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. 

One colleague, my blogging buddy, returns after a lengthy sabbatical. Within a few moments of greeting each other, she proposed that we start blogging again, to reflect on our practice. She wants to get her “teaching legs” back. And I need to have a regular writing practice. So I agreed. 

Our first challenge is to reflect on two practices we want to try or improve upon this semester. Here are mine:

The first has to do with paperwork. I am terrible at taking attendance. Terrible. So I will try (again!) asking students to sign in every day as they enter class. I’ve designated a composition notebook for attendance and for keeping track of what’s going on in class that I’ll leave on a desk near the door. I stole this idea from a colleague and tried it last semester. When I actually remembered to do it, I did fine. This semester, I’m amping the stakes by using the attendance notebook to capture what happens in class. Perhaps that will help me remember to take roll, to record what we did, and to reflect on my teaching. 

The second practice has to do with strengthening what I already do: use youtube clips, music, images, editorial cartoons, and other short audio/visual text for mini-lessons. I might use a song to introduce rhetorical appeals. Or I will use an editorial cartoon to illustrate implicit arguments. Another day, I’ll present a piece of art to have students identity evidence and come up with claims about the image. We’ll discuss in pairs, small groups, large group, and do a some low stakes, focused free-writing. 

I’ve been largely successful with those activities. Students are engaged, and I often get feedback about how fun and meaningful the activities are. But what I haven’t done is directly tie those short activities to the content of whatever they are writing, unconnected. While students learn skills and concepts, I miss out on the opportunity to explore those skills in the context of actual writing assignments. 

This semester, my commitment is to make sure that whatever song, poem, short story, youtube clip we “play with” in class thematically relates to the topic of writing project we are doing at the time.

“In context” is my phrase du jour. All semester! 

On the first day of class, I typically show and analyze a video and a couple of editorial cartoons to illustrate what we will do the rest of the semester and to introduce the skills we will improve.

Because this semester students will write about their view of education (we’re exploring Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed), I chose the spoken word piece by Suli Breaks “Why I Hate School and Love Education” (see below)  and two editorial cartoons relevant to their first paper’s theme. We were able to get a feel for the classroom culture I want to set up and to explore several concepts having to do with rhetoric - at the same time we explored content for their first assignment. 

The results have been remarkable. Barely done with our first week, these freshman students pretty much “get” the difference between banking and problem-solving concepts of education (thank you, exit tickets). And students already composed several short pieces that they can easily thread together for a first draft. At least that’s my hope! 

I admit that I also “stole” this strategy. This time, I lean on the work of San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP) and their amazing team of teacher-facilitators for upping my game. 

I’m grateful, too, for my returning teaching peer for challenging me to reflect on paper. Writing will (perhaps!) keep me accountable to ongoing reflection. And that reflection will allow me to nurture students’ enthusiasm - casting spells that will (hopefully!) keep them as excited as they were this first week of college.