Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Positive Psychology Learning Trend

I am obsessed with what I will call the "positive psychology" learning trend. This is the umbrella term I use to group a related set of ideas about how people learn, theories that have to do with attitudes and mindsets. Here are a few of the sources that demonstrate what I mean by "positive psychology": 

A quick Google or Youtube search will uncover a trove articles, inteviews, and clips about growth mindset and "grit". 

Luckily, my courses are skills based, i.e., how to read for content and craft, how to compose texts. So I can use the articles and youtube clips that increasingly inform how I teach as content students can read and respond to in writing. I typically have a content focus in my classes; one of my classes focuses on the Filipino Experience  and another is focused on the African American experience. But I've found many ways to incorporate positive psychology material into all my classes. I use one or two pieces at the beginning of the semester to set a "we can all learn" tone. Throughout the semester, I strategically introduce other pieces as the need arises.  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Beyond our Four Walls: Community Outreach

This semester, several of my assignment ask student to go beyond the boundaries of the classroom. I want my class to be a laboratory for producing something of worth for someone else, producing text for a real audience. 

I already have students publish blogs. A follow up assignment is for students to promote their blogs. I want them to feel the burn of looking for an audience - friends, families, members of other communities students may claim membership. Currently, students are doing a "hacked" version of the blog challenge I'm doing this month, to get into blogging and to gain confidence with their own voices. Later this semester, we will publish posts directly related to the content weare study.  I'm asking students to pick topics they can compose short narrative, expository, or even persuasive pieces that introduce those topics to their readers. 

My next growth step for the blogging project: figuring out a way to feature their blogs here on my own page. Coming soon! 

I'm also experimenting with two other projects. One is a community story-telling project. Here in San Diego, So Say We All is a non-profit literary and performing arts group. They promote and produce story telling and writing events. One program they organize is VAMP, a visual, audio/monologue performance showcase. Think The Moth, Snap Judgment, or other story telling program on NPR. VAMP puts out a call for stories on a broad them, selects the most "story telling worthy", helps the writers revise their work, and prepares them to deliver a multi-media monologue. One of my colleagues is spearheading bringing VAMP to our campus. We will solicit narratives (the theme is "Borders") from students and help them prepare their own monologue. Since students have to write a narrative essay for my class, I've hijacked the VAMP theme and am encouraging students to submit their work. 

The second project is working on public service announcements. One of my classes focuses on the topic of Filipino American community, so instead of simply learning about what's out there, I'm asking students to select an agency or group and produce a public service announcement to publicize that agency. Part of the process includes writing a proposal, an informative essay on their community agency/topic, a business-type timeline report, as well as and script and the evaluation/metacommentary. 

It's a big project. 

I'm anxious about all the different skill sets I'm asking students to learn and elements we'll have to juggle. But I am attracted to this as not only will students be "making" but they'll also have to produce authentic writing pieces in the service of doing something in and for the community. I am piloting this project with only one section, testing it out to see if I'd like to do it in all my sections. 

All these projects, from publishing blogs to telling stories to promoting an agency, helps me make the students work public in ways that term papers and traditional essays can't. I'm invested in creating opportunities where students not only showcase their work but also experiment with sharing their voices and knowledge outside the classroom. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Personal Learning Network: A Work in Progress

I'm a bit embarrassed to say that I've never heard the acronym "PLN" until last year. It wasn't until I joined a book study group with San Diego chapter of the National Writing Project that someone introduced me to the term "professional/personal learning network". The term helped me name and appreciate the informal professional development activities I do. And, just as naming often does, I can intentionally look for more of the same situations - face-to-face and virtual - that enhance my teaching. 

The infographic above captures some of the things I do to keep up with professional development. I have always engaged in "hallway conversations", not fully appreciating how those informal meetings improve my teaching. Several of my colleagues should charge me billable hours for all the consultations they do for me. My peers recharge my batteries, providing feedback and support. Often my peers help me see what I'm missing, reminding me that I cannot see the entire picture. 

In terms of more formal, scheduled PLN activities, I've become an active member of the San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP) I am attended this past summer institute for K - 16 teachers. Each of the 20 or so participants did a teaching demo, and, if I'm lying, I'm dying, an element of each demo has found it's way into my teaching. Seeing the expertise and experiencing my peers demos' showed me how to improve my craft in ways I couldn't have predicted. SDAWP helps feel like part of a larger community of teachers and reduces the isolation that often comes with being a teacher. Just this weekend, this summer's fellows met for an informal reading group/reunion. We're studying Angela Maiers' Classroom Habitudes. How invigorating it was hearing how my peers from elementary, middle, and high schools, and community college adapt Maier's princiles into their curriculum.  And we've started our own FB group to support each other and share strategies. 

