Sunday, November 29, 2015

Students React to Memorizing and/or Manipulating Ideas

I’ve been assigning pretty large doses of meta-cognitive journaling lately (see here, here, and here). I’m a big fan of having folks think about their learning. I hadn’t provided any direct instruction (either a reading, activity, or discussion) on what constitutes “learning” - at least so we could have a shared vocabulary about basic concepts of knowledge. 

So I looked up a favorite passage from a favorite textbook (Reading Rhetorically by Bean, Chappel and Gillam)  and created a three-part activity to explore the difference between “conceptual” and “procedural” knowledges. 

In a nutshell, conceptual knowledge is the kind of learning that has to do with memorizing, i.e., fact, figures, names, dates, concepts, theories, principles, etc. Procedural has to do with manipulating and applying conceptual knowledge. Lecture and reading is the primary vehicle for conceptual knowledge, recall being the primary, or at least most apparent, function of learning. Discussion, activity, laboratory - where learning is about managing and wielding ideas - are modes of procedural knowledge.

Certainly, divvying up knowledge into two categories seems to foreclose any overlaps between the two. This division may even be reductive - big time. But I figured this relatively simple contrast between “conceptual” and “procedural” would be an easy way to discuss the thinking they've experienced as well as the kind of teaching they may expect to encounter in college. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

What Do You Want To Be? vs. What Problems Do You Want To Solve?

The image on the left appeared on my Facebook feed the other day.  It piqued my interest. And it came just in time, for  few days before, students in my basic writing class said that teachers could help students stay motivated if we encouraged them to think about their purpose. So I decided to “hack” the quote by Jaime Casap, an “education evangelist” specializing in information technology and systems for Google. Though not a shill for Google nor a dyed-in-the- wool techno-disciple, I do find his quote provocative. 

One of the objectives for basic writing is to strengthen written fluency and stamina. So students typically do focused free- and journal- writing in class. Sometimes to warm up for the day’s topic. Other times to explore an idea or craft move. They asked for time to think about their goals. I was curious about their answers. So I gave it a whirl.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

(Mis)Adventures with Mentor Texts: From Sloppy to Stronger

I basked in the warm glow of believing I ran an exceptionally effective activity in class. Teaching and learning synergy?  Achieved.  Students engaged and satisfied? Affirmative.

I’m  an awesome teacher!

That’s what I thought as I read through students’ exit tickets, responses about experimenting with mentor texts. We examined the opening lines from selected novels by one of my favorite authors (Walter Mosley!) and brief ledes from a couple of my favorite blogs (Crunk Feminist Collective and VSB - Very Smart Brothas). Our goal? To explore how authors craft words to make meaning in order to “try on” those formats and to apply those patterns to our composition/storytelling projects.

Friday, November 20, 2015

New Beginnings, Part II: Compass Points + Visible Thinking

In my last post, I wrote about using the Compass Points routine in my basic writing class as a way to get the ball rolling the first week of school (here's a link to that post). These are snippets of their written reflections, the quotes that jumped out at me:
  • To be an effective student in college, I need to participate as much as I can in my classes to get the full experience of the lecture and lab.
  • Now that I’m out the military (FREE AT LAST!) it’s like a new start. It’s my first week of school and it’s a bit hard adjusting. But ‘’adapt and overcome’’ is always on my mind.  Even when I feel like walking out of the classroom, I can’t fail! . . .  I’m used to yelling at people. I can’t anymore because that’s not how things are done anymore. Those days are over.
  • I’m keeping an open mind to all the ideas and to everyone’s opinions.

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.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Learning from Each Other: Student Perspectives

I often wonder what students learn from each other when assigned to work in groups. They experience success (when I’ve created the conditions!) completing tasks and making their thinking visible. But I haven't asked them how much they learn from their partners. how does working in groups amplify or diminish learning? Especially in situations that are more student driven, where the students generate their group’s direction. I’ve been curious what they learned in groups that they weren’t able to on their own, so I experimented with a “focused free write” exit card/survey. 

A few class sessions ago, I wanted students to debrief their experience drafting an essay We were in the middle of an informative essay project about Ella de Castro-Baron’s Itchy Brown Girl, a mixed-genre memoir written in the form of a curriculum vitae. The project called for students to select a pop song that clarifies, extends, or otherwise illuminates the theme of one of the sections of her memoir.

