FYI

Dear Composition 101 students:
“YOLO” is not a topic sentence.

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Fiction Makes You Better at Stuff

nprPVY0I’m planning some research on whether reading/studying fiction and other kinds of narrative is really such an important thing to do.  I was therefore immediately drawn to this article (even though it’s Saturday night and I’m desperately trying to finish grading a stack of papers): a commentary on why techie geeks should read fiction.

Is it true?  Does reading fiction make us more creative?  Can it be “a funhouse mirror, a fantastic reflection that changes your perspective on something you see, but don’t necessarily see, every day”?  If so, is reading fiction better at doing that than other kinds of reading, watching, listening, doing?

I occasionally have a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting student or meet a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting person who writes well and analyzes admirably but claims to never/rarely read fiction.  I want to spend time following these people around to discover how they became so evolved while investing little time in a pursuit we readers often hold in higher intellectual/educational esteem than any other.

Does reading fiction really matter that much?  I can’t make up my mind.

Image by Dahlia

This Book is Too Sad

o3XIW26A reader and colleague sent me this question the other day.  What would you do in her position?

Dear Siobhan,

A few of my college students (note, not the class as a whole) have told me they’re having a really hard time with the book we’re studying in class because it’s too sad. It’s The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. The principal person in this small group suggested that at her age, she’s too sensitive to read a book like this. She’s studied slavery before, but finds this book– which follows a slave woman’s life– too graphic, too emotionally difficult. How would you handle this?

H.

I’m not sure.   Dear readers, what do you think?  Should college students be obligated to read texts that challenge them emotionally in ways they might not be prepared for?  Please leave your thoughts below.

Image by Sanja Gjenero

How Sexy is Too Sexy?

mllLe8AHow much explicit sex is acceptable in a book required for a college class?  If students have some say in whether they read the book, does that make a difference?

One of my courses includes a list of eight novels about adolescence.  Four or five students will read each novel and will work together to present it to the class.  I speak to them briefly about each book at the beginning of the semester.  They browse the books (I provide them with front and back covers and first chapters), and give me a list of their top three choices; I do my best to accommodate their preferences.

Each year, when ordering books for the coming semester, I look at the list from last time and adapt it, based on how the novels from the previous year went over.  This year, I’m jettisoning three novels from last time and replacing them with new ones.

As I carry out this process, I have a foolish habit.  In the scramble to put together a list of eight books (or, in a recent scenario, forty-five books) on a particular subject or of a particular genre, I sometimes throw in something that I haven’t actually read.  And for “sometimes,” read “often.”  Every time, I regret this decision.  And the next time, I do it again.  This semester I HAD to get my book orders in at a moment when I had NO TIME to do any extra reading.  And so I decided to once again throw caution to the winds, and ordered Scott Spencer’s Endless Love for my course on novels about adolescence.

I’d been meaning for years to read Endless Love, based on recommendations from a number of book critics I respect.  I’d even downloaded and read an excerpt on my e-reader, and was blown away by it, and had been intending to buy and read the whole thing ever since.  I hadn’t gotten around to it, but I figured that my impulse to keep reading, and the general critical acclaim the book has received, and its focus on adolescent love, made it suitable.  So I placed my order, and got myself a copy, and started reading.

Thirty-five pages in, I was greeted with a graphic, dripping, pulsating depiction of teenage, heterosexual anal sex.

The scene is not gratuitous.  It’s fundamental to the fabric of the novel.  It is beautifully, if shockingly (at least to me) rendered.  It is absolutely appropriate to the book.

The questions is, is it appropriate for a college classroom?

Some of my students will be under eighteen; some will be deeply and narrowly religious; some will be really immature.  Others will be able to handle explicit sex scenes and appreciate them for what they are: an integral part of the story.  When I briefly present the book to the class and mention that some of them may wish to avoid it if they’re uncomfortable with graphic sex, many of them will be titillated and will choose the book for that reason.  (This is what happens with Alice Sebold’s Lucky in my memoir course, when I tell them they should avoid it if they are worried about the opening rape scene; the vast majority of students choose it as one of their readings.)  Others will be absent that day, will be assigned the book or choose it themselves, and will be outraged.