The internet has become a huge part of my PLN. The folks at SDAWP introduced me to Twitter, Pinterest, Te@chThought, Edudemic, Edutopia, and a host of teachers who tweet and blog. Many of the new and productive Ideas I've incorporated this last year come directly from social media. And many of the provocations and questions that I consider when planning lessons and approaching learning problems come from my social media networks. Where I formally  pooh-poohed Twitter and Pinterest, I am now a huge fan. Huge. Obssessive (see yesterday's post). 

This past year has been full of growth and reflection. My experience with calling what I already informally did serves as an important lesson: simply naming a practice, in this case, developing a PLN, can facilitate further growth. Now that I know what I'm actually doing (and wanting!) makes it easier to sustain and nurture these and other forms of professional development. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Life out of Balance

Yin Yang Koi by Yurayah
Te@chThought poses this question for today's blog challenge: "Do you have other hobbies/interests that you bring into your classroom teaching? Explain."

This question makes me wonder where I am on the spectrum between "fully integrated" and "completely-out-of-balance." By fully integrated, I mean that my professional life and outside lives are seamless. Such integration means my interests and passions inside and outside classroom are mutually constitutive. Think "yin/yang". "Completely-out-of-balance" refers to living a life where teaching has become my whole life, such a big priority that I don't have an "outside life" to either bring into class, or not enough to sustain an identity that isn't directly related to teaching. 

Perhaps that's one of the perks/disadvantages of the profession. i can't listen to a song, watch a movie, or read a book without making some sort connection to a current lesson or a future unit. I can't not look at social media without mulling over how I can leverage what I'm seeing or doing applies to teaching. 

And because of the flexibility I have as a college instructor, I constantly modify and adapt lessons to my own interests, which largely have to do with what I studied in graduate school: minority discourse, American literature, multicultural literature, and social justice. Given my interests and my networks of "informants,"  not a day goes by without me seeing or reading something that I can't bring to the class. Indeed, I believe I have an obligation to keep making the case that the subjects we study in class are directly related to the world around us. So I am constantly sharing what I find in my daily gleanings of news and current events. 

Rereading what I've written, I must admit I currently lean toward the "out of balance" side of the scale. I do like that my "outside life" contributes greatly to my professional life, and vice versa. That's great. At the same time, I see that there's embarrassingly little I do outside of work for myself. And that's dangerous. I can't depend on work to fulfill all my needs. Not to mention the potential damage I do to my relationship with my husband. 

I need to commit to return to  activities and hobbies that give me joy, that meet other needs, needs that may be indirectly beneficial to my career, but not wholly chosen for their utility for work. Exercise was a biggie. Did that a lot last year. Reading science fiction - the "junkier" the better!  And I miss reading comic books, big time. Recommit to finishing Dexter, American Horror Story: Asylum,  and The Walking Dead episodes.Perhaps getting back into yoga. Yeah. There's a lot out there for me to do. I just need to make the commitment. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Getting Started with Curation

This notion of curating student work is, I'm embarrassed to say, a new one for me. I teach at a community college, schlepping myself from one class to another. So I don't have wall or halls that I can use to post students work. But I am experimenting with curating because i see the value of doing so. The primary way I curate work is digitally. Here is a short list of what I'm using. 

Blogger: This is the third or four year of assigning students to create their own blogs. It's been highly evolutionary, meaning each semester has been quite different. I'm learning on the fly, but it has been highly rewarding to see students creating and publishing their work. Currently, I'm working on figuring out how to get students to publicize their blogs, to build an audience for their work. It's amazing how much harder students work when they know someone - other than me! - might read their work. 

Facebook/Twitter: Last semester, I started using private FB page as a vehicle to share questions and resources. This semester, I've started snapping random, unposed photos of students giving presentations, working in collaborative groups, or some other activity. While I'm not curating the actual work, we are documenting them working together, sharing and recording memories. I'm pleasantly surprised at how simply posting pictures of students invigorates the class. Now students are posting photos, too. We do the same on Twitter, too. Each of my sections has its own hashtag, for instance #bayanswc and #SWCENG115. Some students excel at commentary and "back channel" editorials that capture what's going on in the class. Others are developing a skill for joining these type of digtial conversations. As with Blogger, I'm still at the beginning of my learning curve. But I know enough to be excited about leveraging social media for educational purposes. 

