been shaped exclusively by my textbook, which we would never be able to get all the way through. Both my classes are completely different in terms of our assignments and week-to-week layout. One class is much more "traditional"; the students have picked the readings, but we are working on them together, as a class. The other class has broken off into groups and will be teaching their own two-class unit, complete with a project based on their readings/lesson. It's early, but each class is having some good results.

My students didn't "chose" to take me, specifically, for this course. Sure, there are a handful who had me last year, but most of the students selected my sections of ENG 200 because it fit their schedule. They certainly had no idea that I was going to turn the tables on them. I have a higher cap in my class (18 students sounds like a dream) and no TA. I don't have tenure, and I am teaching three other classes on top of the two peer-driven courses. Our college has a high number of first-generation college students, as well as a poor graduation rate and low ACT scores for incoming freshmen. The majority come from our service area, which is largely poor and rural. If one of my classes is less ready to embrace peer-driven learning, I can't say I'm terribly surprised. Actually, that one of the classes so readily embraced the format is perhaps more surprising.

I don't have a ton of experience being an "innovative educator" nor does what I write about or do in my classroom cause our PR office to have palpitations. Thanks to Cathy Davidson, turning your class over to your students isn't met with hang-wringing and fainting (seriously, read the first chapter of Now You See It to see how much negative national press Cathy Davidson has inspired). Or, thanks to the fact that I toil away at an out-of-the-way university insulates me from any notice. I'd say it's a bit of both. I help create one of the most exciting and innovative (to me at least) academic programs/organizations (HASTAC), so I'm starting from behind, so to speak, compared to Cathy Davidson. I'm still learning to let go and embrace all of this.

My job, as I understand it, is to help students become better writers but also more independent learners. I want them to becomes 4-year-olds again, where the world was exciting and new and they wanted to learn about everything. I want them to learn how to create a community, to support one another in their education, and just think differently about anything I can. I want to help them think more critically about their world and how they fit into it. These are my goals regardless of how I teach, but I think teaching this way will be more successful. Even if the rest of their educations are "by the book" both literally and figuratively, I hope they will take what they have learning in my class beyond university.

Is it sustainable for every single program on campus? I don't know. I'm not as optimistic as Cathy Davidson, although I'm getting there. I've said time and time again that it's my own failure of imagination that I cannot think about how to do my class or university differently. But I know I am doing something right as my class buzzes with excitement and begin to come up with their own innovative and creative ways of looking at their readings and the issues they bring up. I can't measure that.

I'm not sure if I want to.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Retention, or When a Student Disappears

As any reader of this blog knows, I teach Developmental Writing (some excellent posts from my archives linked right there, folks). These are, studies have shown, some of the most vulnerable students in higher education; the statistics show that these students typically drop out and never finish a degree of any kind. I work at an institution that has dismal completion rates. With public pressure mounting, we are becoming more and more aware of the issue of retention. More and more, the pressure to "retain" students is trickling down to the individual instructors. 

Anyone who has been following me knows that I care about my students, perhaps too much. Does this mean that I am perfect when it comes to doing everything and anything I can to "retain" students? Not in the least, but I'd like to think that I am there for students who are ready and willing to help themselves. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail. But for all of our efforts, additional services, councilors, tutors, advisors, and financial aid options, students, good students, still disappear. 

Last semester, I had a pretty good student in my 200-level writing class. Not the best student, but a solid student who was willing to do the work, ask questions, think, and improve. She also happened to live just in behind our house. We would often see each other on weekends or in the evenings when I would be playing outside with my kids. I got to know her a little bit. She was from out of state, wanted to be a nurse, spent her summers on Christian missions, had a job working back home as a waitress, and was generally a good person. She was planning on living in the same place this year. I even contacted her over the summer to let her know that the windows of her back door had been broken. She got back to me to thank me and told me she was looking forward to seeing me in the fall.

Fall has come, and we're three weeks into the semester. I have not seen her. I have no idea why she's not back. Did she run out of money? Did something happen to her, or her family? Did she transfer? None of these things matter in the grand scheme of things, at least to those who do the counting; she has dropped out, thus hurting our "completion rates." But how do we plan for students like this, students who seem to be most prepared to succeed in college? Our university has a high rate of first-generation and poor students and most of our resources are focused on their success. We, on the ground, know how hard it is to get students to understand the importance of attending class, of making university their top priority, when their families are pressuring them to work or take time off to support those back home. When a student who seems well-equipped to succeed and then doesn't, what could we have done differently? 

I teach five section of writing-intensive courses. I have trouble learning my students' names, but I do try to get to know each of them as well as I can, but often its the ones who are having the most difficulty that I get to know the best. When a student who was doing well disappears, it's difficult for me because I wonder if we were set up to help her succeed. I despair: if we can't even hold on to the solid student, what hope do the rest have? I know that people look at a school like ours and point to it saying that we are wasting taxpayer money, that we're failing at our jobs, and that we need to be held "accountable." 

I'm not really sure how much more I can do. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: Accepting Where We Are

This week in my peer-driven classes was amazing. We finally put in concrete terms what was going to be expected of them during the semester. We decided what our major and minor assignments would be and how much of their final grade each part would be worth (yes, we decided to go with good, old-fashioned grades, awarded by me. One class pointed out that they didn't want the responsibility and the other saw it as too time consuming).

Each class is going to be completely different. The first class (the class that is less self-motivated and less vocal) will run in a much more conventional way. We decided to get our "required" paper (the essay that all students must write) out of the way first. In preparation, we will read the section of our textbook on "Wealth, Poverty, and Social Class." We will decide collectively which readings we will do for homework and what sort of discussion questions we should address. Homework in this class will be worth 50% of their final grade, as an incentive to stay on task. Once we have completed this section and the required paper, we will move towards being a little more non-traditional in preparation for a final "project," which can be done in groups.

