Goodbye, Hello: In Which I Look Backwards Before Going Forwards

photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc
photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc

The Fall semester has come to an end and the Spring term is about to begin. Each new term brings with it heightened anticipation as we feverishly map journeys of discovery for our students and blueprint what we hope will be engaging and challenging learning environments. It is a strange season of flux as we look forward with one eye and backward with the other, reflecting on what worked and what failed before so that we know what to recycle, repurpose, and reconsider and what to chalk up to experience. We share much with gardeners, who spend the fallow season plotting and planning, first allowing space for the necessary and the reliable, then squeezing in some untried novelties, deciding what needs to be rotated to revitalize the soil, prepping the ground, sowing the seeds, then waiting patiently for the fruits to flower, tending, weeding, brooding, second-guessing, nurturing, assessing.

Before finalizing my Spring classes, I wanted to reflect, in writing, on some of my more experimental practices from the Fall, especially those about which I promised to post follow-ups.

In “Flips, Cartwheels, and 360’s? Oh my?” I posed the question: “What if I asked my hybrid FYC students to help design a 21st century university?” I wondered if they would be willing or able to accept my challenge. I’m happy to report that they accepted it wholeheartedly and did not disappoint me or the 21st Century Classroom Initiative Committee members who attended their presentations (more on those in a bit). I handed the class a real and intensely relevant problem to solve with no conditions or requirements attached (other than the fact that they had to be able to explain their work in 15 minutes or less). Some of the solutions that students developed were phenomenally outstanding. You can see a sampling of what they came up with at Storify.

In a subsequent post, “This Is What a Final Exam Should Look Like,” I shared my discovery of the research slam–part poster session, part poetry slam–and pondered the questions: “What if final exams looked more like [research slams]? What if students shared their learning with one another in the kind of interactive, experiential, small-group method encouraged by the research slam? . . . How powerful would that be?” Pretty powerful, I thought. And it was. Students arrived early and set up their presentations: a collage of tri-folds, laptops, brochures, and scale models. Small groups of students moved from display to display, as the presenters gave a 15 minutes or less overview of their project and answered questions from the audience. Members of the 21st Century Classroom Initiative were also in attendance, asking questions, jotting down student email addresses, asking for links to presentation materials. I wandered from station to station, filming snippets of presentations and conversations. The room was saturated with voices–discussing, questioning, responding, laughing, debating, critiquing. After such a heady experience, I don’t know that I could ever go back to the traditional final exam–those bent heads; those cramped fingers; those flat, stale pieces of paper; that deathly silence.

In “I’m Bringing Paper Back (‘Cause It’s Still Sexy),” I discussed my plans to strike a balance between the digital and the physical in my classes. I had students digitally and collaboratively annotate one of the texts we read, but I provided hardcopies of their annotations in class and had students use them to develop discussion questions. We also practiced blogging on paper first and students responded so favorably that I plan to have next semester’s classes perform peer review on paper versions of every blog post. I’m slowly falling back in love with paper, especially after reading Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole (which I’ve blogged about a lot recently), and I think it will be making an even bigger comeback next term.

In “Hacking Assessment: Redesigning the Numbers Game,” I continued reflecting on my ongoing battle with assessment. I considered two kinds of assessment, in particular, this past term: peer assessment and contract grading. As I reported in a subsequent post, I ended up giving peer assessment a try in my Basic English Skills class with great success, so much so that it is the primary form of formative assessment in both of my FYC courses next term. Contract grading was less of a success, though that had more to do with my lack of clear communication than anything else. Despite providing exhaustive guidelines, on the end-of-term course assessments several students expressed discomfort with not knowing whether or not each criteria was being met as the semester progressed. On the plus side, I’ve only had two grade complaints so far. I plan to improve my communication with students regarding their progress on grade-level criteria and will provide them with assignment checklists so they can have a visual representation of what they have and have not completed.

