Wednesday, December 7, 2016

End of Semester: Minor Victories!

Finals start today. And I’m feeling, well, pretty good. Usually this time of year, I’m out of sorts. And that’s putting it mildly. It’s the season of recriminations and regrets: “I didn’t finish everything I had planned! Students won’t be ready for their next English class. How did I fall so far behind? Someone’s gonna figure out I’m a fake.” The chorus in my head should be working overtime. 

But it’s not. I’m almost feeling . . . optimistic, uncharacteristically calm.  Is this denial? Have I drunk so much coffee and eaten so much junk food (stress eater!) that I’ve numbed myself out so completely, immunized against my inner critic? 

For certain, there are kernels of truth in my Greek chorus’ remorseful refrain. I could have more effectively prepared student. I could have used my time more wisely. And I’m definitely a master of “acting as if.” But for some reason, my self-recriminations aren’t piercing my so deeply. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Courageous Conversations at Southwestern College

My colleagues and I organized a Courageous Conversations dialogue program recently for all three of the multicultural learning communities here on our campus: Bayan, the Filipina/o American focused learning community; Puente, the Latina/o learning community: and Umoja, the learning community focused on African and African American students and issues. 

We, along with the professional development office  on our campus, wanted to create a space for dialogue about human relations issues that our students face - race, gender, criminal justice issues, internalized racism, colorism, and class to name a few. And we wanted to broaden the circle of safety that naturally develops in a learning community to a wider circle.

We used as our inspiration the book Courageous Conversations About Race by Glen Singleton and Curtis Wallace and a version of a discussion protocol called “conver-stations” from the Cult of Pedagogy website. In addition, I was inspired by a workshop I attended in Spring presented by the San Diego Area Writing Project, revising their program for a student audience. I'm grateful to all our sources for their intellectual generosity! 

Participants at the SDAWP workshop ( K- 16 teachers, professors, and administrators) rotated through three rounds of conversations ranging from sexual orientation and diversity to social justice activism to institutional racism. Each conversation took place at a table with about ten (10) people and a facilitator. After the workshop leader welcomed participants and reviewed communication agreements, facilitators at each table asked participants to introduce themselves and to briefly (ever so briefly!) state their investment in the issues. Then, each facilitator took a brief moment to either share short readings or share a set of provocative questions to get the conversation going. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Using Music to Distinguish Between "Content" and "Structure"

A major objective in all my classes is for students to distinguish between content and structure, between the meaning of a text and the strategies authors use to construct that meaning. Students typically come into my class with strong summary skills, and they are definitely on the path toward being able to identify an author's main and secondary ideas, i.e., the content. Certainly, they can strengthen those skills - and that’s why they're in my class! 

The more difficult skill to master for practically everyone in my classes is to identify the moves or structures that the authors use to express those ideas. By “moves” and “structures,” I mean what the writer does to express her content: describe, explain, contrast, express effect, tell a story, use dialogue, state a point, or give examples.

Certainly, “meaning” and “moves” are mutually reinforcing, difficult to separate. At the same time, I want students to be able to identify what writers do so they can emulate those moves to express their own ideas. To introduce students to this process, we examined texts students are already deeply invested in: music they love.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Using Comments to Foster Community & Communication

One of the biggest problems I have when teaching peer revision is getting students to comment on each others’ drafts. Student often lack confident enough in their own opinions and reactions, so they believe they have nothing of value to say when giving feedback. So while I’ll never completely prevent their reticence to commenting, I chose to do some work that might warm students up to the task. 

For homework, I asked students to reflect on their time in college. Since most (with the exception of two or three) of the students in my classes are entering freshman, I’ve been assigning reflective writing assignments over the weekend. This particular assignment was the “4S” reflection. Students wrote about what Surprised them about their first weeks in college, what Sacrifices they are making to be in college, what Solutions they are having to come up with for the problems they are encountering, and what they think or feek about becoming a Scholar. Low stakes writing. But meaty enough questions relevant for students transitioning into college.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Low Stakes + Building an Academic Community: Two for One!

Two important lessons I re-learned during professional development last summer was the importance of assigning low-stakes writing tasks and of building community. During the California Acceleration Program’s Summer Workshop, facilitators urged us to consider using low-stakes (sometimes called “writing-to-learn” activities) to ease students into more complex writing tasks. At the UMOJA Community Summer Learning Institute, we reviewed the significance of building communal intelligence, the intentional calling out and supporting of students efforts to build their knowledge base together. 