Is it worth the hassle?  I’m three-quarters of the way through now; for the last 250 pages, there has been no sex, although I can see some on its way.  (Yes, another concern is that this novel is LONG.)  It’s a really good book, and some of them are going to love it.  If I want to pull it from the course, I need to let the bookstore know, like, now.

What’s a teacher to do?  Trust that they will choose wisely and handle the consequences?  Take the chance that there will be fallout?  Find another book?  What would you do?

Image by matchstick

The Art of Running Away

meSMNSmIt’s been a tough semester.

I’ve described some of the trials already: a new course that didn’t work very well, an unsuccessful experiment with blogs, a number of unpleasant end-of-semester exchanges.  More than a month after the end of classes, I’m still dealing with a challenge to one of my plagiarism rulings, and still awaiting a decision on what to do about a very rude email.

I’m also trying to work out a solution to a bigger problem, and the solution I like best is the one that probably reflects worst on me.

This semester I had an unusually high number of failures in one of my sections.  Actually, “unusually high” is hedging it – eleven out of forty failed.  For me, this is unheard of: I was consistently astonished by how weak the majority of the students in this section were, how resistant they were to following instructions, how unpleasant the atmosphere in the classroom was.

I interrogated myself about it.  Yes, the course was more challenging than it should have been, but I’d made adjustments, and the other section of the same course was doing fine.  (Four students in the other section had failed, three because they disappeared from the course and/or stopped handing in their work early on.) With only one or two exceptions, those who were making a good effort on all assignments were squeaking by.  It just seemed that there were a lot of students who weren’t invested, weren’t skilled enough to skate through, and weren’t really getting along with each other or with me.  The whole experience was nasty, and it was borne out in the course evaluations: while the other section was very positive, this section returned the worst evaluations I’ve ever received.

Generally speaking, once the semester is over, the grades are submitted, and some straggling complaints are dealt with, it’s time to move on.  Out with the old! Learn from your mistakes! etc. However, there’s a wrench in this scenario.

This course is a requirement for a major.  I’m currently the only teacher who teaches it.  This means that all these students – as many as FIFTEEN REPEATERS, not including students who have failed the course in previous semesters – will end up back in my class next winter.  This includes the student who has filed the plagiarism challenge, the author of the rude email, and the other students I mentioned in the post about requests for makeup work.  It also includes other plagiarists, other students who got angry at me about something or other, other students who have ALREADY failed the course before, and all sorts of other problematic situations.

Perhaps you can imagine how I feel.

So here’s the question.  My “good teacher” instinct is to say: Here’s a learning experience for you!  What are you going to do with this mess?  It will involve, obviously, a close examination of everything that went wrong with the course, and everything that I didn’t do to address issues as they came up.  It will involve up-front discussions with all the failing students right at the beginning of the semester.  It will involve careful “handling” of students who will be resentful and will believe that their failures are all my fault.  What a challenge!  What an opportunity for growth!

My “self-preservation” instinct is to ask someone else to teach this course next year.

I finished this semester exhausted and overwhelmed.  In addition to the struggles outlined above, I’ve been juggling other work, home renovations, MEd studies and, less and less, attempts to work on my own writing.  (As you may have noticed, my blog fell mostly by the wayside.)  The idea of not only trying to fix this broken course but doing it in the face of a pile of students who are coming in with a grudge feels like way, way too much. What I really need is a sabbatical, but I can’t afford one.  So maybe what I need is a sabbatical from this course.

This feels like a massive, cowardly cop-out.  It’s also what I really, really want to do.  Is there a way to justify it?

