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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I’m Bringing Paper Back (‘Cause It’s Still Sexy)

Iphoto credit: vl8189 via photo pin cc

In a recent article in Digital Humanities Quarterly entitled “Hacking the Yacking,” Paul Fyfe describes examples of what he calls teaching naked, a method that uses decidedly traditional media to encourage students to engage in a tactile relationship with course content. Fyfe poses an intriguing question: “Can there be a digital pedagogy without computers?” The answer, according to Fyfe, is yes, and the result can be both refreshing and freeing for those who embrace it:

Technology, at least in its electrified forms, can be a limiting factor in imagining how humanities instruction can be “digital”: something to get your hands on, to deal with in dynamic units, to manipulate creatively.

But what Fyfe is advocating is not a Luddite response to computers; in fact, I see his idea of teaching naked in the digital humanities as being more radical and disruptive to traditional pedagogies than the advent of open courses, gamification, or any of the other “progressive” technology-based innovations circling the proverbial educational reform drain. As pointed out by Peter Rorabaugh and Jesse Stossel in “What Does Hybrid Pedagogy Do?”:

[A]s we allow two things to rub up against each other, two things that might not otherwise touch, we incite them to interact, allowing synthesis (and even perforation) along their boundaries. As the digital and analog–the physical and virtual–commingle, we must let go of the containers for learning to which we’ve grown accustomed.

Scary stuff if you’re intimidated by uncertainty or perforated boundaries. But also encouraging if you’re hesitant to completely abandon traditional media or if, like me, you feel that you’ve taken technological integration to its limits (at least for now) and are ready to step back and reassess how best to remix your learning environments with the most effective and engaging analog and digital tools.

For me, writing is a heavily tactile experience. Just as I prefer a physical book to an electronic one because the smell and feel of the pages and the visual aesthetic of the cover image and particular fonts add to and are part of my reading experience, I prefer writing by hand to writing electronically. As a child, I loved the smell of white notebook paper and first, freshly-sharpened lead pencils, and later, ball-point ink. Even the transition to an electric typewriter was still a physically-engaging experience–the lulling hum and radiant heat of the motor, the indented keys cradling my fingers, the decisive clack as the letters became permanently engraved on the white canvas of the paper, the inky scent of the ribbon. While I’m sure that very few of my students share these visceral responses to the media of writing, I’ve always tried to encourage them to enter into a physical relationship with their writing. I’ve asked them to cut it up and paste it back together. I’ve forced them to brutally mark through entire sentences with a Sharpie. And these acts of homicide on their written words almost always cause emotional reactions-of dismay, grief, fear, and, if I’m successful, elation and enlightenment. By asking students to acknowledge the physical mortality of their writing, I hoped to encourage them to divorce themselves from it emotionally so that they could begin to see it from their readers’ point of view.

As I have asked students to write more publicly using digital media, I have, ironically, abandoned many of the activities that require them to digitally play with their words. The play time had to be replaced with workshops on blogging and social media. I still require students to bring hard copies of rough drafts to peer review (and I continue to stress the need to proofread from hard copies rather than a screen), but otherwise, I have succeeded in creating an almost completely paperless classroom.

But I’m not so sure that that’s a good thing. So, I’m re-thinking how to bring paper back.

Here’s some ideas so far:

Mining the Students’ Digital Texts
Fyfe defines the goal of text mining as “keep[ing] students’ attention on the critical labor that digital resources seem to dissolve.” I often require students to collaborate on Google Docs outside of class, but these texts have always remained virtual, viewed and discussed by the class via the intermediary of the computer screen. What I would like to do is to give these texts corporality, to bring them into the classroom so that they can be mined and manipulated. For example, next term I plan to have my students use Google Docs to collaboratively annotate Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart and brainstorm ways that we can integrate his techniques into our class. I plan to print out hard copies of the Doc and have students work in groups to mine it, highlighting the most important, thought-provoking, and disruptive annotations and ideas (in effect, physically annotating the class’s virtual annotations). Each group will then post their annotated copies around the room for the other groups to read and annotate further before we decide, via class discussion, which ideas are most significant and useful for us to put into practice.

Paper Blogs
Karen McMillan has her students create practice blogs on paper before creating digital versions. While McMillan’s students are 7th graders, I think that this is actually a good idea to integrate into the college classroom. Because they are unfamiliar with blogs, my students often struggle with creating effective blog posts. Some never get the hang of hyperlinking, quoting from other web sources, or embedding media. My idea is to have them practice these and other blogging skills on paper first–underlining hyperlinked words and manually cutting and pasting in images and passages from sources. The act of physically composing their posts, collage-style, mimics the kind of graphic manipulation that I think makes blogging so aesthetically engaging and challenging.

Many books on writing advocate play. The best writers learn to play with language, to recognize its utility and disposability as well as its transcendency. This playfulness is often difficult for students to adopt. The same can be said of teachers and pedagogy: whether we’re afraid of being seen as too old-school or as too susceptible to the latest fad, we forget that pedagogy is as utilitarian and disposable as it is transcendent. Sometimes, a pencil and piece of paper can be as liberating and intellectually stimulating as a laptop if the student is encouraged to ask the right kinds of questions and to play with the possible answers. It’s equally important for us to teach them how to use the laptop to make the results of their play permanent and public if they choose. But the virtual product might well be more critically refined thanks to the analog media.

Perhaps the right questions for us to be asking are: How can we create more perforations and synthesis at the boundaries between the page and the screen? And how can we encourage our students to play more at these boundaries?