Writing 101

writing. living. learning.

Menu Close

Tag: rationale (page 1 of 4)

students acting out: re/approaching service-learning

Okay, so it’s been a pretty long time since I’ve sit down to write to this blog. Life keeps happening, and that’s a good thing, but sometimes it happens so quickly and with such intensity that it’s hard to find the time to pause for reflection–even though it is so very important. Historically, this time of year is always busy for me–finishing up the spring semester, trying to keep on top of work, enjoying the distractions of spring, and so on. This year is not much different, except that I have a few new interests and preoccupations–and maybe a challenge or two–that are keeping me busy and away from the glow of my computer screen–again, a good thing.

They were overwhelmed (or maybe lazy and immature), didn’t know where to start, and ultimately let their inertia get the best of them.

Work has been very challenging and fun this semester, as I’m giving this whole “service learning” thing another whirl. I tried it last spring with disappointing results. Students lacked motivation and interest; they never got past their own inertia and generally had an attitude of indifference that sucked the life right from me. I remember joking with my office mates, saying, “This is the semester I have finally lost faith in humanity.” I was joking, but truly I felt demoralized in a way I had never felt before in my teaching career. It was a hard semester.

One year later, I’m taking my lessons learned and enjoying a much better experience. This semester I’m doing a much better job of “scaffolding” to use a bit of pedagogical parlance. Last year, I threw the students into the thick of it, asked them right from the start to begin designing and implementing service–and to a larger degree–“activism” projects of their own. They were overwhelmed (or maybe lazy and immature), didn’t know where to start, and ultimately let their inertia get the best of them. It was a miserable failure in most instances. The success I am enjoying so far this year is due to an adjusted strategy that incorporates the following:

  • Embracing “service” rather than “activism” (which proved too scary for most students last time)
  • Leading by example and having a boatload of fun myself (while pulling the students along for the ride)
  • Setting goals bigger than the traditional academic experience and trusting that learning will come from it
  • Ensuring these “bigger” goals are met (even if a lot of the students flake out)

maybe “service” first, and “activism” later

The first adjustment I made this semester was to focus on “service” before “activism.” Last time, I really pushed this idea of activism–of making important changes to the structures in place that create or perpetuate the problems to begin with–rather than just attending to the symptoms of the problem through service. I believe both service and activism are important (and, in many ways, service is a kind of activism), but most students weren’t quite ready for the level of initiative and the resistance faced by the outside world when doing “activist-learning.”

Service comes from a place of kindness and responsibility, rather than from resistance and upheaval.

Service-learning is easier (but still not easy). Service feels better than activism in many ways because nobody fights one’s desire to serve. In fact, in most cases, people welcome you and thank you for the work you’ve done. It feels good to serve–unlike “-isms” which are hard pills to swallow. Even the word “activism” carries a connotation that doesn’t sit well with some students. They don’t fully understand the nuance of the term and generally have negative associations with the word. Again, this is where service feels very different for students. It comes from a place of kindness and responsibility, rather than from resistance and upheaval. I still want to push on toward greater activism in my classes, but for now I’ll settle for service. Good things are getting done. That’s what I wanted more than anything.

leading by example

Service and overall civic engagement is important to me. This is why I’ve made it a focus in my classes; however, I’d fallen out of the habit of getting involved in these activities as much as I would like. This semester, I vowed to show my students how it’s done. For the first half of the semester, I put together a handful of service-learning outings–each of which I would attend and participate in–and asked students to plan to attend at least one of these experiences. If their schedules didn’t allow them to attend any of the several events I arranged, they would have to plan and follow-through with a service-learning field trip of their own. (Most found a way to go to one that I had arranged.) The idea here was to pave the way for the students. All they had to do was show up, participate in the service experience, and write the critical reflection that followed. Ideally, in a service-learning setting, students would design their own experiences based on their own interests and areas of concern. That would come later.

Teacher/student roles fell away and we were working together on a single mission to help people in dire need.

