Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Final Question: Fearless Teaching . . . and Pottery?

A few nights back, after first reading the final question of TeachThought's 30 day blog challenge, I experienced another episode of my recurring nightmare cycle: I'd just found out I had to go onstage to play my role in some drama production. But I hadn't even picked up the script or attended a single rehearsal. 

This kind of performance anxiety plays out in other nightmares: I show up to a Calculus final but realize I've missed every class. Or, I've been sent back to my undergraduate college because cause Admissions and Records figured out I didn't complete enough units to graduate. Or I've been assigned to teach a lecture course for a three-hundred student class that begins in an hour. Sometimes, these ordeals, or some twist on the theme, are distinct, focused on a single scenario. More often, variant horrors merge and mutate into each other, commingling into a piling heap of angst, sometimes leaving me just as tired as if I hadn't gone to bed. 

Makes sense. The final challenge question has to do with courage: What would I do (as a teacher) if I weren't afraid? 

When I first read the question, I drew a blank. Upon waking, I still wasn't clear what I'd do differently. But waking up exhausted from the nightmare, I realized I'd have so much more energy if I wasn't afraid. 

I don't appear afraid when I'm teaching. I walk tall, speak loudly, and like the think I have relatively strong command presence. 

But I often feel like I'm hiding behind a facade. Some days, the act is more convincing to me than at other times. It's as if I've performed myself into being, "acting-as-if".  At my worst, though, the nagging fear takes a toll. I still take risks as a teacher, regularly revising how I teach, changing up my strategies to meet student's needs and to remedy strategies that didn't work. 

So where does the energy go? How does my anxiety morph into a energy/time suck? Here are a few obvious ways I can name right now:  

1) The Impostor Syndrome! I'm waiting for someone to discover my duplicity - as if I made it all the way through dress rehearsal without cracking open the script, or got through my undergraduate program without taking nary a science course. I may not be frozen in paralysis, but the impostor syndrome slows me down, and not in a thoughtful, zen way. 

2) The Humblebrag:  I find myself slipping from sharing what I do in class with my colleagues to being competitive, boasting about my achievements rather than giving and receiving in a reciprocal fashion. A sure sign of insecurity. And all the posting I do on Facebook.. . . to what degree is it boasting to bolster my ego? Fishing for compliments  . . . an indoor and outdoor sport. 

3)  Second Guessing Myself: I did say that I do take risks, trying out new things, refining and  experimenting with lessons. But getting to that point often takes time, well beyond the time of thoughtful reflection. After giving it my best shot, I often spend a hefty chunk of time playing and replaying  "I should have . . . " and "I could have . . . " tapes in my head, an internal Greek chorus. More like the punishing furies.

I know I'm overstating my fears - but it is kind of fun exaggerating - taking control of them by putting them on paper. Writing-as-therapy. 

Yet, I still draw a blank as to what I'd actually do if I had more courage. For sure, I'd have more energy. Definitely more time.  Like what Margaret Cho says about battling low self-esteem. She hypothesizes what it'd be like to be fearless: "How much time would I have? It turns out [I'd] save about ninety seven minutes a week. I can take a pottery class!"

Here's to conserving energy and time so I can throw some pottery. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mutt Genres: How My Teaching Has Changed

The penultimate prompt for the reflective teacher blog challenge! Home stretch: "How have you changed as an educator since you first started?' I'll take this to question to mean "since I first started teaching". I'll save the question "since I started the blog challenge" for my 31st reflection. 

I've changed in so many ways. Most of those changes are less about doing a 180 degree reversal or flipping a switch from off to on. The changes have been gradual, processional. And I hope, ongoing.  

One big change is my ongoing transition from assigning "mutt genres" to designing "real world" genres. By mutt genre, I mean the kind of writing that only exists in first year (FY) college composition courses, that mutant mash of modes and patterns. The prompts for such assignments often  no where else except a classroom, devoid of context.

I can't think of anywhere else I'm asked to write or read a five-paragraph composition. Even if the topic or inspiration for an FY composition compels students, that formula evacuates any joy students may have felt discussing the book or topic. The format is stale, deadening, and demonstrates less about student voice than their ability to conform. Nor does the format allow us to assess students' ability to make choices beyond fitting square pegs into square holes, round pegs into round holes. 

Sure, I want students to be conscious of form, shape, and structure. But rather than providing a formula or template to follow, I'd rather have students learn to ask the questions about their purpose and their audience, questions that help them make intentional, deliberate choices about particular strategies they use, about the modes they select and manipulate.

Blogging serves that purpose - composing something actually meant for public consumption. I've also come up with scenarios, (semi) realistic situations where students have to compose something for an audience they can imagine, something that doesn't fit the five-paragraph format. I asked students to compose a two-page informative flier to teach incoming students the meaning and significance of "audience". Another prompt asks students to compose and annotate a web page that curates a particular grammar or composition skill. In another assignment, students compose a newsletter article for high school teachers that argues for using pop music to teach rhetoric appeals to apathetic students. 