In “Remediating Remedial Composition,” I expressed trepidation with some of the radical ideas I had for my Basic English Skills class. Overall, I think the class was a success. Quite a few students disappeared (as is unfortunately typical of remedial classes), but only 4 of the 18 students who finished the class did not receive credit for it. I had to drop the VoiceThread assignment (it was technically too overwhelming in an already tech-heavy class), but the blogs turned out to be very interesting (though not mechanically superior) and I discovered another awesomely invigorating collaborative writing method in the silent dialogues I had students complete in Google Docs (another novelty that will be added to my tried-and-true writing practices).

Overall, I would rate the Fall 2012 semester a success for me, but more so for my students. There were those stellar presentations in my FYC classes giving voice to college students facing a radically revolutionized socioeconomic future and needing a radically revolutionized learning environment to prepare them for it. My Basic English Skills students made great strides in pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones and relying on one another for writing support and nurturance. And my Oral Communication students went above and beyond my expectations as they created public service campaigns that not only raised awareness of important issues but provided a means to act on those issues in positive and impactful ways. I think I’m a little closer to a system of assessment that I believe to be both meaningful and fair. I’ve discovered some awesome techniques to integrate into my composition classes and am especially excited by those that foster collaborative writing practices. And from now on I’ll actually look forward to my final exams rather than dreading and rueing them.

And so it’s time to begin a new semester and a new adventure with a whole new set of experiments and discoveries to anticipate.

“Hoe while it is spring, and enjoy the best anticipations.” ~Charles Dudley Warner

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All Together Now: Some Further Uses for Google Docs in the Composition Classroom

photo credit: KatieTT via photo pin cc

It took me a long time to become a Google Docs convert. I played around with the app as a tool for collaboration in an upper-level course one term and it was a total disaster, mainly because students didn’t know how to use it (and neither did I, really) and we often ran into issues when students attempted to access documents that I had shared with them (I think this had much to do with Google Docs’ bugginess at the time). I subsequently used Docs only when needing to access a document that had been shared publicly, and in doing so, began to see the utility in creating certain documents in the app so that I could hyperlink to and even embed them on a class website or whatever social media tool the class happened to be using.

The collaborative magic of Google Docs did not really appeal to me until I was forced to use the app to collaboratively edit an article that I had submitted to Hybrid Pedagogy. After submitting the draft of the article, the editors, Jesse Stommel and Pete Rorabaugh, provided me with feedback via the commenting feature and then Pete and I used the in-document chat feature to discuss how best to integrate their ideas with mine. As I worked to revise the document, Pete (virtually) worked alongside me, serving as both sounding-board and devil’s advocate and providing me with synchronous feedback on my revisions. It was an eye-opening experience, not just because I was unaware of many of the tools available in Google Docs (such as the revision history feature and the chat tool), but because of how powerfully the act of collaboratively revising a piece of writing affected me. I had always wrote alone, in isolation, never with someone looking over my shoulder and certainly never engaging in a dialogue about my rhetorical choices (and possible alternatives) as I was making them.

If writing collaboratively had such an impact on my writing, I began to wonder what kind of impact it could have on my students’ writing. So I began to consider how I could use this powerful tool that I had been poo-pooing for years as a weapon against the isolation, anxiety, and despair that I so often see plaguing my First-Year Composition students.

I know that there’s been a lot written about the value and utility of Google Docs in the classroom, so I won’t bore you with a rehashing of what others have already so effectively said. ProfHacker has written quite a bit about the app and their post “GoogleDocs and Collaboration in the Classroom” is chock-full of links to various tips and useful ideas. Getting Smart’s “6 Powerful Google Docs Features to Support the Collaborative Writing Process” provides an excellent step-by-step guide to using Google Docs especially for collaborative writing. And for a basic overview of Google Docs’ features and potential uses, you can browse through this slideshow:

 

By no means have I explored the full potential of Google Docs. But I would like to share a few strategies that I’m trying out in my Basic English Skills class this term that seem to be having an especially powerful impact on  my students’ writing.