Image by Moi Cody

Student Blogs: Challenges

mi40mFwSome of you have asked to hear my final thoughts on the individual student blogs I used in one of my classes this semester.  I have a lot to say on the matter, but I may wait until I get the course evaluations back from my students before giving you my ultimate reflection.  As all you teachers well know, sometimes our assumptions about how things have gone turn out to be less than accurate from the students’ perspective.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share some PENultimate thoughts.  I put these down in a recent journal entry for a course I’m taking on IT in the classroom.  The journal assignment was to write about the challenges of integrating information technology into the classroom setting.  Here’s what I had to say.

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This semester, I had my students keep blogs.  I’ve used blogs in a course before, and then stayed away from them for years because they require such a time investment.  This year, I decided to take a stab at them again, and although there were a lot of benefits, I will think twice before using them in another course.

One of the main issues was that the course, as a whole, is brand new.  Although I spent a lot of time thinking about the general topics I wanted to explore, and the assessments that I’m REQUIRED to include in such a course (some sort of research component, an oral presentation, a 1000-word essay…), I was aware from the beginning that my desired learning outcomes were…vague.

I wanted students to think about the concept of “character” and examine how that concept is portrayed in children’s literature (these are Child Studies majors).  I wanted them to come away knowing more about the way we learn, the way we grow up, and the things we can do to make our lives, and the lives of children we know, better.  I also wanted them to think about reading, and whether reading is a valuable activity for children, and, if so, what children should read, and how the things they read will affect their characters.

So that adds up to a whole lot of thinking.  How can they demonstrate to me that they’re thinking?  By writing a whole bunch of stuff making connections between these different ideas.  And then having conversations that I can observe.  So a blog is perfect: they need to write regularly about the ideas we’re discussing in class, they need to make connections between these ideas and things they already know, and they need to comment on what others have written, generating conversations about these subjects.

The potential of these tasks to lead to deep, authentic, long-lasting learning is exciting.  Writing and commenting on a thoughtful blog post requires a high level of what instructional designers call “cognitive complexity”: the students are understanding, applying, analyzing, and synthesizing in order to create their posts.  Writing the posts involves a number of different “types of knowledge”: conceptual knowledge (understanding the theoretical works about childhood character that we are reading), procedural knowledge (understanding how to write a coherent post whose logic, grammar etc. communicate clearly) and a certain amount of metacognitive knowledge (not only are they reflecting on the theoretical material and how it relates to the novels they’re reading, to other things they know and to their personal experiences; but they are also, to a certain extent, recognizing those leaps of understanding when they make them, and recognizing that they are something worth writing about).

Which is to say: BLOGS ARE AWESOME.  They are, like, the perfect learning tool, if you do them right.

And I think, in purely pedagogical and methodological terms, I did them right.  I set out very clear requirements: they had to post at least three posts a month, and spread their posts throughout the month (one per week for at least three weeks out of the month).  They had to comment at least three times a month on others’ blogs, also spreading their comments out throughout the month.  They had to reply to all comments left on their blogs.

I promised to read and comment on every post.  I did my best to keep that promise for a while, and as I read and commented during the first month, I was truly impressed.  Some of them were just banging out the minimum, or not meeting the requirements at all.  Most, however, were writing very interesting things.  They were MAKING CONNECTIONS.  They were HAVING CONVERSATIONS.  It was clear that writing about the seven character qualities that children need to succeed, or the “licking and grooming” theory of parental nurturing, and applying these concepts to other things both fictional and personal, was helping them understand what these things mean.

So what went wrong?

What went wrong was that I hadn’t thought it all through.  Of course I hadn’t – it’s impossible to think a course entirely through before you teach it, no matter how well you plan.  The problem is, if you’re teaching a new course AND using unfamiliar (in this case, technological) tools, problems multiply.

The first came from my willful disregard for what I knew, from long experience, about many of my students.  Regular writing, including written discussion, about complex topics is a great tool for students who are already good communicators.  For students who have language issues, who are not habitual readers or writers, and/or who already have an awful lot on their plates, this kind of regular written communication is extremely demanding.

