Friday, February 20, 2015

Red Coat, Blue Coat

It's never a bad idea to do a brief check-in with classes around a month into the semester.  My standard procedure is to take about 10 minutes at the start of a class (always the start, never the end) and have students anonymously jot down answers to four questions:
  • What idea in this class has intrigued, scandalized, amused or confused you so far?  Why?
  • Have any of the ideas in this course cropped up out of class (in conversation, in relation to other subjects, or just as a thought you reflected upon)?  If so, when?  How?
  • What's one thing I could change that would help you in the course?
  • What's one thing you could change?
I type up all of the responses onto one sheet and share it at the next class meeting, circling any points of consensus.  This information serves multiple functions.  The first two questions help me gauge how much deep learning is going on, especially the second one.  Sometimes students will tell you really interesting stories about how they are applying the ideas of the course in their lives. 
One young woman told me she phoned her mother everyday after class and went over the entire discussion again because she and her mom were so interested in the subject.  Really, no fooling.  And you often hear how ideas in your course resonate with ideas in other courses, which is great evidence that some transfer of knowledge is actually taking place. 
The third question, however, is really important.  Once you show them the data, it's incumbent on you to make some adjustment (else they'll think you're full of it for even asking what they think).  Sometimes there are good pedagogical reasons why you can't make a requested change, but you can almost always change something as a show of good faith that you value their opinion.
I did this exercise two weeks ago in my first-year honors seminar and the request that came back loud and clear was that they wanted more student-led discussion.  So I agreed to turn over each Wednesday to them to discuss the material on their own.  As you might imagine, this didn't go well the first time out: long pauses, reluctance to speak, irrelevant lines of questioning, getting off task.   I mean it's not for nothing I'm paid to be in the room.
But okay, I thought, I needed to let them flounder before I began to prod.   So this past Wednesday I announced some ground rules for discussion and then promptly butted out.  Here was the protocol:
Get into groups of three and compile a list of 3 questions you would like to ask about anything in King Lear up to and including Act IV.  Make sure your questions are strong questions and text-focused.  That means you should make clear the passages or incidents that inspire or relate to your questions.  Cite by act, scene and line numbers.  You should also look for interesting connections or contrasts in the text.  Here are some examples of strong and weak questions:
Weak questions                      
  • What do you guys think of Lear?
  • Do you think Lear deserves Cordelia’s sympathy given the way he’s treated her?
  • Who do you like better?  Goneril or Regan?  Why?
Strong, text-focused questions: 
  • Cordelia feels sorrow for Lear’s suffering despite how she’s been treated (IV, 4, 25-29).  How does her reaction to suffering compare to Edgar’s in Act III, scene 6 (100-113), and also Edgar’s feelings when he again meets his father in Act IV?  Are they right to feel this way about their fathers?  Do their father’s deserve their sympathy?  Why?  Why not?
  • Edmund deceives his father (II, 1, 35-75), but Edgar also deceives his father (IV, 6, 67-80).  Is either one of them justified in lying to their father?  Why?  Why not?
When your group has its three questions, exchange yours with another group.  Discuss the other group’s questions for 10-15 minutes and then get together to share your responses with each other.  It is perfectly okay to say you didn’t understand a question and ask for clarification, or to say your group didn’t agree on how to answer the question.  

The goal here is to make sure that all questions get discussed and that different views and ideas are shared.
I will not intervene.  Indeed, I am in Siberia until 1:55 pm.

This little exercise actually went pretty well.  They asked better, more  thoughtful questions and had to be accountable to one another for their answers.  The smaller-sized groups got the quieter students more involved, and most groups did some good wrestling with the play.  I asked them afterward how they liked this system and they all said it worked pretty well.  So the key was to create autonomy in the classroom while avoiding complete, structure-less, direction-less chaos.
*  *  *
When my son was young, my wife and I would do something similar.  We would try to create choice but always within some safe, controlled range of options.  Instead of saying "Go get your coat on," we would ask, "Which coat do you want to wear today?  The red one or the blue one?"   And we left off the table the option of no coat at all. 
This worked pretty well for awhile, but my son is a pretty smart kid and it wasn't long before he glommed onto what we were doing.  So he came bounding into our bedroom one Saturday morning at about six a.m, dived on my chest and woke me up.  "Dad," he said, "It's your choice.  You can get up and play with me, or you will get up and play with me.  Choose!"
No gimmick works forever.  Teaching, like parenting, is always a series of five-minute solutions.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Operation Overload and Losing Your Muchness