Daily Journals

I’ve always used journals in my literature and writing classes, whether they were reading journals, learning journals, or writers’ journals, because I believe that the most powerful thing we can teach our students is how to be more “meta.” But there are several problems with student journals. The main problem is accessibility because I honestly never enjoyed lugging around armfuls of composition books, 3-ring binders, and plastic folders (or whatever else students had handy to stuff their hastily-thrown-together-at-the-last-minute “daily” journal into). Which brings me to the other problem. Since it was logistically impossible to check journals every day, I would usually take them up three or four times a semester, which meant that students could very well wait until the last minute to write all of their journal entries (but ingeniously writing each entry in a different color ink to disguise their act of subterfuge). This also meant that students were without their journals for the few days in which it took me to read and record their entries.

These are the reasons why I became an early adopter of student blogging. By having students blog instead of keeping analog journals, I could monitor their entries (and when they were doing them) without inconvenience to the students or myself. But students are sometimes hesitant about or resistant to making such informal, and often intimately personal, writing public. So, this term I have asked my Basic English Skills students to keep a daily journal (which can be on anything they wish to write about and functions to help them build their writing muscles) in Google Docs, which they’ve only shared with me. Besides alleviating any anxiety students might have felt about making their journals public, Google Docs allows me to easily monitor new entries (whenever a Doc is edited, the title turns bold) and to verify when students are completing their entries (by using the revision history feature). Aside from how much easier it now is to ask students to keep journals, I’m also enjoying reading their journals and learning more about their lives outside of the classroom (many of which are filled with challenges and struggles that often leave me in tears and/or feeling extremely blessed).

Writing in Teams

The sources that I referenced above have already pointed out the benefits of using Google Docs during the brainstorming and peer review processes. But I wanted to attempt to channel some of the power of those collaborative writing sessions that I shared with Pete Rorabaugh to help alleviate some of the angst that many of the students in a remedial writing class experience as they work their way through the entire writing process. So, I decided to have the students write in teams of three, with one team member serving as lead editor each week. The lead editor is in charge of each week’s blog post, which includes coming up with a focus question and locating 2-3 sources to help them answer their question, which they share with their team before the week’s first class meeting (I have had the teams indicate each week’s lead editor in a spreadsheet in Google Docs so that I am aware of which students are in charge each week).

But it gets really interesting when the teams come together in the week’s first class meeting. The lead editor creates a Google Doc, which they share with their team and me, and type in their focus question and a brief summary of how they plan to answer it. What follows is a 30-40 minute session in which the team discusses the question, the lead editor’s sources, and their plan for answering the question completely in writing in the Google Doc, observing a strict rule of silence (I adapted this activity from Lawrence Weinstein’s “Silent Dialogue” activity in Writing Doesn’t Have to Be Lonely). The purpose of this activity is to force the team to flesh out the lead editor’s ideas and to communicate all of their ideas in written form. This is beneficial for the lead editor because it provides them with sounding-boards and devil’s advocates and by the time they leave class, they have a much better grasp on what it is they want to say and how best to say it. It also benefits the other team members because it gives them more practice in expressing their ideas in writing. And it allows me to monitor the team’s work and provide my own feedback early in the writing process before the lead editor begins writing a draft that might be too ambitious in scope.

Aside from the pedagogical functions of the collaborate brainstorming session, the human factor becomes more obvious and explicit (a factor that, unfortunately, we as teachers often forget about). The docs lay bare the students’ hesitancies, their false starts, their doubts, their over-shootings, their assumptions, their candor, their egos, their camaraderie, and their humor. Here’s an example of one team’s silent dialogue session:

The next step in the process is for the lead editor to come to the next class meeting with a rough draft that they share with their team and me. The team then begins the process of revising, proofreading and editing, and designing the blog post. Again, I can use the revision history feature to monitor the transformation of the draft, verify that all team members are contributing, and provide feedback on the effectiveness of their work. All in all, this aspect of the collaborative writing model has been successful because of the synchronous access that Google Docs allows me to have to the students’ writing process, and I’m not sure that it would be as successful without it.

What I think I see as I read through the teams’ weekly brainstorming and collaborative writing sessions is a sense that they are not alone, that they have peers who are capable of helping them and who are invested in their writing as much as they are their own.