I asked students to bring to class the memoir, a “sloppy copy” (early draft) of their composition, and an annotated copy of the  lyrics of the their selected song. Before assigning groups, I set aside a few moments for students to review their notes, directing them to get ready to orally walk through their thinking and drafting process with other students.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Double Duty: Examining Motivation + Generating Claims

It’s that time of year. The end of the semester looms. Deadlines weigh heavily on students and teachers alike. As our collective commitment levels wane, I notice my bad habits creeping up on me as I fall farther and farther behind my agenda. More than once this past week, I found myself planning class at the last minute, dashing about like a headless chicken trying to get materials and copies ready. 

This is a familiar feeling, a pattern that occurs regularly this time during a semester (near Thanksgiving in the fall and after Spring break). It’s during those times of the year that I need to return to my purpose. I need to reconnect to my reasons for doing what I do, reasons transcend working for a paycheck. 

And if that’s happening to me, you can bet it’s happening to students, especially first-year and first generation students who are just getting acquainted natural flow of a semester. If I need a shot in the arm, students definitely could, too. The question becomes, how to do that without lecturing and without falling farther behind my planned schedule of activities. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Writing, Listening, and Healing: Reflecting on our Lives as Students

Reading through students’ exit cards the other day hit me pretty hard, left me feeling heavy with sadness. I had asked students to write about what would happen if they spent time reflecting on their lives as students. Most students are entering freshman and first generation, so I asked this question because I wanted to help them build a habit of reflection and introspection. 

They wrote. A lot. But I didn’t expect to read such discouraging answers:
  • If I spent my time reflecting on my student life, I would most likely start stressing over time. I suck at time management, and I feel stupid for falling so far behind. 
  • I would start to doubt my feelings about going to school. My motivation to stay would disappear, and would honestly just start to give up. My mind is constantly wondering, “What if I just got a full time job?” 
  • I honestly think I would get scared. I am more afraid of failure when it comes to school.
Some students recognized the value of introspection. But several answer suggested anxiety over even trying to do so: “I should reflect more each day. But I don’t.. . . I doubt I will change because of my stubbornness and excuses I make. ” Others simply felt fear: "Just reflecting on life scares me”. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Zombies, Mentor Texts, & Procrastination

I can tell it's getting close to the end of the semester when I find myself avoiding grading by making plans for next semester. Yes, it's wise to plan ahead. But I know that my "advance planning" is often a procrastination strategy. 

My current procrastinating planning takes the form of attending a book study group where we are reading the book Writing with Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the room Using Current, Engaging, Mentor Texts by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O'Dell. 

According to Marchetti and O'Dell: Mentor texts are model pieces of writing - or excerpts of writing - by established authors that can inspire students and teach them how to write. . . . Mentor texts enable student writers to become connected to the dynamic world of professional writers. Mentor texts enable independence as, over time, students are able to find and use inspiration and craft elements found in the sentences and pages of their favorite writers. Mentor texts enable complete creativity and individuality to emerge in student writing and instruction. (3) 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Unity + Agency: The Fall 2015 UMOJA Conference

UMOJA, a Kiswahili word for unity, is a statewide community of educators and learners in California devoted to increasing the transfer rate of African American community college students to four-year colleges and universities. 

On my campus, the UMOJA program consists of linked set of classes, one counseling class and the English class I teach. We call our program The Experiential Learning Academy, or TELA-UMOJA. UMOJA held their statewide conferencein Oakland last weekend, and our campus sent me, my teaching partner, and a team of eight students to represent our college.

This is our first year as an official UMOJA affiliate and the first time we participated in a statewide event, even though we’ve had our TELA learning community for several years. My goal for the conference was to see what we need to do to be more closely aligned with UMOJA's mission and educational philosophy. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Reflecting on Our Learning: What it's Like to Talk About Ideas

Note: This entry is a follow up to a post I did a few days ago about reading and responding to students’ assessments

In keeping with the spirit of protecting class time to reflect on the problem of being students, I reserved class time to think about a set of activities students had just completed. We had glossed over the major points of a essay they had recently and had written a response journal from the week prior. 

