It’s almost midway through the semester, so I thought this would be a good time to reflect on some of the experiments I’ve been attempting in the classroom.
1. Teaching Reading
The Experiment: This isn’t so much a new teaching practice as it is a new subject. For the first time, I am teaching reading as a college course. Many people are confused when I say that I teach reading at the college level: “Shouldn’t college students already know how to read?” Well, these students all know how to read. They can read a paragraph aloud, but what they often can’t do is comprehend or remember it. So, what I teach is really academic reading: building vocabulary, assessing understanding, making connections, remembering new information, and creating study guides from dense texts. This is a big shift from writing; even writing instruction that emphasizes the process of writing has a product that is assessed by the instructor. There isn’t really a product for reading– just the process. It’s much trickier to assess a student’s process than a final product.
Result: I think I am getting the hang of it. Basically, my approach is to model different aspects of the reading process– aspects that strong readers often do without realizing it, such as using context clues, making connections, finding the main idea, and organizing content– and then have students develop their own strategies for those aspects. I have found ways to introduce new media, play, and kinesthetic learning into my lesson plans, so I’m starting to feel more at home in the reading classroom. For example, this week, we reviewed different ways to organize the contents of an essay: outlining, summarizing, and mapping, among others. We created a map using the students’ bodies, paper, and some yarn, and then they put the papers on the ground so they could visually see the relationships between the different concepts in the essay they had read in class.
2. Texting with Students
The Experiment: Anyone who teaches at a community college can tell you that many students are uncomfortable using email. In the writing lab, I often have to help students register, sign in, and send an email. In fact, research confirms that many young people of color are not accessing the internet at home; rather, they are accessing it through their smart phones. So, in order to make outside communication more accessible to my students, I signed up for a Google Voice phone number and distributed this to my students. Students are able to text me, and Google Voice forwards their message to my phone. My personal number is still private, and if students ever text anything inappropriate, I can easily turn off the forwarding feature. Furthermore, I told students I only accept text messages, and I gave them hours (7:30am-10pm) when they could text me.
Results: So far, many more students are contacting me outside of the classroom. And strangely enough, their writing is much clearer than it had been through email. This is a writing style they understand, and they seem to appreciate the ease of contacting me after class. I haven’t had a need to turn off forwarding yet, and I believe I won’t need to this semester.
The Experiment: In my Teaching Writing in the Digital World class, I read this article about Stanford Study of Writing and new literacy. I found it interesting that the researchers found a correlation between writing on social media and a new awareness of both audience and message. Also, it was noted that by limiting the number of characters allowed in a composition, websites like Twitter can actually help students learn to be concise and get to the point quickly. I realized that I could harness these benefits in my reading class. Once a week, I post a reading on Twitter, and students tweet me back either their response or the main idea of the article.
The Results: Loving. It. On a personal note, I have now been officially introduced to Twitter, and I am hooked. On a pedagogical note, my class often discusses how to summarize the main idea of a dense text, and by doing so on Twitter, students are forced to locate the main idea and cut out all of the filler details. Plus, they seem to have fun with it. I was actually surprised to learn how many students already tweet; after all, so few of my former students were familiar with blogging. I also try to maintain privacy, so I have a separate Twitter account specifically for this class, and I do not follow students (except for the five or so who specifically asked me to; I wasn’t expecting that!). I suggested that students who wanted more privacy could create an alternative Twitter account for class, but no one did.
4. Student-Created Lesson Plans
The Experiment: This is the result of re-reading Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed during the summer: I question whether I am promoting liberatory education or the banking concept of education. Specifically, I was struck by his point about teacher-created syllabi; he believes that it is presumptuous that teachers assign readings they assume will help the students without any feedback from the students. Hence, my lesson plan assignment was born.
In my freshman composition course, students work in small groups. The groups pick the theme of their assigned week, alongside the readings and homework questions. To help guide them, I chose an incredibly broad theme, power, and then encouraged them to choose a specific theme within that. The idea is that students are choosing topics, readings, videos, and questions that they believe are pertinent to their experiences.
The Result: I’m still evaluating this experiment. To give students enough time to create the weekly lesson plans, I supplied the readings and assignments for the first five weeks. The theme was Power in the Classroom, and the students read Friere, hooks, and other authors that critique the handling of authority in traditional classrooms. That helped students understand my motivation for the lesson plan assignment, and they were totally on board.
The first student-ran week was… well… it was okay. The students were overwhelmed; they admitted that they don’t read a lot outside of class, so they weren’t sure where to find readings outside of the textbook. They also admitted to waiting for the last minute, so some of the requirements of the assignment (such as a presentation about why they choose that topic and the readings) slipped by the wayside. The second group seems to have much more enthusiasm for the project. They even did additional work and have been leading activities in the classroom. Each of the students in that group seems to have a personal connection with the theme they chose (the power of the media), and that has motivated them to come up with creative ideas and fun readings.
Also, I’m thrilled by how students interpreted the theme of power. Next week, the group is discussing the power of clothing. Towards the end of the semester, a group has chosen the topic of power and law enforcement. These are concepts I may have never discussed in class, so I feel like I’m learning too.
All in all, I am happy with the way the semester is going. I feel like I have opportunities to try new things, and my students have been given me feedback throughout the semester. I feel like I’m growing as an educator, and I can’t wait to see what the remainder of the semester brings!