Storify/Google Presentations: I discovered Storify last semester And I'm finally feel confident enough in my own Google Presentation skills to ask students to curate and produce materials that we use for assignments and display in class. I'm encouraged by how "making" gets students more invested in the lessons. I'm providing students authentic opportunities to write for real audiences. And the tools themselves, when I use them with intention, enhance the writing process. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Reflecting on our Learning

I use a variety of techniques to get students to "think about their own thinking". Most are quick-writes where I ask a pointed question about what students make of a lesson or a unit. Sometimes I'll use exit slips. I lean heavily on weekly take-home journals that students complete over the weekend. I ask questions to compel students to reflect on how what we do in class relates to their “real lives” (as if school isn't real), what they make of the material, and how they experience their own learning. Here are a few sample questions:

After introducing the concept Rhetoric: In what ways does "rhetoric" apply to your everyday life? With any of your other classes? Your intended major? Your intended career? 

After two labs focused on learning Google apps: What are your thoughts and feelings about using Google slides and docs? How comfortable are you using this technology? What benefits do they possibly bring to your writing process? What risks and obstacles do they bring to your learning? Give examples from class, i.e., setting up your G-Drive, sharing slides, starting your Google.doc sharing.

After a particularly tough group-work session: Discuss one moment in class where someone said or did something that helped you understand the material better.  Or, write about a specific moment in class where you helped somebody with the material. What was that like?

After our first "Jigsaw" activity: What are your thoughts and feelings about the Jigsaw Protocol we did today?  How does discussing and sharing answers with your classmates compare with reading alone or listening to a lecture? What are the benefits of using the Jigsaw? What are the risks? What do we lose by doing the jigsaw? How can we make the process more effective?

I ask students to use writing to discover the relevance of the material we cover in class. I want them to consider the ways in which community and inter-dependence can help with learning. I want them to compare and contrast different methods we use in class so they can evaluate for themselves how they learn best.

In all cases, I’m not looking for an accurate or right/wrong of answer. My purpose is to help students develop a habit of introspection, specifically, a practice of reflection that relies on writing. I am, after all, a writing instructor!

Sometimes, I’ll preview the questions prior to assigning them for homework, letting them answer them in pairs or small groups. Other times, I’ll compose the prompts after class, tailoring the question to reflect on a particular moment in class,  and post them on our learning management system.

I’d like to make my questions stronger and a bit more varied. A quick peek at Pinterest, and look at the anchor chart I found for formulating different questions! I’m also looking carefully at reflective questions we are using in this blog challenge (the reason I’m writing this blog!) to see what I can adapt for my classes.  I like the creative ways these questions get me to think deeply about my own practice, my own habits of mind. I've already “hacked” three of the questions to use for my own students’ blog challenges (I stole that idea, too).  Perhaps I’ll feature a few of their blogs in a future post.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Fine Balance: "Sis Boom Ba!"/"You Shall Not Pass!"

A pair of favorite similes about teachers comes from an article I read many years ago. Unfortunately, I can't remember the title, who wrote it, or where I read it. Mabye it was from a lecture. I probably have gotten the analogy mixed up. But my (false?) memory of the similes remains with me, reminding me of the flexibility effective teachers practice and the contradictory habits of mind we embrace. Here goes: 

A teacher is both a cheerleader and a gatekeeper. As a cheerleader, a good teacher is on the sidelines, encouraging students to give it all they've got. A cheerleader believes in the players, wanting each team member to succeed. So the cheerleader shouts, dances, and chants his support to help players/students stay pumped up, to help them believe in themselves. The players, not the game, is the cheerleader's priority.

A gatekeeper, on the other hand, is more concerned with standards. She protects the "discipline", determining who has mastered the content and skills of the particular field she is entrusted to safeguard. For the gatekeeper, maintaining the integrity of the disciplinary field ranks higher than the does any player's esteem or self-worth. My "field" is English, and I remember how my best teachers held super high standards, as they guarded the portals to the next level. Aren't the dreaded oral exams an intellectual manifestation of a gate? Think of Heimdall fiercely guarding the rainbow portal to Asgard. 

Yet my gate keepers also encouraged me - my own personal pep squad! My best teachers did both. 