Students worked in pairs to discuss the text for five minutes, i.e., “Share what the text made you think, feel, and/or experience.” The only other direction was to talk back and forth, doing their best to share equally the full five minutes. 

Here’s the twist I added: After five (5) minutes were up, asked students to take a minutes, I asked students to take a breath, thank their partner, and then to think to themselves about the experience of sustaining a five minute conversation about ideas. Then I opened the floor to responses. I noticed three distinct (if overlapping) themes: 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Upping the Intellectual Stakes with Curation

Curation. The word has a cool vibe. It makes me think of museums and art galleries, places where professionals select, collect, and archive particular objects worthy of saving. Curation isn’t simply about squirreling away massive amounts of stuff. Curators don’t willy nilly hoard just anything; they select with intention, with a particular set of standards about what pieces should be included or excluded in their collections.

This is exactly what I did in high school with comic books. I used set of standards, admittedly subjective, to pick certain titles: Iron Fist, The New X-men, and Deathlok, titles I thought were artistically superior with super cool story lines. My standards for curating images and quotes for my Tumblr feed are equally subjective: Are they witty or clever? Are they aesthetically pleasing? Might they find use value in my classrooms? 

It's cool how the word “curation” makes my hobbies sound so smart. A specific word choice elevates something that I enjoy doing into an intellectual process. That'is probably why I enjoy experimenting with curating students’ ideas. This semester, I am using Padlet to curate students’ thinking. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Group Development Theory, Romance, and Ursula Rucker

Over half-way into the semester, and I find myself obsessed with poet/singer Ursula Rucker’s song “7,” a duet she sings with M.A.D. The song features a dialog between two lovers remembering the flush of falling in love and recognizing that their love has soured. The refrain depicts their shaky status: “When love is fading away too fast. What are we gonna do?” The pair needs to decide to call it quits or to revive their relationship. Should they passively stand by as their devotion evaporates, or should they make an intentional choice to do something, anything? 

The song ends on an optimistic note: “Trust me, it's us, in a circle . . . The nucleus, the beginning . Take it back to the beginning.” This optimism is less about the lovers actually repairing their relationship, living happily ever after. What is apparent is that the lovers have made a conscious decision to take action, to go back to the root, back to what brought them together in the first place.

Sounds familiar, right? The honeymoon high. The settling into a routine. Those inevitable nicks, cuts, and bumps that threaten to tear a couple apart. The lyrics track the years of their relationship: “The kid's six when we start to fight. The seventh year, tears took it to the limit We maintain full polarity positions. Time explodes with you and me hidden.” All leading to their current predicament: to sh*t or get off the pot.

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Wish for Meaningful Reflection: A Desire for Praxis

The agenda called for a brief quiz. Not a graded quiz. More of formative assessment - for me to see how well students were learning the material. Last week’s lesson went quite well. The class, full of first year, first-generation college student, was engaged, bright, and on task. “They’re getting it,” I had thought to myself. 

But a quick glance at their work painted a different picture - no one got even half of the questions right. Worse, when I assigned students to work in pairs to discuss the reading assignments, over half of the students actively avoided each other and the assignment, much more than I typically observed in prior classes. Was this about not doing homework? About being bored with the material? 

I marshaled my patience, attempting to dispassionately note what was going on so I could pose this problem to students later in the period. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

NoNoWriMo? Not! 30 Days of Blogging? Sure!

I had a huge work deadline last Monday - a major report that ended up being over ten pages long, not including supporting documents. I got the assignment in September. When did I start? Saturday. 

My procrastination, I recognize in retrospect, has everything to do with wanting to be perfect. I have this romantic impulse, a voice in my head that tells me to wait for the proper mood, for inspiration to strike. And when it does, as if by magic, a fully polished, final draft will appear the instant my fingers start tapping the keyboard.  

That's the belief, anyhow. 

Waiting for the inspiration-inducing lightning bolt isn't the only attitude keeps me from getting down to business. A part of me believes I need lengthy swaths of time to grade papers, wanting to finish in a single sitting. So I tell myself I can’t begin without least three or four hours of uninterrupted time. Why bother starting something unless I can finish it all right then and there? You can imagine how well that works for me. Not.