During this initial experience, students got the chance to feel what it’s like to participate in a service project and to enjoy the sense of classroom community that comes from working together. It was kind of neat to work side-by-side with students outside of the classroom. Whether we were packing food in teams at Feed My Starving Children, boxing pasta at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, or problem solving most efficient ways to sort shoes at the Share Your Soles Foundation, teacher/student roles fell away and we were working together. It was humbling for me as we set our focus not on grades and lesson-plans but rather on a single mission to help people in dire need.

setting bigger goals

With each passing year, I inch closer and closer to a teaching/learning experience that has very little to do with grades, evaluation, “products” exclusive to classroom, carrot-and-stick tactics, and anything that resembles traditional notions of school. The step I took this semester might have been more mental on my part than much else, but it is making a big difference. Since taking on this service-learning thing, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of “action.” About a year and a half ago, I became really frustrated thinking about all the time and energy spent in classrooms across college campuses (and schools) everywhere. And for what? Students shuffle about, take their tests, get their grades, and–if they are lucky–graduate. Filling in bubbles with number two pencils (or writing essays that no one but a teacher would ever read) struck me as a short-sighted waste of time. With the world in such crisis, I felt incredibly irresponsible sipping my coffee in front of my classes leading discussions that never got beyond the hypothetical. It was time for a change. I wanted our time together to result in more. I wanted it to be immediately useful not just to those in the classroom, but to people in our communities–people in need. At the heart of service-learning is the idea that we can both learn (and meet curricular goals) and act in ways that are truly meaningful and helpful to others all at once. So this is what I had set out to do.

Filling in bubbles with number two pencils struck me as a short-sighted waste of time.

This shift that I most recently made in my approach is a significant mental shift further toward the immediate action. My early experiments with service learning kept teaching goals at the forefront of my mind. Honestly, this semester, I am keeping the service goals at the forefront of my mind instead. I want our class to accomplish something of importance for our community. I want the results to be measurable and real–and not worry about the “school” stuff so much. The result? Students are engaged, scurrying to keep up, and honestly I believe they are learning and performing well academically even though the focus is now on other, bigger things. When you’re in the world, working with others, doing important work–the learning just happens.

meeting those goals with or without the students

There are three structural components to the service-learning work we are doing as a class this semester. During the first half of the semester, as I mentioned above, I arranged service-learning experiences for the students to sign-up for and attend. Easy-peasy. For the second half of the semester, it was the students’ turn. I offered resources and support, but ultimately, they had to identify or create service-learning opportunities of their own and follow-through with them. (The idea was after seeing me set things up during the first half of the semester, they could do it for themselves during the second half.) The final capstone to this semester is a service-learning/volunteer fair called “ACT OUT: Education through Action.” At this event, students showcase their service-learning experiences and research through a poster session. The community organizations they worked with are also invited to exhibit their organizations at information tables adjacent the students’ displays. The event will be further bolstered by having a small set of “spotlight” speakers–service leaders from our community–present at the fair. The entire college community is invited to attend. This event is a big deal, and I made up my mind from the beginning that it would succeed with or without my students.

The event must succeed, and I want my students to be a part of that–but I will not allow the event to bomb in the name of “learning through one’s mistakes.”

Making this project a success with or without my students? Does that sound like something a teacher should say? Maybe not. In fact, it’s not something I would have said last year. I have tried student-designed and student-run events in the past with very mixed results. I’ve always believed in taking a hands-off approach to these kinds of events–letting the students run with them for better or for worse. I figured that learning through these experiences didn’t always result in a quality event, but the learning is what mattered. This semester, my thought process is just a little bit different. My approach this semester is that I want the event to be a success no matter what. If it is a great success, I want my students to believe it was because of what they did and to feel the rewards of that. If my students totally flake out and drop the ball on the whole thing, I want the event to be a success anyway. That’s my thinking. The event must succeed, and I want my students to be a part of that–but I will not allow the event to bomb in the name of “learning through one’s mistakes.” This shift, I think, has really amped up the intensity of the planning for the event and students are feeling it. This is a good thing. They know a lot is on the line.

as for me?

