Friday, November 7, 2014

Attitude of Gratitude #6: An Inspiring Quote, Levels of Clarity

The question for today's #reflectiveteacher blog prompt asks me to share and discuss a quote that inspires me. The quote I picked is by a professor at UC Berkeley: 

". . .if you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself" - John Searle  

Searle's words challenge me to know my material well enough to express myself with clarity, to say it plainly. His words remind me that what I take for granted can sound like gibberish to students.

The phrase "say it" isn't just about speaking; it's about any form of expression. It compels me to figure out new ways of iterating a point. Lately, I've been complementing the assignment prompts I give to students with short video clips. It's important that students learn how to read assignment sheets, and I could expect them to dive right into a written "genre" (assignment prompts). But far too many students are unfamiliar with unpacking assignments. So I'm experimenting with Screen Cast clips to "chunk out" the assignment or address a particular problem the assignment asks students to solve. 

This points up another aspect of being clear.  While I need to be versed in my discipline, I have to be conscious of students' mindsets, attitude, and prior knowledge. I have to infer what and how I might need to say or do in order to reach them, and then make deliberate choices to meet students where they are at. That realization too a bit of time. I thought that knowing my material was enough. 

This increased attention to clarity (both content and consciousness-of-audience) compels me to do more than repeat my message but to iterate the point in different and ways, repeated with revision. That's why I've been experimenting with different "genres" - the standard "college composition prompt" vs. a series of "explainer video" clips - that attend to the same purpose: to administer an assignment. Sidebar: Explainers are supposed to be about 2 minutes long. I'm still on my learning curve as mine tend to be bit longer. Here' a link to my YouTube page

I've been making my thinking behind the "iterated prompts" experiment transparent to students, explaining why I use two versions to express the same content. Juxtaposing the two prompts helps students more deeply understand the assignment; one mode is bound to fill in the gaps the other misses. Contrasting the two allows us to consider how the different genres appeal to different audience with different needs and expectations. Thinking alongside me, students see more clearly the intentional choices that a writer (me!) makes when composing. The begin to recognize the gambits writers make to make the messages both clear and appealing.  

Moreover, contrasting the two prompts allows for discussion about what the composers of other college assignments (their next batch of professors!) may expect from their students. As most of my students are new to college, many first-generation college, it's my duty to make clear and help them bridge the gap between what students expect from college and what professors believe about learning (Why yes, I've just rehearsed the thesis of Rebecca Fox's College Fear Factor). 

So Searle's quote helps me understand the multiple levels of clarity I'm responsible for delivering: my content, connecting students to that content, and making visible the conventions of college (S/O to Fox, again). It has been challenging. I've had to change my own mindset from "They should step up!" to "What can I do to show them how to step up?" I use the word "showing" intentionally because for too long, I thought I could just tell them. No. I need to demonstrate with clarity how joining college means learning new conventions and rules to be part of this community.