These example assignments focus on particular content students must understand: audience, grammar, or appeals. Each composition has an authentic audience, and the writing has a purpose. The trick for me is to come up with a thoughtful self-evaluation or meta-commentary where students discuss how they approached the assignments, what deliberate choices they made. I want to know their decisions and intentions and for students to become conscious of those choices and deliberations. 

These assignments allow me to lead discussion about the use value of composition, its relevance and application. Ideally, these kinds of assignments engender more excitement (not a whole lot, but at least not the groans or glazed-over eyes that mutt genres tend to generate). Investment is often higher. And assessing their learning is much easier (and less painful) than slogging through mutt genre essays, compositions I used to assign . . . for far too long! 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Driving Force: Technology or Curriculum?

Day 28 of the Teach Thought Blogging Challenge asks, "Should technology drive curriculum, or vice versa?" Great question. With all the shiny toys that the digital world has to offer, I need to keep asking, "Am I being seduced by all the bells and whistles? Or does the technology actually facilitate student learning?"

In my case, instruction is writing. This means that whatever I do in class, whatever projects students undertake, the manifest objective should be about students publishing ideas worth sharing. When I'm at my best, I ask myself guiding questions: How does today's activity help with drafting and revising? How well does the exercise work toward developing student voices and perspectives? Is this project the most effective way for students to experience the burn of writing for a real audience? Those queries animate my lesson planning.

And when assessing student learning, I go back to the same kinds of question: How effective was that prompt at teaching persuasive writing? What from the project accounts facilitated students' voice? Did that exercise demonstrate to students the significance of rhetorical appeals From the start to finish, learning outcomes frame and book-end the process. 

That's what I understand now from reflection and practice (thanks, PLN!). This, coming from someone easily dazzled by software! I've traveled quite a bit of distance away from giving in to the allure of technology without considering curricular goals. I'm sure I'll always be in process, guided by the principle that technology is a tool, not the outcome. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Weekends, Holidays, and Teaching

"That moment when you find yourself saying, "I need a longer weekend to get all this work done!" ‪#‎glamorousacademia‬ ‪#‎solidarity‬ - from the Facebook feed of a veteran

That was one of the first posts I read this Sunday morning between slurping my coffee an marking papers. I nodded, half out of agreement, the other to clear the cobwebs out of my head, cleanse my mental palate, before diving into next pile of papers to grade. 

So when I read today's question, "What role do weekends and holidays play in your teaching?", I harrumphed, "Weekends? You mean grading and prep hours? Holidays, the days I prep for the next day, month, or semester?" 

Professional Development: I spend a good of deal of time reading up on the articles I've saved over the week, catching up on posts from educational resources that I've compiled over the week. Occasionally I'll have some sort of formal program to attend - as I did yesterday and the Saturday prior. The weekends, then are partly about sharpening the saw. 

Grading/Prepping: Without the weekend, I'd be SO BEHIND. That's the life of a teacher. Luckily prepping is one of my favorite activities, so it's almost a luxury to have large blocks of time to plan lessons. As for grading, it's not about finishing. It's about keeping my head (scalp?) above water. The weekend, then, is about getting my job done. 

Recreation:This weekend was typical in that I reserved (or ended up) relaxing doing what I like. This weekend, that was about lolling about in bed watching Netflix. This weekend, I caught up on the new series How To Get Away With Murder, a Shonda Rhimes-tastic new series featuring Viola Davis as a lawyer and professor with a novel andragogical approach. I'm hooked. The weekend, then, is about decompressing. 

Relationship: The weekend is also one of the times where I do my damnedest to spend quality time with my husband. During the week, our schedules don't overlap much, but on the weekends, we have at least a couple of six or eight chunks of time we could do something special. This weekend, because of hot weather in San Diego and the fact we have no air-conditioning, we spent the night at at air-conditioned hotel. I admit I did do some school work in the hotel room, but for the most part, we had a nice little stay-cation. The weekend, then, is about grounding myself emotionally by keeping my relationship healthy. 

I see I need to be a bit more intentional about how I manage my time on the weekends. The to things I do to decompress are largely unplanned, and aren't really about a real outside interest. And with regards to time with my husband, I risk way too much when (not "if") I put work before him. Just as I set aside time for work, I need to protect time for decompressing, a formal avocation or hobby, and my relationship. That would be healthier, more balanced. This is the second blog post challenge from TeachThought that's got me thinking about balance. Perhaps its time do do more than reflect . . . 

My "Go To" Sites For Hints, Resources & Inspiration

I love books. Love them. But my schedule (and budget!) is such that I have to be strategic about committing to reading books or subscribing to journals. Sure, I can go to the library, but those visits typically happen only when I know exactly what I'm looking for, when I have a title or author in mind. But I frequently surf Internet, browsing resources as they were appetizers at a buffet. Who'm I kidding. I'm on the web a lot. Here are two social media sites and my latest "go-to" web page I consult when looking for quick tips or a bit of inspiration. 

