Saturday, August 15, 2015

Avoiding Summer Melt & Prepping for Fall

Here's a common misconception: Teachers get the whole summer off to loll about in the sun, vacation, and otherwise divert ourselves. Pure recreation - not. 

Now here's my observed lived reality: Teachers' summers can easily morph into one extended prep period. Certainly, there's time for decompressing and recreation. But I find that even when I'm "off the clock", I've got teaching and learning on the brain.  Inspiration weaves it's way into practically whatever I do. I can't read a book, watch a movie, or listen to a song without seeing a new lesson for class.

I also use the summer, particularly this one, for reading to keep up with best teaching practices. Reading inspires fresh idea to try next semester. Reading makes me reflect on the assignments and activities I did over the last semester, figuring out how to be more effective. Instead of "being in the moment" of summer fun, I'm looking forward and looking back. 

Because I work in special programs, I've also devoted time to recruiting, admitting, and orienting students to those programs this summer. I teach in a Learning Community, a pair of linked classes that share a common focus. I'm the English professor, paired with a counselor who is the professor for the personal development class - sort of like a general colloquium, the "how-to-be-a-college-student" class. 

One of the learning communities I teach is Bayan, Tagalog for "hometown/heritage" or "community." Bayan is geared toward first-generation college students, and we focus Filipino American issues and perspectives (the program is open to any student regardless of race, culture, or ethnicity - they simply have to be invested in our focus). 

In June, we held an mini-advising/orientation program for potential students. I'm happy to say that all but one student who attended has already registered for Bayan. And those who registered are already in the midst of a summer reading and writing program. These students are dedicated. 

Our goal for the mini-orientation was to share program requirements, give students a small taste of how we teach, and begin nurturing the "community" of learning communities. My colleague and I also wanted to mitigate "summer melt" - the phenomenon where high school graduates who say they are going to college end up not attending. 

To give students a taste of the subject matter and our teaching styles, we adapted two routines from the book Making Thinking Visible (one of my summer reads): "Think-Puzzle-Explore" and the"Connect-Extend-Challenge." Using butcher paper and felt pens, students posted their answers to the following questions, followed by a discussion about what their answers mean for them individually and to us as a "Bayan." 
1) What do think you know about Filipino/a American themes/issues/perspectives? 
2) What are some of the barriers/obstacles faced by first-generation college students? 
3) What might make it difficult to discuss in class issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality? 
4) Now that you're finished what are you glad to leave behind? 
The first question is similar to the "K" of the "KWL" protocol many teachers already use to introduce a theme/unit: What do Know about the topic? What do you Want to know about our topic? What did you Learn about the topic?  The "K" and "What do you think you know" both engage prior knowledge. But they do differ. 

The folks from Making Thinking Visible point out that asking what they know may "immediately shut down the student who is not confident about the subject" (74). "What do you think you know" gives permission to be wrong, to conjecture. Plus, if students' responses are faulty or false, the teacher is put in the position of having to correct students. That's a move we weren't ready to make as yet. Our goal at this point is investigate what students know, to find out what they bring to our Bayan. Their responses - right or wrong, superficial or deep - are grist for next semester's mill.

The second and third questions attend to obstacles and difficulties. This kind of question presses students to go beyond simply naming an issue  - It's hard to talk about race; First generation college students have it rough -  but also encourages them to articulate challenges (the "challenge" from Connect, Extend, Challenge" routine), an aspect of thinking that goes beyond passive absorption of facts.

The fourth question wasn't from the book. We included it to address the transition from high school to college. We wanted  students to consciously consider their changing status - not by simply "telling" them that they are in flux but by having them articulate the qualities of their "in-between" status, celebrating the move to college, hopefully precluding the dreaded summer melt

Here's a link to their responses. The student answers and discussion gave me and my colleague insight into background knowledge and concerns they bring with them. This will help us to overhaul of fine tune our lessons. We will likely return to these lists when the semester begins, signaling to students that their ideas do shape our curriculum and community.

The sharing was rich. Students got a chance to hear and and think with each other, reducing the "newbie jitters" they might be feeling. Students also saw how their professor teach, experiencing rather than being told what kind of teachers we are. 

I plan to post my reactions to to the students' lists in subsequent posts, reflecting on what and how their words will inform our learning community.