Sunday, February 24, 2013

Nancy Singer

I know you’ll never believe this given my youthful appearance and svelte figure, but I am the mother of a high school junior and senior. For 12+ years I've watched my children navigate public education. Some of that education has been spectacular, but much of it has also been formulaic, predictable, and reductive.

I still catch my 18-year-old daughter surreptitiously reading under the blankets (these days that’s with an e-reader and not a book), and I still smile in delight. I am pleased that she can still get lost in a good book and that reading is one of her favorite leisure activities, but it could have turned out much differently.  Delayed early in reading, trapped by initiatives like Accelerated Reader, Lexile levels and Dibels, Katie might have been turned off to all of the great books I put in front of her.

I can, perhaps, almost breathe a sigh of relief that I've “launched” my own kids, but I’m worried about the kids who come after them. Of course we want all children to be good readers and writers, and of course we have to judge growth, but when literacy get reduced entirely to benchmark tests and data points on a chart, I’m worried that kids (and maybe their teachers) will never get a chance to get lost in the “flow” of a good book. I’m worried that they will never be so engrossed with characters that they can’t shake them off for days. I’m worried that they won’t know Holden Caulfield or Jay Gatsby or Elizabeth Bennet.

The new Common Core State Standards will ask us to do even more in our classrooms. We will be asked to teach more reading, more writing, and more critical thinking. But in the maze of new mandates I hope we don’t lose sight of what drew us first to become English teachers: the love of our language as it is written, spoken, and acted out. The CCSS will ask us to teach more informational and argumentative texts, but I hope it’s not at the absolute expense of a great piece of writing that makes us ponder the human condition, a speech that gives us empathy for others, or a metaphor that haunts us. We can look to our content-area colleagues to help us teach informative texts and to develop arguments, but if we are not the guardians of great literature, who will be?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Linda Barro

How FODIC Helped Clarify Grading for my Students 
I’d been teaching at the community college for approximately five years. Every year at evaluation time my comments would come back that the students didn’t understand my grading. I had a watered down holistic scoring rubric I'd been using for some time and I guess the vague generalities of such a guide could be confusing. With statements like “the essay’s topic is somewhat clear…” and “the details are vivid in some places and vague in others” I could understand that.

What was another concern was the application of these concepts to their other courses. If they didn’t think they’d be writing personal narratives in biology why would the way I graded it transfer to the lab reports they would be writing?

Some modification was needed in the scoring, or at least in the way I explained it to them.  It was in prepping my lecture on introductions that the idea for the new format emerged. FODIC, is an acronym for Focus, Organization, Development, Introduction, and Conclusion. When I assigned the next paper, I added it under the grading section of the document.
“It doesn’t matter what class you’re writing your paper for, all essays and reports should have these essential elements,” I explained. “If the paper isn’t focused on a single aspect, the reader won’t know what they’re reading nor why they should bother to read it. If the organization of information is difficult to follow they may miss the point you’re trying to make,” I continued. No response.

“Details are tricky though. Some teachers want everything outlined; others want the bare essentials. Whichever the case, make sure you’ve given enough description to meet the needs of your reading audience.” My audience wanted clarification – how detailed is too detailed? That was a tough one. I explained that it depends on the assignment, and if those parameters are unclear, to ask the teacher for an example of a “good” detail.

I was on a roll. “Rare is the paper that lacks an introduction that can jump right into the subject and not confuse the reader. Therefore, it’s important to guide the reader into what aspect you’ll be discussing, why it’s relevant, and what your point in discussing it will be. In other words, you need an introduction to set the stage for the rest of the paper.”

“Just as the introduction guides the reader into the paper, the conclusion lets him or her know that you’ve made your point. The difficult part here is to not be repetitive. If the paper is less than five pages long, let’s give the reader some credit for remembering what she or he just read and not repeat the key parts. If, however, the paper is over five pages, then you might be able to get away with ending your paper with a summary of the key points made.”
The students seemed to understand this as their papers improved.
My lecture has evolved a bit since 2005, but the concept is still used and still effective. It’s also helped with peer review, but that’s another story.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Layla Goushey

Online Teaching and Learning: Mentoring is the key component.

 Online and hybrid writing and literature courses are a great boon to literacy enthusiasts and to those who bemoan the loss of critical thinking skills in today's college student.  While online students may believe that they will have an easier time in an online course; in reality, they must read and write more than they would in a traditional in-person course.  They also have to more often rely on their ability to reason, interpret and respond to the requirements of the online course.  This situation is true for all online courses.

However, while students are called to do more in an online environment, so are their instructors. Teachers cannot view teaching an online course as an opportunity to sit back and let the students do all of the work. We have a great responsibility to place ourselves in reach of the online student, and to find methods to extend our care and interest for each student through the online realm. One of the most creative experiences I have encountered as a teacher is to design and teach an online course.

I am currently teaching an online World Literature course: Contemporary Arab Writers. Students began the course by reading Cities of Salt, an excellent contemporary Arab novel by Abdelrahman Munif that depicts the discovery of oil in a fictional kingdom similar to Saudi Arabia. The book contains references to characters by their formal Arab names and sometimes by nickname. This is a confusing dilemma for a reader who is unfamiliar with Arab culture. My solution was to create an audio podcast of my intentions for the course in order to alleviate fears of my expectations. I let students know that they are learning together and that we should each contribute what we know or understand about unfamiliar terms and references. I would not quiz them on the terms. I also created a separate space on the course discussion board devoted to clarifying confusing terms in the book. So far, all students have been able to successfully complete their reading response assignments.