What’s more, they’re working on a platform that is new to them.  Most of them have never written blogs, and it’s not just the technological aspects that are unfamiliar to them, but the communication medium: what should a blog post consist of?  If it’s not an essay, then what does “logical structure” mean?  And so forth.  The instructions I gave them – not just on setting up their blogs but on how to earn a passing grade or 100% – were very clear.  However, because this clarity involves so many facets where blogs are concerned – one can’t take for granted that they know ANYTHING – these instructions were also extremely long and detailed, and students don’t fully understand them.  Even now, two weeks before the end of term, a number of students are not sure why they’re earning 59% even though they put up the minimum number of posts (“But Johnny, you didn’t leave any comments for anyone.” “But I did!  I answered the comments people left for me on MY blog!”)

There are things I can do to improve the evaluation scheme; for example, if I’m ever foolish enough to do this again, I will separate the grade for blog posts from the grade for commenting, and I will clarify and delineate criteria so that it’s possible to earn a passing grade even if you fall short in one area.  Nevertheless, figuring out how to grade this new form that has few formal standards is extremely challenging, and it hasn’t worked very well this time around.

Using a newish tool like blogging in a course has much in common with teaching a new course in general: it’s exciting and full of energy because you never know what happen, but it’s also messy and fraught and doesn’t always work because you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.  I’ll probably take a rest from blogs next time I teach this course (maybe a discussion forum would be simpler and less demanding?)

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I’d love to hear about experiences, successful or otherwise, that the rest of you have had with blogs in your classrooms.  What could I have done differently?  Is it worth taking another stab at it?

Image by Jakub Krechowicz

When the Syllabus Goes Wrong

mhC7ZMoI cannot tell a lie.  My new course is a failure.

This semester, I did a complete overhaul on the English course I teach for Child Studies majors.  The earlier version of the course was a solid one.  It focused on the topic of childhood relationships in literature: parent-child relationships, sibling relationships, and friendships.  We read a couple of books, wrote a couple of essays, researched famous childhood relationships and presented them to the class.  The final assignment was to write a story, fictional or non-fictional, about a childhood relationship.

It always went pretty well, but I was sick of it.  If I had to hear another presentation on the Jackson Five and their father, I was going to lose it.  And I was on a high from another course in which students chose their own readings, I course that I enjoyed teaching more than any other.  I wanted to try blogs again, and I was in love with Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, an exploration of the character qualities that lead to success.

So I had a few epiphanies and redesigned the course.  I knew I’d be flying by the seat of my pants for most of it, but, because this had worked out well for me in recent memory, I wasn’t too worried about it.

  1. Because I wanted to use Tough’s book, I called the course “A Question of Character.”  The guiding questions: What is character?  How do we define it in real life?  How do we experience it in literature?  Can reading literature influence a child’s character?
  2. I wanted each student to read a different classic work of children’s literature.  I compiled a list of books for them to choose from, all of which I was excited about reading or re-reading, and they dutifully signed up.  The plan was for each student to present his or her book, and its lessons about character, to the class.
  3. I wanted to use blogs as a way for students to exchange ideas and explore their own thoughts.  In the first few weeks we spent a lot of time setting up blogs, addressing questions about image copyright and moderating comments, and ironing out other issues.  In the first month, I fastidiously read and commented on every post, and compiled lists of the best posts of the week on my own blog.  They were to receive a grade for February, a grade for March, and one for April, with suggestions and feedback as we went along.

In the beginning, everything rolled along nicely.  I didn’t have a lot of grading to do, so reading the blogs was not stressful – in fact, I loved reading them.  Even the banal ones were interesting at first, as I got to know the students and the way they thought and wrote.  We started the term by reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone all together, and the students were mostly ecstatic about it.  They also seemed interested in the ideas in Paul Tough’s work, and wrote thoughtful first essays in which they discussed whether Harry Potter and his friends supported or contradicted Tough’s theories.  I slowly read my way through the book list, revisting old favourites and discovering new ones.