The standard teaching load at my institution is 4/4.  In other words we are contractually obligated to teach eight three-credit sections per academic year.  For various reasons, however, most of us end up teaching an overload.  Maybe the department needs to add a section to accommodate demand; maybe we couldn't hire an adjunct (or one quit at the last minute).  There are any number of reasons you go on overload.  Many of my colleagues just like the extra money.

Me, not so much.

Adding one more course means an additional 30 papers to grade twice a week.  It means that many more students to keep track of and worry about. And teaching overload nearly always sinks me.  It isn't that any one course is tough; it's just hard for me to teach well when (as the Red Queen said in Alice Through the Looking Glass) it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.

I spent nearly the entirety of last weekend grading student essays because my stack had ominously reached triple digits.  I have also sworn an oath to all my classes that I will always return assignments within seven days.  If that means I have to set the alarm for 4:00 am, so be it.  If that means grading every Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, so be it. 

Good writing is good thinking and I assign a lot of it.  I am also committed to providing quality, individualized feedback on every thing students write for me.  I like to think I give good value.  Heck, they're paying to go to a small private college.  They ought to get something for their money.

I can usually keep my hamster wheel spinning, too, but add two or three credits of overload and something's got to give.  Unfortunately what usually gives is quality course prep.  I find myself winging it, planning course exercises and strategies on the fly. 

Yesterday it really caught up with me and I felt crummy about the three courses I taught.  My suckosity meter was pegged at high because I hadn't had time to review the material and I had not thought through how I wanted to approach it.

It's amazing to me how that one extra course drags everything down.  I keep saying to myself that I have to quit teaching overloads, but then somebody begs me to take a section or I allow myself to get talked into teaching a new course.  And then here I am in Sucksville once more.

Doing what you love poorly is always depressing.  It's just not who you want to be.   As the Mad Hatter says, “‎You're not the same as you were before...   You were much more... muchier... you've lost your muchness.”


Friday, February 13, 2015

Editing Peer Editing

I have always disliked peer editing day, yet I keep trying to get it right.  By peer editing I mean the practice of having students drag in their drafts for each other to critique.  Here are my major beefs: most students don't like having to read each others' work, they are hesitant to offer anything beyond some bland, gormless feedback, and they generally have a hard time staying on task.

I've looked at lots of different rubrics, feedback forms and ways to structure the task, but it never seems to me that it's all that helpful.  Today, unfortunately, is peer editing day.  So of course I am trying still another method for getting students to help each other write better essays.   Here's what I came up with (and props to my excellent colleague in our Center for Teaching Excellence for giving me the gist of this idea):

You will be placed into groups of three.  The goal is to spend 20-25 minutes on each person’s paper.   Two people read the paper at a time.  Then the readers will discuss the paper for approximately 5-10 minutes, and the writer is not allowed to join the conversation (only to listen and take notes on what is said).  Indeed, the writer must sit with his or her back to the conversation. 
Readers should at a minimum discuss these questions:
·         What are your reactions to this paper?
·         What is the writer trying to tell you? What does he or she most want readers to understand?
·         What are this paper's greatest strengths? 
·         Does it have any major weaknesses?  If so, what are they?
·         What 2-3 suggestions do you have for improving this paper?

Once the readers have finished discussing the paper, the writer may ask questions of the readers.  But only ask questions.
Writers: be sure to ask for specific feedback on things or an explanation if a comment made by the readers wasn’t clear.   Be concrete and specific about what you want to know.   Each person should act as a reader twice and the writer once.  Manage your time so everyone gets an equal amount of consideration and feedback!
It's an eighty minute period, so groups of three should get through this with enough time spent on each student's work.  Not sure how this will go.  I like the idea of just having the writer listen while two people discuss his or her paper.  It should give them a real sense of what readers see in the work as opposed to what they think they wrote.
Eh, chances are I will still be unhappy with peer editing day, but you never know.

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...