This last week, I attempted to weave together both these principles in all four of my classes.  We used a digital bulletin board to compile “meaty” quotes from their readings and the reasons they thought those quotes were meaningful. Students are in the middle of composing a synthesis essay based on texts by Paulo Freire, Jean Anyon, and bell hooks - a pretty heady, complex set of readings for first-time freshman. One of the big objectives of this assignment is to give students practice incorporating quotes into their essay. They have to select quotes that support a larger claim, which not only means finding quotes. It means being able to interpret those quotes, explaining to readers how and why that quote supports the student writer’s synthesis. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Of Queens, Athletes, & Images: Kicking off the Semester

Hank Willis Thomas
The first weeks of school have been about building a classroom culture, about learning how we will learn together. This includes the protocols, practices, and vocabulary (our inside language!) that we will use. One of the practices I use, which I introduced to all four of my classes this week, is called “queening” - a way of reading a text (or set of texts) to make meaning. 

Queening, a process I adapted from the UMOJA Community, consists of four overlapping recursive stages: Quoting, Queezing, Quonnecting, and Queening.

Quoting happens when we observe a text - a poem, essay, book, song, or work of art - and simply identify direct evidence. It’s noting key words, phrases, images, or sounds. In a poem or other written text, that would be an author’s exact words. And just as writers quote each other, artists quote each other, too - think of the way Picasso quotes African art or how Kehinde Wiley does the same with classic art. Musicians quote each other all the time when they sample and remix sonic elements from each others’ music. So quoting isn't limited to what we traditionally think of as texts. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Fresh Start & Two Commitments

It’s the beginning of a new semester! Despite the typical turbulence that comes with a new year it’s an exciting time. I get to meet one hundred and twenty plus new students, most of whom are first-time freshman.College is as new to them as Hogwarts was to Harry Potter It’s been refreshing greeting students who are excited for this next phase of their lives. And for a few days, I get to wear the mantle of authority, an ersatz Dumbledore. 

Adding to joy of the new semester is reuniting with colleagues I haven't since May.. Rekindling personal and professional relationship - all refreshed after a few months off - feels great. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Ubuntu, Individuality, & Playing with Words

The leaders of our Summer Learning Institute divided us conference attendees into several groups (the SLI is a professional development program for educators interested in increasing the success of African and African American college students).

Each group lined up single file, all of us remaining in the conference space together. The leaders subtly urged each group to repeat the words, "I am because we are," an English translation of the Bantu term for "unity."  

"I am because we are. I am because we are."

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Engaging Minds, Hearts, & Bodies - UMOJA Summer Learning Institute

One of the most important criteria I have for professional development programs is whether or not the facilitators actually practice the sort of pedagogy/andragogy they promote. Many of us teachers have attended (been subjected to?) professional development where the leaders simply lecture or present a PowerPoint. I wish I could say I was exaggerating. I'm not.  

I don't need anyone to read me a lecture or recite from slides, regardless how brilliant the ideas. I want to experience the ways successful teachers create classroom climate. I want to observe their philosophies in action and to experience the sort of lessons the experts advocate (Note to self: I need to live up to this standard, too!).

If today, the first day of the UMOJA Summer Learning Institute (SLI), is any indication of what to expect, I will be heartily pleased. Today's program manifested deliberate intention on the part of the organizers to demonstrate the sort of classroom culture and pedagogy/andragogy they expect us to create and deliver next semester.

I wrote yesterday about the two texts we were to read in advance of the SLI: bell hook's Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom and Joy DeGruy's Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. The opening activities did not directly refer to particular pages or passages of either book. The program did, however, hit the same content, but from a different angle. More importantly, the organizers created the conditions for us to experience the kind of teaching practices they want us to learn from our readings. 

A significant section of DeGruy's book outlines the devastating experience and ongoing effects of the African Holocaust. Her words provide an competent outline of the historical facts, a solid primer on the legacy of American-style slavery and the abuse suffered by kidnapped Africans. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Reading to Get Ready: UMOJA Summer Learning Institute

This summer, tomorrow, in fact, I am attending the UMOJA Summer Learning Institute, a five-day training session for professors who teach in in the UMOJA Community, a statewide initiative for community colleges to help increase graduation and transfer rates of African and African American students. 

Working with a teachers from all over California, our team from Southwestern College (the counselor/coordinator and myself, the English teacher) will develop curriculum and receive training that aligns our program with the statewide UMOJA program. Those of you who know me know I am passionate about professional development, so I am happy for the opportunity to make my teaching more effective. And, like a student super excited before the first day of school, I'm full of anticipatory anxiety. Can't sleep. So, lemme practice what I preach in class and do a little writing about what I'm learning - to warm up for the Summer Learning institute!