Things started to come apart around midterm.

First, I started feeling the burden of reading 80 blog posts every week.  Which is to say: I stopped reading 80 blog posts every week.  I couldn’t grade everything else and do that too.  I’d met with students individually in mid-March to discuss how they’d done on their blogs in February.  I’d planned to do that again after the March blogs were done, but there simply wasn’t time; once I’d given them all their blog grades for March (by entering them into the online gradebook with a couple of comments), April was almost over and there was really no time for them to implement the feedback.

I was also utterly bogged down in the book list.  I resented the volume of non-voluntary reading I’d assigned myself.  I found myself beginning a book and casting it aside, feeling sorry for the student who’d chosen it – The Dark is Rising, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Call of the Wild… why on earth did I inflict these on anyone? I wondered.

Then we started with the oral presentations.

One of the requirements was that they each find at least one scholarly article on their book and discuss it.  It turned out that the literary databases at our college are so limited that it was impossible to find even a book review on novels as classic as The Naughtiest Girl in the School or From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I had to adjust the criteria to the point that the research component of the assignment became basically meaningless.

I’d instructed each of them to present for 10-15 minutes, and we spread the presentations over 8 classes (5 presentations per class).  The first handful of presentations was enjoyable, but it became clear early on that requiring a “plot summary” without practicing how to make a plot summary clear and concise had been a big mistake.  The plot summaries dragged on endlessly, rife with minute detail, and the rest of the required components were treated in a couple of moments – a number of presentations were over 20 minutes long but consisted primarily of a brief biography of the author, lifted straight from Wikipedia regardless of my warnings, and a meticulous overview of the plot, followed by 90 seconds of analysis.  By the time we’d dragged through 5 or 6 of these, there was little time for anything else in the class period, and regardless of how different the books were, the presentations were ALL THE SAME.  It was agony.  Students stopped showing up for class.  I didn’t blame them.

One of my two classes is, for whatever reason, considerably weaker than the other.  I just finished grading the blogs for that weaker class, and the class average is 59%.  Ergo: this assignment was not a success.  The oral presentations were not a success.  They are working on their final papers right now, and were required to come in small groups to work on their outlines; barely half of them showed up for their small-group meetings.  The other class is faring better but there is still a general feeling, at least in my mind, that this course is a random, pointless mess.

Despite the issues, I feel some good things came out of this course.  Those students who kept their blogs diligently wrote some really inspiring things, and the conversations in the comments sections showed some deep and broad learning.  I certainly enjoyed reading the blogs more than I ever enjoy grading papers.  Some students reported being inspired by the children’s novels they read, and passing them on to younger siblings.  Some reported finding Paul Tough’s book extremely interesting, and their papers, blog posts and discussions about it indicate that most of them understood his ideas well and are applying them constructively to their lives and the literature.  So it’s not that there’s no learning happening, but I’m expecting a lot of scathing reports on the course evaluations about the confusing and meandering way that learning came about.

At this point, my plan is to shelve this course and return to its earlier incarnation, and take a couple of years to revise, revamp, reorganize, and reconceive.  I would love to hear your advice, and your stories.  Have you ever given, or taken, a course that just seemed like a bad idea?  If you gave it, what did you do to improve it?  If you took it, why was it bad, and what would you have changed?  Beyond that, can you see any solutions to the problems I describe above?

Image by Steve Woods

Prompt #3: The Writing on Learning Exchange: Who Taught You?

mq5ICKyWelcome to the third installment of the Writing on Learning Exchange!

Thanks so much for all of  you who contributed to the last two rounds.  If you’d like to go back to Prompt #1, or to Prompt #2, please do!  If you’d like to just start fresh with this round, that’s great too.

For guidelines on participating in the Exchange, please go here.