Somehow (magically?), an effective teacher toggles back and forth between these often paradoxical roles: sometimes playing the cheerleader, others, the gatekeeper. Often within the space of a single heartbeat! Metaphorically we do the splits, execute complex tumbling runs and human pyramids, and cheer at the top of our lungs to encourage our students. At the same time, we are expected to maintain and enforce agreed upon standards. We must ensure that the students who pass through our classes have learned what they need to succeed at the next level. As gatekeepers, we "love" and protect our fields, just as my favorite professors did.  

The balance isn't a transcendent ratio, a stable fraction, or even some alchemical miracle. Rather, the balance between playing cheerleader and gatekeeper is dynamic, shifting and evolving with (and even within!) every class and for each student.  This half-remembered analogy helps me approach my profession, to be tactical about my technique.

If you remember reading this article, I'd appreciate the  reference. It'll be fun to read it after all these years. I wonder how far the interpretation I remember today veers from the author's original intent and meaning. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Challenging Issue

Today's blog challenge question is "What do you think is the most challenging issue in education today?" For the first time on this blog challenge, I'm stumped. It's not that I don't think there are any challenges. It's just that I had never taken the time to reflection on those thoughts, much less articulate them. 

To help me figure out what to say,  I looked at some of the other teacher-bloggers' responses to this question. The one that caught my eye was the blog "Mrs. Gibbs Flips Algebra". Her post spoke to me and for me. Her words say so much of what I've felt about teaching and the sort of criticism we face as educators. So I'm going to stand on Mickie Gibbs'  shoulders and quote the passages that struck me. According to her, education faces two linked challenges:  
One is that decisions are being made for and about education by people who really have no idea what it's like to be in a classroom. Administrators and teachers are often asked to implement policies that are out of touch with reality. Being the dedicated professionals they are, they do the best they can to fulfill what is required of them - and often perform miracles in the process.

The second, related side of the challenge (as I see it) is that schools, administrators, and teachers are often judged harshly, also by those who really have no idea what it's like to be in a classroom. Everyone sees him/herself as an expert in education . . .  and therefore able to make sweeping criticisms of those trying their best to do the job they were trained to do.

Well said. Interestingly enough, Gibbs is herself paraphrasing another educator's blog. I know two blog posts doesn't make a trend. Yet it is encouraging to read that other educators - even just two - have similar opinions. And It only took two clicks to find the right image for this post.  These posts - Gibbs, her source, and the meme - validate my own nascent beliefs. Now articulated, I am better equipped to face this particular challenge. Many thanks to Mrs. Gibbs for helping me initiate my reflections on this important question. 

Superpowers in the Classroom

I grew up with the X-men. I started collecting comic books when the first issue of the New X-men, the issue that introduced the world to Colossus, Storm, and Nightcrawler. I often fantasized about having their superpowers: super human strength, the ability to fly, the power to teleport, but without the noxious fumes associated with Kurt Wagner's power (Bamf!). 

Those skills, attractive as they remain to me today, wouldn't be all that helpful in the classroom. They'd be great ice-breakers, cool attention-grabbers. Perhaps I could use them for classroom management. But once the novelty wore off, those powers would simply become one of my quirks, not anything that substantially enhanced by ability to teach or improve student learning. 

So what super power would I want in the classroom? I would like to control time, to operate at regular speed while the world around me moves in slow motion. Kind of like Quicksilver from this summer's X-Men: Days of Future Past. He could move so quickly in time that he could pluck bullets out of the air, avoid being punched by an adversary, or even playing ping pong against himself. That's the power I want. 

Not that bullets or punches fly in my classrooms. But I would like more time to thoughtfully react to students. Questions deserve intentional, deliberate responses. Classroom debates and discussions, that seem to move at lightening speed, often require me to intervene. Having that extra five or ten seconds could help me make my comments more effective. And then there's the issue of responding to classroom management issues. An extra fifteen seconds would help me prioritize the best strategies to manage disruptions more effectively than my off the cuff, spontaneous reactions, responses that tend toward unproductive snark or sarcasm. 
I know its important for students to see me mull over ideas, to take my time in conversation. Students need folks to model the habit of thoughtful reflection, of listening before responding. With practice, I could develop a tolerance for deliberation, for that intentional wait-time before responding. But in the meantime, how cool to have the power to manipulate time.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sense of Purpose, Open to Change, & Willing to Make Mistakes: Three Qualities

We've all been told that we should, for a job interview, always be ready to talk about our strengths. Indeed, I'm always pushing students to name, claim, and sustain their efficacy, their persistence, their positive attitudes - the strengths that will serve them well.  But this is one of those kinds of questions I'm loathe to answer myself because I imagine someone saying, "Um, no, that's not your strength." The dreaded "imposter syndrome" rears its head whenever I name my talents or strengths. One other reason naming discrete strengths is tough is that, as I think about mine, I have trouble distinguishing one from the other. They bleed into each other. They are mutually constitutive, building off of each other, necessary preconditions as well as outcomes of each other. So with that caveat (excuse? disclaimer?), I give you what popped into my mind when posed with today's prompt: Name three strengths you have as an educator. 