What a powerful thing for students to feel.

And while I can’t say with 100% certainty that the writing that is being produced would not have been as good if the students were not using Google Docs, I’m so confident that it is that I’ll be putting it to the test in my regular FYC classes next term.

 

Remediating Remedial Composition

Osmar Schindler (1869-1927): David und Goliath, 1888 via Wikimedia Commons

I’m a big fan of Mike Rose because I think that what he says makes a lot of sense. I just don’t understand why more university administrators and those in charge of remedial writing courses aren’t listening to him.

If you don’t know who Mike Rose is, you should get to know him by reading his blog or a few of his books, especially Lives on the Boundary, which is the first book of his I ever read. I read it after discovering his seminal article “Remedial Writing Courses: A Critique and a Proposal.” As the title of the article suggests, Rose first critiques the praxis of remedial composition and its theoretical underpinnings and then offers an alternative method for teaching students who require remediation in writing in a way that better eases their transition into the first-year composition course. Rose’s critique, then and now, questions the idea that students who arrive at university with substandard writing preparation need to be taught the very basics of writing, i.e., grammar and mechanics and sentence construction, as though they were primary school students, rather than the adults that they are, and the assumption that the mastery of these basics will somehow allow them to go on to succeed in the typical FYC course and their other college classes. As Rose points out, the entire construction of remedial composition courses dooms them, and by association the students who must take them, to failure:

Many of our attempts to help college remedial writers, attempts that are often well- intentioned and seemingly commonsensical, may, in fact, be ineffective, even counterproductive, for these attempts reduce, fragment, and possibly misrepresent the composing process. I believe we may be limiting growth in writing in five not unrelated ways. (1) Our remedial courses are self-contained; that is, they have little conceptual or practical connection to the larger academic writing environment in which our students find themselves. (2) The writing topics assigned in these courses—while meant to be personally relevant and motivating and, in their simplicity, to assist in the removal of error—in fact might not motivate and might not contribute to the production of a correct academic prose. (3) The writing teacher’s vigilance for error most likely conveys to students a very restricted model of the composing process. (4) Our notion of “basic skills” has become so narrow that we attempt to separate the intimately related processes of reading and thinking from writing. (5) In some of our attempts to reform staid curricula we have inadvertently undercut the expressive and exploratory possibilities of academic writing and have perceived fundamental discourse strategies and structures as restricting rather than enhancing the production and comprehension of prose.

Rose goes on to propose that remedial writing courses do just the opposite of what they (typically) do now. He envisions, and in fact has helped to design and administer, remedial writing courses that don’t assume students can’t meet the challenges of academic reading, thinking, and writing, but actually ask them to dive headlong into the proverbial intellectual deep-end, with the instructor guiding and coaching them as they struggle to navigate  academic discourse and add their voice to the academic conversation. This is not much different from how many of us approach traditional FYC courses. The main difference in remedial courses, at least in my experience, is the crucial need to not allow remediation to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In remedial writing courses the challenge is not so much overcoming students’ unfamiliarity with the praxis of academic discourse as it is overcoming the label that students who are placed in remedial classes are given and the expectations (or lack thereof) that are associated with that label. In general, I have found that three types of students end up in remedial writing classes. The first group are those students who know that they have been placed in a remedial class and either resent it (because it does not count towards their degree hours and forms a barrier between them and the “real” classes that their peers are taking) or see it as a judgement on their writing ability and perhaps even on their merits and prospects as a student (I suspect that many of these students hypothesize that remedial is synonymous with “not meant to be here”). The second group of students do not even realize that they are in a remedial class or what that means. These students are often shocked to learn that the class signifies a deficiency on their part and will only count as institutional credit. The third group of students overlap with the other two, but I identify them as unique from their peers because they don’t actually belong in a remedial class but, because of poor testing skills or some other fluke, have been placed there. These students could do very well in my traditional FYC classes and therefore excel in my remedial classes, providing models for their peers to emulate. (On the reverse side of this is the fact that I always end up with a handful of students in my FYC classes who would greatly benefit from a remedial writing class and rarely are able to pass the traditional class).