The other class more closely to what Cathy Davidson imagines for her next peer-driven class. The students are already in groups (with one exception; the class decided that they wouldn't force anyone to be in a group, so there is one student working solo), working on different sections of the textbook that they found the most interesting. Each group will come up with a proposal for a two-class lesson plan and project on their section. Once the proposals are approved, they will work on their lesson plan and project. Each group gets two classes to teach/present, with the rest of the class expected to read and participate. Once that is done, we will move on to working on our "required" paper, our final task. This class also decided to put together a rather draconian attendance policy because, as one student put it, how can this class be peer-driven if you're not here?

I was so proud of my students. They recognized their strengths and their weaknesses, developing a class that met their needs. One class wanted more from me as their instructor, the other class, not so much. While they were intrigued by the idea of contract grading, at the end of the day, this class as a concept was radical enough; it seemed they wanted the familiar comfort of grades, as something to hold on to. I can't say that I minded; it gives me something to hold on to as well, some remnants of "control."

I realized that we hadn't discussed a rubric or "scoring" guide in my second class. This worked out well, as we were going to be discussing rubrics during our weekly #FYCchat. As the chat progressed (check out the archive here), it became clear that we were of two very different minds about rubrics; some of us swore by them, while others shunned them as one more way we limit students' creativity. I panicked; what had I done? I communicated with the students that we might want to develop a rubric. But clearly this wasn't a concern of theirs. What if they were going to do one just because I had suggested it? Was I in the process of messing with a good thing?

And then the concept of badges (again from Cathy Davidson) did the rounds on Twitter. Why wasn't my class using badges? Why were we using grades at all? My panic increased. The students decided, I said, but what if the students really didn't decide, and they were just doing what was comfortable, or worse, what they thought I wanted them to do. Did I not present the concept well enough for them to feel comfortable with it? Am I still being too traditional, conventional? Was I failing my students? I'm not requiring them to put together a digital project or use social media. Should I? Am I doing enough to push my students outside of their comfort zones?

I could no longer see the success of my class, only all of the ways it could (already) be interpreted as a failure.

My students were able to accept where they were in terms of their comfort level with a peer-driven learning environment. One class needs more guidance than the other. I need to accept that my own level with peer-driven learning as their teacher is also evolving. I need to accept where I am just as much as they have accepted where they are. This is a learning process for all of us. In the same way that I try to provide positive support, encouragement, and patience to my students, I need to do the same for myself.

This will not be perfect. There will always be thing that get left out, left behind, and things that could be done differently. In a peer-driven learning environment, I have to trust that the direction my students have chosen to take is the right one. I also have to trust that I am doing my best as well.

Another way that this class is the most challenging thing I have ever done.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Teaching Ain't Easy (or, Duh)

I think I've finally over-done it. I've bitten off more than I can chew. After a summer of fabulous productivity in the writing department, I'm spent. I know I wrote basically the same thing exactly a week ago, but it seems that Thursdays, I hit a wall. Or, more accurately, Wednesday I hit a wall, but habit dictates that I face this reality on Thursdays when I try to write my Thursday night post for Friday.

Teaching, it seems, it taking everything out of me. I'm completely redoing all three of my classes (for a total of five sections) to various degrees. My peer-driven classroom is mentally draining; the uncertainty of what is going to happen in every class is unnerving and stressful, I'm not going to lie. My other classes are using texts and techniques that are more traditional but unfamiliar to me. I'm re-learning how to teach.

But I also think that I have never had a clear picture about just how physically and mentally taxing teaching really is. When I was a PhD student, I was young, unattached, and only had one class to teach (at noon, no less). I started my first adjunct position (four sections) when I was pregnant, so if I was tired, I "blamed" it on the pregnancy. When I went back to the adjunct position after having the baby, I just assumed I was tired because I had a small baby who was still nursing and not sleeping through the night. And then, my tenure track job was an even split between being pregnant and having a newborn. 

And then last year, when I started teaching full time after a year off, I was also taking care of my son part-time, trading off with my husband. In other words, I've never been in a situation where teaching can and is the only source of my complete and utter exhaustion at the end of the day. But now, I think that I've been getting it all wrong; motherhood is easy, teaching is the hard part. 

This semester, I have no excuse for not being able to find some balance in my life. I know that one of the reasons my energy levels are down is because I'm not taking care of myself. Because the kids are back in school, I just assumed I'd be able to maintain my manic writing pace I set for myself over the summer. But, I apparently can't replace one set of kids with another with no impact. 

So, here's what I've decided: I'm reducing the number of weekly posts here from three to two. One on Sunday night for Monday, another on Wednesday night for Thursday. Mondays will still be about my peer-driven classroom, while Thursdays will be whatever catches my fancy. I'll still be doing my monthly posts for UVenus, as well as looking for other opportunities to guest-post (or even make some money!). And unless a call-for-submissions really catches my eye, I'm taking a break from academic writing, too. I mean, as soon as I get all of these essays I have left to write out of the way (seriously, there are two more). 

So thank you, loyal readers. My peer-driven class would not be nearly as successful as it has been if you had not been here for me, supporting me, offering advice, and just a sympathetic ear. I tell my students that this can have a ripple effect; I already know that I have inspired some of you to try this, and my students are also reaching out to their professors, introducing them to the idea that maybe they can handle having a voice their own educations. 

But, for tonight, I'm done. I'm going to bed.

You May Also Like: