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. 

So I asked students to identify specific quotes, one from each essay, that they believed were juicy - full of meaning related to their argument - and to briefly state why they thought this quote was so relevant. They didn’t have to fully comprehend the entire readings. They didn’t even have to be sure the quote would actually end up in their final draft. I wanted them to simply find a quote (one from each reading) and discuss in a few sentences how each quote might be connected to their particular argument. This was the low stakes aspect of the assignment: picking a quote and explaining - even tentatively - how that relates (“queezing”) to their project. I've included two of the bulletin boards here - one from my Bayan Learning Community and second from the Athletics Learning Community. 

Because the digital bulletin board (Padlet) allows writers to post their work, the class had access to a wealth of potentially useful quotations that might end up in their essays. As a community, they created a bank of knowledge and publicized their thinking. They could see the collective power of their individual intellectual work.

Of course, some students may end up simply copying someone else’s quote and interpretation. But simply including a quote isn’t going to cut mustard unless the quote and explanation is related to the student writers’ particular augment, linked in a reasonable fashion to his or her own position. But in terms of sharing ideas, this digital bulletin board serves as a great tool for publicizing and compiling the students' ideas. 

Our next step this week is figure out the mechanics of incorporating their selected quotes into their essays. Given the quality of the quotes they’ve found and their initial interpretations (queezing!), I’m confident they are ready for the next level.