Because of the precarious emotional and intellectual states of many of these students, the main function of a remedial writing class often becomes one of constant and intense encouragement as you arm your students to go out and meet the forces that they believe have been arrayed against them. If they feel like David going out to meet Goliath, then writing is the rock you must convince them they can sling. They have to believe that becoming a better writer is achievable or you have lost the battle before it has even begun (and it is an ongoing battle that you must fight all semester long). But forcing them to write self-contained paragraphs for a semester is not going to prepare them for FYC. Mollycoddling them with simplistic writing prompts is not going to help them face their next college writing assignment. And knowing a verb from a gerund is not going to help them compare and contrast two psychological theories or analyze a political cartoon or classify and analyze the medical symptoms of a hypothetical patient.

So, I’m doing things a little differently in my remedial writing class this term (the first that I’ve taught in a while) and following Rose’s four-tiered plan, which is founded on real writing challenges (the kind that students will be faced with as college students, not primary school students) that are situated within highly relevant contexts.

The Context

I have designed the class much like a journalism course in that the students will work together to design and publish a blog. The theme of the blog will be completely up to the class. At the moment, students are writing their first blog post, which is their proposal for the blog’s theme. Once students have identified potential themes, I’ll allow the class to vote on which theme they think will be the most interesting to write about this term. Once the theme is selected, the blog will function much like an digital newspaper, with students working together in groups to identify relevant stories, compose the stories, design the post layouts, and publish the stories by a deadline.

The Challenge

Students will write in small groups of three to four, rotating the role of lead editor each week. The week’s lead editor will be in charge of identifying sources for a story and sharing those sources with the other members of the writing team. The team will work together in class to brainstorm and outline the story and the lead editor will draft the story before the next class meeting. At the next meeting, the team will use Google Docs to collaboratively revise, edit, proofread, and design the blog post before the editor publishes the story to the class blog. The writing team will then have to create a VoiceThread that contains both the Google Doc in which they collaborated on the post and the final post itself. I will use the VoiceThread to provide feedback both on how effectively they collaborated as writers/designers and on the strengths and weaknesses of the final post, and the team will respond to my feedback and establish goals for their next post.

Rationale

My hope is that by having students publish their writing on a blog and select the topic of the blog, they will be more invested in the  act of writing and what they are writing about. Also, by asking students to work in writing teams, I hope to take the onus off of the individual student and provide them with a support group of peers. Because we will be using Google Docs, I will be able to monitor each team’s writing process and function as a member of each team myself. Since the class meets in a computer lab, I can be present both physically and virtually (a veritable hybrid teacher!), depending on where I am needed most by any given group.

The Technology Sticking-Point

I hesitated about using technology so heavily in a remedial course. My first instinct was to teach the course naked (figuratively speaking), going bare bones in an effort to achieve a type of Zen simplicity that I hoped would funnel over into the students’ thinking about writing. I did not want anything to complicate the already complicated relationship that many of these students are likely to have with writing. But in the end I could not get past the power that asking students to “publish it” rather than “hand it in” holds for my traditional FYC classes. I am sure that there will be some students who struggle with the technical aspects of the class and this may stifle their writing progress or even lead them to resent me and/or give up on the class. But I am hopeful that the risk of losing a few students will be trumped by the empowerment that the rest of the students will feel as they make a tangible footprint on the digital landscape.

I may be completely off my head in how I’ve planned the course. It may be that too many of my students will allow the remedial label to narrow their vision and foreshorten their potential. Too many may go into technology panic mode or feel that their writing skills are too inferior to be publicly evaluated and commented on. I may lose my nerve and ask them to abandon the field in mid-battle if I begin to see too much fear or hesitation on their part.

But, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’ll let you know how we fare.

In the meantime, if you’d like to read about another instructor who is taking a radical approach to remedial composition, read “A Model for Teaching College Writing,” which describes how Barbara Vance helped a group of struggling writers become a team of documentary filmmakers.