I also have kept the course design simple. My students have an extensive amount of reading to complete each week and they are encountering new concepts as they read. I decided I did not want to create a varied set of assignments in different parts of the course site. Therefore, each week they read 100 pages of text. Then they write a summary of their readings and an interpretive paragraph based on sections of the text. They also have a separate assignment that directly addresses course goals, such as learning about the concepts of plot and irony and schools of literary critics.  There is quite a bit to think about in order to develop their responses. All of their responses must be posted on the discussion board in clearly designated weekly units.  I decided to not create multiple paths within the course. Navigating multiple paths can be frustrating when they are not necessary to the course learning goals. We must remember that in online course design, sometimes less is more.

Finally, I am careful to be equitable in how I devote my time to my courses. I spend a couple of hours a week outside of my in-person courses grading work and prepping for our in-class discussions. To compensate in my online courses, I create a phone schedule for my students where I commit to speak with each of them by phone at least once before midterm, if for no other reason than to establish a more personal communication channel with each of them. I create audio and video podcasts where they can hear my voice or see me as I comment on a section of text. Online courses are wonderful for students who need flexibility, but teaching is about mentoring and care for the success of each student. That is still best accomplished through personal attention to their diverse learning styles and to their varied perspectives on the course topic.

I cannot write about online courses without mentioning MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses.  MOOCs are being piloted by several universities and other institutions. Three of the best known institutions who offer MOOCs are Harvard, MIT and a company named Coursera.   MOOCs, are wonderful non-credit learning opportunities for the experienced, self-directed student. However, students who need a teacher-mentor may not do well in a MOOC.  The typical online course still requires a significant mentoring component. The course designer must also be the teacher, and we must continue to develop new ways to mentor and support our students as they grow in their subject knowledge, literacy skills and critical thinking skills.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Cheryl Ogolin

    Happy Endings

      Where better to begin than, well, at the beginning? Uh...anywhere else, really, especially when it comes to writing and facing difficulty with how to begin an essay, personal narrative, or other creative piece. But according to my dear and darling students, it’s the absolute only place to begin. They have such a tough time delving into their work, oftentimes allowing their desire for a perfect beginning to cloud the creative and insightful ideas they have floating in their heads for the bulk of their papers, muddying their goals and diminishing their motivation to complete the task at hand.

    I understand their frustration. We wouldn’t, for example, encourage our friends to watch a movie from the middle or begin a trilogy by reading the end of the first book. But for the purposes of creation, especially in writing, it is more than acceptable to skip the intro and start wherever your brain happens to be at that moment. Why can’t my students grasp this concept!? Following suit from the Summer Institute, I have planned a writer’s buffet for March, so I gave my students some time to work on an original piece during class this past week. Usually, I like when students ask questions of clarification before getting started, but this time you might have thought I spoke to them in a foreign tongue when letting them know what they were expected to do: work on any piece of writing they want to use for the writer’s buffet.

“ what are we doing?” Writing any original piece you’d like. Check your writer’s notebooks to get ideas from the daily prompts we’ve done.
“How do we start something like this?” Any way you want to.
“Well, what should I write about? How should I begin?” Anything at all. However you desire.
“I don’t get it...” Yeah, me either. I don’t get why you don’t get it.

Once I clarified a bit more, students glanced around the room and at each other, looking for inspiration, not daring to simply type on the screens or write on the papers in front of them. They needed to know how they would begin; they hoped for a fully fleshed-out plot for their original work before committing anything to the medium in front of them. They needed a start they would like and never betray by erasing it. 

    So is this strong start a prerequisite to a fulfilling, satisfactory, happy ending in writing? Not at all--this isn’t an Olympic track and field event where getting off the blocks the quickest makes all the difference in the world. In fact, to continue/overuse this analogy, writing is an event where everyone begins at different points on the track; where there’s much backtracking; where you can confer with your teammates, your coach, sometimes your trainer to be successful; where you can take back laps, do them all over again, and still end up at the finish line, satisfied (or at least finished) with your performance. The path a writer takes does not automatically mandate her success with the end product.

    I work exclusively with junior-level honors students, and these students are always fabulous but sometimes most resistant to beginning at a point other than the beginning of their essays--or any writing, for that matter. They are structure-hungry and formulaic, want to know the right answer--despite there being very few ‘right’ answers in literature and analytic writing--and cannot deviate from the expected order of things, especially with how they approach their writing. This frustrates me not because I have to then help them find a way to begin (I truly do enjoy working with them) but because it reflects their lack of self-confidence and tentativeness with thinking outside the box with their writing.

    So I trick them. I give them the formulaic-intro-promptings that they’re used to. Then they go at it, churning out writing that meets the criteria of the assignment. Then, during peer revision days, I encourage them to skip the beginning paragraph to see if the piece works well without it. More times than not (and only do I do this with creative pieces) students seem (more) pleased with their writing. I enjoy tricking them because, in the end, they usually benefit from it in that they begin to realize that they can take out entire chunks of their writing or begin in the middle and still be successful. And later, they’re more likely to take similar risks in their writing. Maybe eventually they will prevent their thought process from being interrupted by simply skipping the intro and writing it at the end of the entire process. Too often, I’ve had students tell me how much time they wasted trying to come up with how to start the essay, which leaves them feeling dejected and flustered by the writing process. I want them to enjoy writing, to enjoy conveying their ideas, to...just write already! Once they work past this initial (learned) habit, it can and I hope it does lead to happy endings to their writing processes.