This week’s prompt: Who have you learned from?  What did he/she teach you?

Additional thoughts to inspire you:

  • We learn from our parents, and our teachers.  But who else?  Can you think of someone outside your home or your classrooms who influenced you?
  • Of course, if a teacher or caregiver or sibling is the first person who comes to mind, feel free to go with that.  Or to write about many people!
  • Totally optional: if this person is still alive, you might want to consider sending him/her what you write.  HOWEVER: VERY IMPORTANT: do not decide whether to do this until you’ve finished writing (ie. until all danger of writer’s block has passed).

Post your responses below or elsewhere – if elsewhere, please link back to this post, and direct us to your response in the comments here.

Image by Photonut

Prompt #2: The Writing on Learning Exchange: What I Want To Learn Now

mGBNBOqWelcome to the second installment of the Writing on Learning Exchange!

Thanks so much for all of  you who contributed to the last round.  If you’d like to go back to Prompt #1, no worries; there are no deadlines!  If you’d like to just pick up the ball from here, that’s great too.  This is not homework.  It’s for you (and for us, of course, if you let us read what you write.)

For guidelines on participating in the Exchange, please go here.

This week’s prompt: What do you want to learn next?

Additional thoughts to inspire you:

  • Is there something you didn’t value when you were young, and so didn’t actively pursue in school, that you would now like to learn more about or be better at?
  • Is there a skill that you want to have but that you’ve never developed?  Why haven’t you developed it?  Could you develop it now?
  • Do you have a hobby or interest that you’d like to investigate more deeply?  Or a project you want to undertake but don’t feel ready for?
  • Do you envy someone because of something he/she knows or something he/she can do?  Do you think you could turn that envy into action?

…or maybe this topic takes you in a different direction – great!  Post your responses below or elsewhere – if elsewhere, please link back to this post, and direct us to your response in the comments here.

Image by Michaela Kobyakov

Prompt #1: The Writing on Learning Exchange: Learning About School

nkuVRWeWelcome to the Writing on Learning Exchange!  Every week or two I will publish a prompt that is meant to get us thinking and writing about some aspect of our learning and/or teaching experience.  Whether you are a teacher, a learner, a parent or just a citizen who cares about the growth and development of other citizens, I hope you will find some inspiration here.

Some guidelines:

  • Respond to the prompt in whatever way you wish.  It is meant to be a springboard, not a cage.  If the question or topic makes you think about something that seems totally unrelated, follow that thought and see where it takes you.  No wrong answers.
  • You could write a post on your own blog, in which case I hope you will link back to the prompt post, and also leave a link to your response in the prompt post’s comments.  (This is a great way to find some more readers – or maybe it will be the impetus you need to finally start that blog you’ve been sitting on?)
  • You could just leave a comment responding to the prompt.
  • Or you could write about the subject privately, for your own edification – if you do that, I hope you’ll at least leave a comment saying that you wrote about it, and telling us how the writing went.
  • I hope you will have time to read and comment on some of the responses of others. However, if you just want to write a response and move on, or just use the prompt as a basis for your personal internal reflection, that is totally fine.

So here’s the first prompt: What are your first memories of going to school? 

Some details to consider (or ignore, as you see fit):

  • Where and when did you begin school?  How old were you?
  • Do you remember having any preconceptions about school before you began? Were there people around you (older siblings, older friends, adults…) who gave you information about school that shaped your impression of it before  you started?
  • What happened on your first day? What do you remember about the physical surroundings, the teachers, the other students, the activities?
  • If you don’t remember the very first days of school, do you remember any particular school experiences from your very early school years?

Just grab your first thoughts and impressions and go – don’t overthink!  And please share if you feel you can.  I look forward to hearing how this goes for you.

Thanks to Gayla Trail at You Grow Girl, whose creative writing club for gardeners, the Grow Write Guild, inspired the Writing on Learning Exchange.

Image by John Boyer