Thursday, November 19, 2015

New Beginnings, Part I: Compass Points + Visible Thinking

First day of school! I felt super excited. A brand new semester. A fresh start with a set of fresh new faces - some just as pumped about coming to school as I was. Hooray for new beginnings!

But I knew from experience that students, particularly first generation and first year students are coming from all over the map in terms of their attitude toward starting college. Every semester, at least a handful of students are disappointed being at a community college, having planned to attend a four-year school. Others expressed ambivalence, happy to be done with high school but not quite sure that they want to be in college. This doesn't even account for any kinds of defensiveness or insecurities students had toward taking basic English classes.

I knew there would be students equally jazzed about turning over a new leaf, beginning the next chapter of their lives. At the same time, I didn't want to assume that students would be as joyful about being in school as I was. I needed to meet them were they came from, attend to them without assuming what their attitude towards school, college, professors, or English might be.
What to do that first day of class, then, that wouldn't alienate folks and also would not preclude any one's attitude about starting college? What could we do to acknowledge and share our feelings about being in school? What could I do the first day of class that would foster a sense of safety and community? Something that got students to think, write, and think again? We needed a protocol to help us get oriented, starting off on the right foot together - something beyond reading the syllabus and doing an ice-breaker.

Luckily, I recently read Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding and Independence for All Learners by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison. The book is filled with protocols and routines - solo and group - that develop introspective and reflective skills. Super important skills for incoming students. (I composed a blog post about another routine I experimented with over the summer here.) 

One activity from the section "Routine of Introducing and Exploring Ideas" fit the bill: "Compass Points". This routine helps learners consider a question before them, to enable them to consider an issue from multiple angles - and the issue I wanted to focus on was "Starting College".

In a nutshell, here's the process:

  • Framing the issue, i.e., "starting college"
  • Identifying Excitements: What's exciting or the upside about college?
  • Identifying Worries: What might be worrisome or the downside of starting college?
  • Identifying Needs: What might we need to know to prepare for starting college? What information or resources might we need?
  • Identifying Steps and Suggestions: What might our next steps be? What suggestions might help us make starting college less daunting?
  • Sharing the Thinking: This could be in a discussion, on a flip chart, or in a written reflection (with me following up with sharing content analysis of their responses). The big point here is to somehow "publicize" students thinking so folks get a sense of others' ideas and feelings - and to recognize shared agendas and divergent responses. Which in turn, sets the stage for deeper engagement and for developing learning allies. 
This routine is called "Compass Points"  because each the question represents one of the directions on a compass: East, West, North, and South, shares their initial with their respective theme: Excitement, Worries, Needs, and Steps/Suggestions. 

Clever, no? 

After "throat clearing noises" (i.e., introductions, overview of syllabus, and a quick ice-breaker), I raised the issue "starting college", pointing out our shared problem: Getting adjusted to college. Some heads nodded in agreement. More than half the students appeared nonchalant, peering at their cellphones or casting sidelong glances at each other. I tried to refrain from assuming the nonchalance was boredom, or worse, that they hated me (yes, it's all about me!). Perhaps the seeming indifference had to do with feeling shy, insecure, or even frightened. And still I suspected that more than one student wished she wasn't in class - for whatever reason.

I handed out copies of the questions to all the students and read each one one aloud, giving students a chance reflect on each statement before they began sharing in small groups. I divided the class in to groups of four or five students, and instructed them to discuss their answers for any of the questions in any order, making sure everyone got a chance to speak. 

Discussion started slowly, but eventually folks warmed up. Conversation got more lively - people "over-talked" each other, finishing each others' sentences. We reconvened as a large group and compiled their responses on the board.

Here's what they shared: 
East/ExcitementMeeting new people * Starting fresh * Making new friends * Being the first in my family to get into college * Moving closer to my goal * Greater independence * making my own choices *Learning new skills * Encountering new cultures * Beginning a new chapter *
West/Worries *How to pay * I might not do well *  I will lose my motivation * Balancing priorities *Managing time *Teachers who are terrors! * Self doubt * Will I Make it?  *Will I make new friends? *  My tendency to procrastinate* Making the wrong choices * Not knowing how to handle my independence * Weak language and writing skills * Am I smart enough? * Am enough? *Teachers expectations * Using  computer * Can I handle the work? 
North/Needs *Open mind * Flexibility, Ability to adapt * Willingness to ask for help * Guts * Stronger study habits * Motivation * Tutoring * Courage * Encouragement * Support *
South/Steps & Suggestions Expect turbulence * belief in ourselves * classmates' names and numbers * work together * Reduce feeling of intimidation and competition * Connect with peers * Interact with professors (which was kind of a worry, too, since many students said they'd never had a friendly relationship with a teacher) * 
Next we debriefed - what did they think and feel about the words they compiled. I didn't do much challenging. But I did ask clarifying questions, and I kept urging folks to address their classmates (instead of simply facing me). 

I wanted students to know that when it came to their feelings and attitudes, I wouldn't correct them.  And I wanted them to find relationships with each other.  I let them say their piece, encouraging them to address each other. 

I ended the class with an assignment that picked up where the discussion left off. Students were to write a reaction paper (basically a reflection): What did they think of what we did together? What did you notice, think, or feel.

In part two, I'll share some of the highlights of students' written reflection, what they thought and felt about the experience when they sat down to do homework.