Sense of Purpose: Corny as it sounds, I do want to make a positive difference in peoples' lives. Sure, I want to help folks find a sense of mastery and to get closer to achieving their own goals. But I also want to demonstrate that learning can be pleasurable. I want folks to experience how working through confusion toward clarity feels good. And just as important,  I want students to experience the power of community to solve problems, gain knowledge, and grow as individuals. I infuse as many class activities with kapwa, the Filipino value for community, the South African philosophy of ubuntu that is captured in the quote, "A person is a person through other people." That spirit of in lak'ech that Luis Valdez expresses in his poem "Pensamiento Serpentino." That's my purpose. That's what's behind why I teach the way I teach. The love of learning and the value for community inform how I select the material to teach reading, writing, and thinking skills. 

Open to Change: I like think that I'm an open to taking risks - with trying out new material, changing my approach, and embracing technology (hopefully wisely!). I don't think there has ever been a class I've ever taught the same or a writing project I've assigned that doesn't change each and every time I assign it. That's because I'm open to the feedback I get from students and willing to make alterations accordingly. I'm also someone who is a professional development junkie, always looking out for new exercises and approaches to achieve my purpose. I am continually reflecting and tweaking my craft to be the best educator I can be, even if that means making mistakes. Lots of mistakes. 

Willing to Make Mistakes: I embrace errors. I know from my own experience that I have to make mistakes if I'm to master a new skill. I tied a lot of knots before I could figure out how to tie my own shoes. Indeed, tying those knots were a necessary step to becoming a master. And that process - messing up on the way toward mastery - is a recurring pattern for me: as a student, big brother, son, husband, and as a counselor oh-so-many-years-ago. I made tons mistakes and took many missteps, but all those mistakes helped me grow - when i had the right attitude. Took me awhile to accept that. And now, I intentionally bring that attitude with me to the classroom - expecting student to make mistake, creating an environment that thinks of errors as jumping off points for big lessons. When students are on the verge of learning a new concept or gaining proficiency with a new skill, mistakes have to happen.  

Looking over my words, I see I need to tighten up what I mean by each strength. I want to clarify what I mean and ground each strength with actual experiences that demonstrate those strengths. At the same time, I want to state each one simply and precisely. Almost like a mission statement. One thing for sure, if I can't name my own strengths, it'll be hard to intentionally improve upon them. It's like Henry Kissinger said: "If you don't know where you are going, every goal will get you nowhere." 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Attending to Voice and Proximal Zones: My (Growing) Approach to Feedback

Giving effective feedback continues to be an area of frustration and growth for me. With so many student projects to read and evaluate, time is a huge limiting factor. Even when I do have time to give feedback, I'm not always sure that what I say or write to students is effective. By effective, I mean that my words provide students with enough guidance for them to more deeply think through a writing project. Part of what I need to do is incorporate assessments that helps me gauge how students respond to the feedback. I'm toying around with tweaking the "post-mortem" metacommentary students write after publishing/turning in a writing project. 

For today's blog challenge, I'd like to talk about two modes of feedback I'm most involved with right now. The first has to do with generative writing. The second is a new strategy I'm experimenting with for giving feedback later in the writing process. 

Generative Writing: So far this semester, I am being quite conscientious about giving students written feedback on their journals and reading responses. Students get full credit for these types of focused free writing assignments.  I read them, looking to see what students are thinking about the material. My comments at this point are as a reader; I simply react to their ideas, their voice. I might let a writer know which line or idea piqued my interest. I might point out an idea that they might pursue for the formal writing project. Perhaps I'll ask question, but one that I genuinely have about the writer's ideas, not a leading question meant for the writer to fix something. If the writing is personal or if a student discloses something that triggers my emotions, I'll say so. And if the writing suggests they might need some sort of referral, I make one. Basically, I respond to the content as I understand it - not correcting nor evaluating, but listening for voice. The guiding principle here is letting the writer know what her words make me think and feel. 