Twitter: I use TweetDeck on my laptop, a Twitter app that lets me manage the different hashtags and tweeters I follow. It's like a regular Twitter, but with multiple channels I can see on a single screen, each channel devoted to a hashtag I follow. I have #SDWAP on my dashboard. And I follow plenty of teachers and educational bloggers: TeachThought, ReadWriteThinkEdutopia and Eduslam. I'm a newbie at Twitter, and I'm happy to say that my time online is so much more productive now that I "get it". 

Pinterest: This social media site makes my top three because I go to it for very focused searches, when I look for inspiration. When I find myself wanting to decompress or relax but don't want to feel like I'm wasting my time, I'll log on to Pinterest. My recent searches? Written fluency, rhetoric, composition, and inferences. The majority of the pins that I find are K-6, but I've been pleasantly surprised at how much there is to "steal" from my colleagues who teach elementary school. 

Teaching Naked: This is the companion website for Jose Bowen's book of the same name. I read his book for a professional development program last year and was blown away by Bowen's project, leveraging digital media and technology to make the most of our time in class. He is not talking about using technology in class. Instead, he urges educators to consider how to use tech outside the classroom (to deliver content, assign projects, assess learning) to free up class time for teachers to coach and facilitate students' learning. 

The provocative phrase has to do with teachers moving away from simply delivering content during class time and instead having us demonstrate to our students how we think and solve problems from our discipline. The teaching naked approach makes visible how we ask questions, solve problems, and otherwise apply the procedural knowledge of our fields - in front and beside our students, i.e., what flipped classrooms allow teachers to do. The site provides enough of a glimpse into what Bowen advocates to be useful even if you havn't read his book. His site makes the top three because I've been referring to his site a bit lately, refreshing my memory. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Building Student/Teacher Collaboration

The first definition for collaboration that appeared when I clicked on Google was "to work with another person or group in order to achieve something". In the case of student/teacher collaboration, that "something" worth achieving is substantive, meaningful learning. The ideal collaboration between students and me would mean we share the same goals. Or our goals should overlap enough that we know that whatever we are doing is related to both our objectives. 

As the teacher, I am obligated  to meet certain learning objectives (read about my metaphor for teaching). I have to help students see the relevance of those objectives and particular lessons. I'm not saying students don't need to bring a sense of purpose to our classes. They do! Often, however, those purposes are quite general, based on limited experience with college, and quite different than what we as professors have. 

Clarifying how the learning objectives I'm assigned to teach may be important to the students' lives, academic or otherwise remains largely my responsibility. That relevance may not be readily apparent to students. This is particularly true of students, first-year and first-generation college students, who aren't familiar enough with the material nor the skills we teach to know how the assigned objectives are linked to their own goals and majors, which are often hazy and undecided for first-year students. 

The same holds true for the way we work together, that is, our different expectations about the roles students and teachers play in teaching and learning. 

I'm basically rehearsing the big point of Rebecca Cox's book The College Fear Factor. Cox uses anecdotes and research to show that students and professors expectations about learning do not match. At all. Many students expect professors to be a font of knowledge who will fill their brains with data, concepts, and information.  This makes the students primary job one of a recorder, someone waiting to be imprinted with knowledge, as in, "What's the right answer?" 

Professors, the ones I respect and do my best to emulate, certainly value the type of conceptual knowledge students expect to acquire. But we are also deeply invested in procedural knowledge. We'd like to be "guides-on-the-side" who facilitate students through the process of evaluating, manipulating, and applying that conceptual knowledge. This means we see ourselves not as sentient encyclopedias full of information. instead, we see ourselves as coaches. 

That's the distinction. Students may see professors as walking Wikipedias, brimming with discreet unit of knowledge, like cash, that can be exchanged and withdrawn as if from an ATM. We see ourselves as cognitive coaches, mentors who facilitate students' skill in addressing questions and issues from our particular disciplinary lenses. This disconnect between expectations frustrates collaboration. Crossed wires short circuit working together. Cox, in College Fear Factor, argues convincingly teachers must help students see and bridge that often jarring (shocking?) gap. This  especially applies to those of us who teach incoming first-year students, students adjusting to new culture. 

This notion of relevance isn't shared in one lecture or a discrete lesson. I can't simply "tell" students the relevance or explain significance of role-stress. It isn't a singular event. When I'm at my best, I design activities that iterate the relevance of what we are doing - without me relying on a single pronouncement or directive, hallmarks of the "empty vessel" concept of education. It's on me to facilitate, in multiple ways,  students' comprehension of the gap between what they expect about learning and what the professoriate expects. Those activities, hopefully, demonstrate the relevance, make the significance of what we are doing visible in ways that a handout or glib statement ("This isn't high school!") cannot express. 

So (as I write my way to knowing my point), the kind of collaboration I aim for rests on the shared understanding of two building blocks: the relevance of the learning objectives and the roles each of has to play make that happen. Effective eachers create the conditions for students to more easily see these foundations for collaboration. It's on teachers to make those gaps visible, to make transparent the value of the learning goals and the methods we use to get meet those objectives. In many ways, my job has just as much to do with acculturation as it does with my particular content/skill area. And I'm fine with that. It's what I signed up to do.