Sunday, December 28, 2014

Reflecting on Students' Voices: What Will They Remember?

Who doesn't love Maya Angelou? She inspires, putting into words what we might instinctively "get" but aren't skillful enough to express. Angelou reminds us of truths we might to avoid. 

One of those truths is that students in my classes often DO NOT feel the same passion for English as I do. They have a gut reaction quite the opposite of mine, coming to class dreading the topic. 

For many, the mere mention of "English" paralyzes, conjures memories of rigid rules, rote memorization, or unpleasant teachers. Many students associate English with distasteful, even painful, feelings - even if they have learned important skills, skill they often cannot name but have actually mastered.

So Angelou's quote about remembering feelings over what someone (teachers) said or did (instruction?) hits home. Shoot, I can't remember which of my teachers taught me what. But I can list whose classes made me feel good. 

This past semester, my co-teacher asked students to discuss in writing what they took away from our learning community. She teaches the Personal Development course linked to my English course. The reflection questions were pretty open, asking about "shining moments" and lessons learned that they expect to remember. I'm glad she had students write their reflections because their words verify the truth of Angelou's words.

While a few students did mention "intellectual gets," their responses have more to do with subjective experience and personal development. Few are directly tied to English learning objectives. I suspect, however, that students' subjective experiences helped create conditions for learning in my class - and hopefully for subsequent classes students will take. 

Comments reflected how our  learning community nurtured social skills and communal bonds.
  • I learned how to deal with people diplomatically when they truly upset me. 
  • I became a more social person who does not hold back what I need to say. 
  • Now I know the meaning of true friendship and team effort.
  • I developed more social skills and  how to communicate with my fellow scholars.
  • This semester [I] was able to work with peers and learn more about them, more than just their names. 
  • I will miss working in groups and with people I saw on a daily basis. I will miss hangouts outside of class and being in an actual community. 

Students did more than simply enjoy each others' company and learn social skills. Those pleasures and skills helped them experience the power of constructing knowledge in community. 

  • I got to develop my social skills and I had to talk to people. This made me understand different points of view and to be respectful towards others’ opinions.
  • I will miss the bond of the classroom, the ideas that were worth sharing, the groups discussion where we built ideas with each other. 
  • I now enjoy working with others and hearing their opinions. 
  • I learned that when you work in a group, you always must work as a team to learn from each other. 
  • I've learned that when you work in groups, you need to work as a team to learn from each other. 

Students recognized how motivation and mistakes play into learning. They discovered the power of a growth mindset. 

  • One thing I will apply in my academic life is that you have to work hard for the things you want.
  • In order to succeed, you have to fail. This doesn't mean you need to fail at everything. If you make a mistake, it’s okay. You need to move on and try again. 
  • I learned that if I really want to do something, I have to go for it and not be afraid of failing. 
  • Everything we do is a risk, and we risk falling on our face. But we take that risk. We can run with it to see if it makes us better or [if we should] to try again. 
It's wonderful students felt a sense of community in our linked classes. We all crave belonging! Educators know that for many students, if not all, learning requires a minimum level of safety - emotional and communal.

This taxonomy? Just as relevant
for me as it is for students.  
Students' words validate my teaching partner's and my belief that learning communities help students grow intellectually and socially. It's not the only way, to be sure, but it's an option worth exploring. So we want to be much, much more intentional about nurturing and assessing this kind of growth, investigating how learning as a community facilitates cognition.

We need to craft stronger reflective tools to capture student growth. This will help us replicate, as best as we can, what happened to build the kind memories Angelou refers to in her quote.  We also need to to ask more pointed questions about the cognitive "gets." Not just at the end of the semester, but throughout the class, tied to projects and units. 

How cool to link subjective responses with achieving cognitive proficiency, building social skills, and nurturing growth mindsets. Not only for the sake of assessing learning - but to also make visible to students how solving intellectual problems itself can be memorable, meaningful, even pleasurable.

How can we better shine a light on how cognitive work - done in community - produces joy? What can we do to make visible  - to students - how community and motivation increases cognitive growth?  My teaching partner and I have a couple of ideas. I'd love to read what other folks have to say. What do you do to make visible the relationship between intellectual work, pleasure, and community?