Feedback Later in the Process: I've added a new "habit of mind" to the way I give feedback to drafts for more formal projects. I try to observe where I see a student beginning to demonstrate understanding a new concept or practicing a new skill. I note where she is at a "proximal zone", where a student is on the way to mastering a new learning objective. It's that zone between what a student "can-do-on-her-own" and what she cannot. Perhaps the skill she is attempting is something we are working on in the class. Or it could be something that I notice that isn't necessarily what we are studying. Either way, I'm looking to see what she's just about able to do rather than what she can't. 

For instance, I might notice someone is experimenting with explaining a quote. I would write, "I see you are the verge of doing commentary - you are trying to explain what this quote means. That's a smart strategy to consider using whenever you quote an outside source."  To a student experimenting with using lists to illustrate a concept, I might say, "You are developing skill with the 'listing strategy' to show readers what you mean" and then add a guidance comment like, "Let's figure out how to make the list flow."  Instead of saying, "You've got a parallelism error here", I want to name the skill the writer is on the verge of doing effectively so they can recognize it as one of the writing techniques they can use. And then I'll add a coaching comment to get them closer to mastery. 

In order to do this, I have to read with an eye toward observing what students close to comprehending rather than hunting for mistakes. This reframes the way I see student errors; those mistakes can be manifestations of students trying out a new skill or expressing a new idea. How empowering it is to hear or read something that notices you are in the process of learning instead of seeing red mark that tells you you've done something wrong.  I got this technique from Lucy Spence's "Generous Reading: Seeing Students Through Their Writing."  Working with her ideas has been an challenging learning curve, compelling me to observe from a different angle. But trying on Spense's theory is already paying off. 

In a nutshell, what I'm thinking about feedback right now is about being someone who reads for my students'  nascent ideas, someone who listens for their voices. I am trying to minimize criticism of structural and mechanical issues so students can figure out what they are trying to express. Secondly, I want to be a generous reader, someone who notices and names what students are on the verge of understanding and then provides a helpful comment, leading question, or other form of  guidance that nudges students out of their proximal zones towards proficiency . . . and mastery! 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Ed Tech in the Classroom

Today's questions is about the ed tech tools we use in my classes. Here's are the ones that are on my mind right now since we're in the midst of using them.

We use a range of Google apps in my class. We use and share Google Docs and Slides. Currently, my classes are learning how to use the "comment" function on Docs to facilitate peer revision. A third Google app we use is Blogger. This semester, students will publish between eight and twelve blog posts. This is my sixth semester using Blogger.

Another blogging tool we've used and will use again is Storify. Storify is an online tool that allows users to curate a variety of Internet sources: web pages, tweets, Tumblr and Facebook posts, and YouTube clips. The feature that makes Storify special is its ability to sequence the clips into a coherent narrative. Between each clip, you can include your own text to set up a "story". Your text stitches the together, providing transitions, explanations, and statements of significance to tie the different clips together. 

I've used Storify to "flip" lesson, to curate tutorials. And I've assigned students to curate their own stories. Here's a post I curated to leverage the Donald Sterling story to teach a rhetorical concept. Here's another one about rhetoric.

To communicate with students, I use three different "channels". Our learning management system, Blackboard, has an email function that lets me contact students all at once, in groups, or individually. Blackboard is my purely academic/class-matters channel where I discuss assignments and content. It's also the channel I encourage students to contact me. Students can also communicate with each other through Blackboard without having to share their private email addresses.

We also use a secret Facebook group page. Because it's a "secret" Facebook page, students don't have to friend each other (or me). Our Facebook group page is the channel we use to share information about the campus and the larger community. Folks announce sports and campus events. Or they can post community events that are related to class content. Or web links and YouTube clips related to class. Students use our private Facebook page to encourage each other and to vent. Students can ask each other what's going on in class or for assistance. But if they ask me questions on the Facebook page, I'll direct them to use my email address.

This is my second semester experimenting with Twitter. We use Twitter as a "back channel", for folks to comment and curate what's happening in class. Students often take pictures of what I've written on the board or of each other working.

I use both social media channels to "push" content to students. I may share a "teaser" of an upcoming class or a video that we discussed in class. Or an article I found that relates to a class topic. Something short and sweet to whet the appetite and to extend our discussions beyond the classroom. Doing so encourages students to post content, too.

I am experimenting with more ed tech tools: Haiku Deck, Padlet, Professor Word, and others. Still on a learning curve with those programs - still trying to figure out if I'm being seduced with cool web tools or if these tools will enhance reading and writing instruction. 

