Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Experiments in Making: The "Identity Is" Project

Readers might be curious about the "Bayan Professor" part of this blog's URL. Bayan is Tagalog, a Filipino dialect, for town or municipality. Bayan also connotes family, home - the beloved community. It's the name me and my teaching partner chose for our linked classes, the Bayan Learning Community.

My partner teaches the Personal Development component of our paired classes, the first-year college colloquium, the "how to be a college student" class. I'm the English professor. While Bayan does special outreach to Filipino and Filipino American students, Bayan Scholars don't have to be Filipino. They must, however, be willing to engage Filipino American themes to master Personal Development and English skills.

My co-teacher and I layout our learning objectives and, considering the shared themes, look for intersections, moments where we can leverage the overlaps. We want students to experience how different disciplines actually complement each other, how classes feed into the other. We're also committed to "making,", i.e., having students create as much as they consume. We want our students to see themselves as producers of knowledge, not merely passively taking in information. The "Identity Is" Project was our most ambitious unit this semester.

For learning communities focused on race/ethnicity, like Umoja and Puente, identity is an important foundation for all students regardless of ethnicity or race. And getting students to think of themselves as scholars, a key element of the Personal Development course, broadens that discussion of identity. My co-teacher facilitates discussions and experiential activities to help students explore and share their subjective experiences and understandings of identity.

I use my class to examine informational and expressive texts, investigating how scholars and artists conceptualize identity. Beverly Daniel Tatum's "Complexity of Identity:Who Am I?" and Catherine Latterell's introduction to the unit on identity in Remix: Reading and Composing Culture are two of the informative pieces we read. To get at the subjective aspect of identity, we use various first-person pieces and poems, for instance, Thandie Newton's Embracing Otherness, and excerpts from Babaylin: Anthology of Filipina and Filipina American Writers and Liwanag, one of the first Filipino American literary poetry anthologies.

We juxtapose students' experiential knowledge with scholarly investigations and aesthetic expressions of identity. This semester, we added a "making" aspect to the unit: the "Identity Is" project, a video presentation for students to express their subjective understanding of identity, knowledge informed and fortified by what they unpacked in the English course.

Our first step was reviewing comparisons (metaphor/simile) and distinguishing between active and stative/passive sentences. Next students discussed in groups of four or five what they learned or relearned about identity from our discussions and readings. After that, students worked independently to compose passive sentences about identity, as many as they could compose. Next, I asked them to compose active sentences that began with the subject "identity". Again, as many as they could compose. Finally, they had to compose as many sentences as they could that use comparisons to describe identity.

Once students had a chance to compose lists of those three types of sentences, I asked individuals to select their favorite statements identity, one statement for each kind of sentence: stative, active, and comparative. Then they each printed their favorite statements on separate cards, three cards per person.

Back in groups of five , students read their cards to each other, checking to see if their sentences were indeed stative or active or were actually comparisons. Then we explained the video portion of the project. Students had the content in front of them - their fifteen index cards. Now, they had to sequence their cards, figuring out how to layer their ideas to create a coherent "story." Not a story in the sense of a "once upon a time," but what Thomas Newkirk, in his book Minds Made for Stories, calls the "deep structure of thinking and understanding" that "mental instrument . . . basic to human thinking" (26,28).

Sequencing got students to consider logical relationships between their separate quotes - causal, contrastive, poetic, from simple to complex. Could they arrange ideas to compose a coherent theme? Having separate statements on index cards made it easy to shuffle ideas, to experiment with order - the "moving of ideas" so important to revision. And the shuffling was tactile, hands on.

As well, students had to figure out how they would present their information. Would they read them one at a time, one person at a time? Or in groups? With cue cards? Here's where students got to figure out what type of presentation best represented their groups' "story." This compelled them to work collaboratively, to compose together.

My co-teacher and I originally hoped each group of five students would create their own clip, but we ended up combining the whole class' lines together, so we sort of lost that narrative thread we hoped to produce. But students got a lot out of the project.

We saw them use their voices, develop their ideas, and strengthen organization aspects of writing. Several students noted that they learned a lot about collaboration, creativity, and the place of logic when it comes to revising and sequencing of ideas. Another student claimed that this project was one of the semester's shining moments; others wrote about how cool it was to actually create something that wasn't about merely reciting facts or mastering a formula.

Low budget production. I know. Gotta figure out how to do better with sound quality, perhaps figure out how to do creative green or blue screen work for background. But now that we've experimented and have a pilot, we can ask around for help with the production side of things. And we can improve the composition and collaboration process.

Time for reflective, relevant revision!

There's a lot of other things we'd do differently: make sure each group gets to produce their own clip; have each team come up with a title, an introduction, and conclusion; assign a much more solid written reflection piece that gets students to consider there composition process, i.e., discuss why they made the revision and editing choices they made. This means including more reflective moments in the process, which took about two weeks, short written pieces to help students keep track of their process.

My partner included a written self-evaluation regarding working in teams, an important element of the Personal Development class. We also plan to do this project early next semester, to get us working together and making much sooner. We noticed that the class benefited from producing this clip together.

We also want to keep the project integrated between the two classes. We' can be intentional about splitting up steps between Personal Development and English, so the unit performs the kind of integration we want students to experience.

We're likely going to use the theme "community." Oh, and we didn't come up with the project on our own. I stole it from a history teacher (can't put my finger on the link) who begins his semester asking students to complete the sentence, "America is." Standing on other peoples' shoulders, indeed. 

Can anyone refer us to short pieces on community we might use? Conceptual, information essays or expressive pieces? We've got ideas, but I'm all about depending on the intellectual generosity!