Five Year Plan

The question of the day for the Reflective Teacher Challenge is, "How do you envision your teaching changing over the next five years?" This is one of the questions that compels me to come up with a more precise answer than simply saying, "I will be a better teacher".  A step in the right direction would be able in five years to claim the title of "teacher-leader", to be a stronger teacher leader. A bit more precise, if unclear. 
Indulge me as I write my way into clarifying what I mean by being a stronger teacher leader. 
I want to lead, to be one of those people who are at the forefront of implementing new strategies, new tools. However, as strong (Effective? Is that the word I'm want?) leader, I wouldn't be suckered into trying something new for the sake of being an early adopter, as sexy as that sounds. I will have developed a strategy, a set of questions I can use to figure out if I'm being deluded by bells and whistles, or if a tool actually improves learning. Does the new tech enhance learning? Will the new group-work scheme increase opportunities to learn?  An effective teacher leader can tell if a new tool or way of thinking merely appears to be "innovative" or a "game changer". Transformative doesn't necessarily mean embracing "new" for the sake of "new".  
I want to be someone who is open to trying to things. I want to be fresh in my approach. At the same time, I want to be wise enough to figure out if I'm being seduced, drawn to shiny objects rather than practices that actually make a positive difference. The changes I make won't be cosmetic or trendy. 
I say all this because I'm in the midst of making pretty big shifts in the way I teach. I'm using more digital tools than ever before. I'm moving away from lecture to more of an experiential approach. I'm moving away from prescriptive tasks, textbook lessons and projects toward more inquiry based, student-centered writing situations. It's been exciting. Feedback and assessments are positive. 
At the same time, I admit that my attraction to using social media and digital tools is about the flash and fun. And the move away from lecture to more collaborative work, from the "sage-on-the-stage" approach to "guide-on-the-side" coaching approach, has everything to do with how engaged students are, how much joy it looks like they are experiencing. The question that persists is, are these strategies - technological, pedagogical, and andragogical - making learning better? Do these approached enhance instruction, or do they just look and feel good? And how can I tell? 

In five years, I hope I am increasingly reflective and intentional with my teaching practice. I admit - this sounds just as vague as my earlier iteration, just as packed, Yet the act of writing about my intentions helps me unpack the layers of meaning embedded in my desire to be an "effective teacher leader". And writing about it, as I'm doing now and throughout this blog challenge, is a concrete practice i can use to keep on reflecting, to keep on asking these important questions. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Favorite Parts of My School Day

I enjoy two favorite parts of my school day. I seriously get my jollies from planning lessons. figuring out how to make the lesson interactive, collaborative, and relevant. I have the lessons and objectives at the ready, but designing the actual flow and sequence of activities drives me. Daniel Pink, in his essay and video "The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us" (above)  discusses "mastery", that desire to be the best at something, a skill or practice like acting, dancing, playing video games. He argues that we all possess a desire for mastery, to do something that gets us in "the zone". For me, that's planning lessons. I want to be the best, making sure that activities engage students with intellectual rigor while leveraging the power of community. And keeping it relevant. 

The second favorite part of the teaching day is after I've given directions, after I've set up whatever protocol of small group activity I've devised. Seeing student engaged with each other - answering questions, preparing short presentation, unpacking texts - on their own as I cruise about the room, clarifying and quizzing as I listen in on the groups. What's fun is watching the students do the learning. As I become more and more confident in my craft and the content, I trust that students can make sense of the material if given the right context, if the conditions are such that folks are willing to feel the burn of learning. 

Too many semesters have I done all the work of learning - preparing notes, putting slides together, figuring out what's important to share and practice. I was the one doing the learning! Now, I enjoy designing  experiences (isn't that a much cooler phrase than "lesson planning"?) where students are put in the position of having to actively examine, prioritize, evaluate, and manipulate the material - instead of passively listening to me or watching a slide show. Or mechanically filling the blank of some worksheet. Sure, this approach brings a whole different set of risks than traditional lecture. But we know that lectures don't work (see here, here, and here), Mine are no exception.  So when I devise an experience where students actually engage conceptual knowledge and practice procedural skills, I have to smile. What a joy to see them learning, with me alongside their coach/trainer/cheerleader. 

I love it, perhaps the students will grow to appreciate the paces I put them through. Moving away from recitation and mechanical "drill and kill" toward struggling with ideas provides me many happy moments - planning those experiences, and seeing students feel the burn of learning. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Potpourri: Random Facts About Me

Five Random Facts
  1. I was born in Mary's Help Hospital in Daly City, CA. 
  2. I used to be allergic to chocolate.
  3. I learned to be competitive as a kid playing mahjong with my family. 
  4. I used to ride a scooter when I was a student at SDSU.
  5. I studied a year of college at University of San Carlos in the Philippines. 

Four Things on my Bucket List
  1. Travel to Egypt, India, China and Southeast Asia
  2. Learn to speak Spanish fluently
  3. Learn American Sign Language 
  4. Do a meandering, agenda-free road trip through the American North West and Southwest

Three Things Things I Hope For This Yeas As An Educator 
  1. Keep up with grading. Aaack! 
  2. Join focused study groups with my teacher peers
  3. Find opportunities to build community within and among my classes

Two Things That Have Made Me Laugh As An Educator 
  1. Making the same mistakes as students do right after hectoring them about the same skills (being tardy, using spell check, managing priorities and time, eating in class). 
  2. Seeing myself approach stereotype status - the bumbling, socially inept nutty professor.

One Thing I Wish More People Knew About Me
  1. I'm much shyer and private than my tendency toward extraversion (ENTJ) suggests. 

Thowing Away My Textbooks

One of my biggest teaching accomplishments is throwing away my textbook. Not really. I still have stacks of textbooks in my office. The ones I've kept are valued tools, full of highlighted passages, festooned with sticky pads. It's clear I use them.  By "throw away", I mean I stop requiring students to buy standard textbooks for my composition classes. You know, the books that are 80 to 90 dollars a pop and 700 hundred pages long. They are packed with important concepts, sequenced in logical fashion, and full of exercises and suggestions to help teachers implement the lessons. Indeed, I could schedule my whole semester around the organizational pattern and logic set up by the textbook.

I loved textbooks when I first started teaching. I needed them. 

But I never finished any of the textbooks I required. At best, I got through half the book. Worse, within two weeks of every semester, I'd veer away from the calendar that I carefully crafted to match the textbook's table of contents. Every time I did so, I wondered if I was using the book incorrectly or if I had simply used the wrong one. Maybe I was just a bad teacher.  So I would vainly try again or pick another book. 

One day a teacher I respected told me that  if an instructor needed a textbook to teach a class, that instructor is not qualified to teach. Not qualified? I defended my use, but I had to admit he had a point. My mentor explained that textbooks should not drive my classroom design; textbooks should supplement and support the sequence and flow of my classes, not dictate it. Over the course of our heated discussion, I realized that I was guilty of depending on textbook to organize my class. I had relinquished my professional responsibility to design meaningful learning experiences to the textbook publishers. 

That's not to to say that I don't use textbooks when I teach. They are rich resources. The textbooks are a collection of extended definitions and illustrations of key composition concepts. They are the collected wisdom of composition teachers. But basically, textbooks are a huge glorified glossary, a dictionary with exercises. So instead of making students buy a particular textbook-glossary, I refer to them as needed, just as I would a dictionary or reference. 

With so many textbooks on my shelves, I pick and choose the best sections to teach various topics. I use two pages from one book to launch a discussion on audience, four pages from another to conclude a unit on appeals, and I'll discuss an extended set of paragraphs from another book to model coherent support. I'd pick those sections based on my expertise - what I thought would work when I needed them for the schedule I devised (and revised!) for a particular class. I stopped using the textbooks as a template for teaching. 

This move has several benefits. The first, students don't spend the better part of 100 dollars on a text that WE NEVER FINISH. I design the classes around what I believe the particular students in my particular classes need. I get to meet them where they are at. Because I am not bound to a single textbook, I am free to use the resources I find work best. It don't even use a textbook. There are so many websites with extended definitions and examples of writing concepts - that are free. I now spend more time helping students find and evaluate free online references, sites like the Purdue Online Writing Lab  and the  ones curated by the Writing Centers of other colleges. Letting go of my dependency on a single textbook, I began to see the difference between coverage, attempting to get through every chapter, regardless of order, and depth, the substantial learning that sticks with learners. 

This move from using the textbook as my teaching template to using the textbook to supplement my educational design provoked a bit of anxiety.  I hadn't realized how relying on textbooks kept me from actually thinking about how students learn - how my students learn. Taking on that responsibility was heavier than I had realized. But doing so makes me own my discipline in ways that depending on a textbook precludes. I can now explicitly say and demonstrate that I intentionally design learning experiences for students. Moving from my unconscious dependency on textooks (addiction?) was major shift - a scary one, to be sure. But I know, even as I suspected when my mentor first confronted me, I owe it to my students and my profession to do so.