One cannot help but be changed when serving others. By participating in this work with my students at the start of this semester, I’ve gotten hooked. I’ve been getting more and more involved with some of the organizations I introduced my students to at the start of the semester. Also, in pushing my students (and sometimes dragging them behind me) toward this “Act Out” service-learning fair, I have been reaching out to more and more local non-profit organizations who are doing some amazing things right in our own backyard. I’m hoping that I can continue to build relationships, get more deeply involved, make this first of many “Act Out” events a success, and keep the momentum going. Things are happening. Things are getting done. We are acting now, and it’s just the beginning…

astra taylor on the unschooled life

Astra Taylor is a 31-year-old Canadian-American filmmaker well known for her films Zizek and Examined Life. She is a writer as well, and her work has appeared in numerous magazines. In 2006, Filmmaker Magazine listed her as one of 25 new filmmakers to watch. Astra was unschooled until she was 13, an experience she says shaped the course of her life. While she has chosen to give various “schools” a try throughout her adult life–including a short stint at Brown University, a BA from the University of Georgie, and an MA from the New School, she embodies the spirit of autodidacticism. In the lecture embedded here, she talks at length about her unschooled life. It’s well worth checking out if you hope to better understand what unschooling (or life learning) means. Here you can here it first hand from a grown unschooler. Please watch.

As a side note, I was watching Taylor’s lecture the other night, and my 7-year-old son Aidan (who is unschooled) came up and sat on my knee. He was drawn in from the other room when he heard me listening to the talk. He sat there with me for the full hour and 15 minute long lecture, completely engrossed. It’s neat to see how curious he is to hear others talk about the unschooling life. He, and other unschoolers I know, seem to be keenly and critically aware of their own educational experiences and processes–in ways that traditionally schooled kids are not (at least the ones I know). Maybe this is because they are choosing these experiences completely of their own free will.

If you’re interested in hearing more adult unschooler perspectives, check out the blog of one particular adult unschooler Idzie Desmarais. She is in the process of collecting a series of interviews with unschooled adults.

grading contracts, gastropods, and the occasional breakthrough

So, the semester is winding down and despite my best efforts to create a positive learning environment for all the participants in my class, I am still feeling a decent amount of animosity and negativity coming from my students. Such is the pattern, it seems, each semester. But still, I thought this semester would be different. This is the first full semester that I used a grading contract in my Composition I class, and I had very high hopes for it. The Great Gray Slug Photo of Limax maximus, the Great Grey Slug. Taken by Steven N. Severinghaus on April 21, 2004 in Champaign, Illinois.

 Are my students slugs?
I based my approach largely on a concept by Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow as published in CCC 61.2 in December of 2009. For some time, I had been looking for a way to deemphasize grading in my class (that proverbial carrot and stick I so despise) and boost students’ intrinsic motivation for their own learning. I’ve tried many combinations of things including student-centered, student-directed learning initiatives, problem-based learning, various forms of “learning contracts,” all varieties of portfolio assessment, and the like. I’ve had mixed results. When I read the Danielewicz and Elbow piece, I felt empowered to take one more giant step forward in my effort to weed traditional grading out of the way I teach college writing. I was eager to give it a try.

contract grading in the professional literature

For those interested in Elbow and Danielewicz’s approach to contract grading, I’ve embedded the CCC article below.

my grading contract

So, I took my cues from the pros and developed a grading contract of my own to use in my writing courses. I’ve always been of the belief that we can learn writing best simply by doing it–and a lot of it. Also, as far as the school setting goes, writing can be best developed when we use the classroom as a community of learners in conversation with one another.

Conversation, community, and writing process are emphasized foremost over product.

The contract I developed emphasizes, therefore, full engagement in the process of our course over anything else. If students satisfy a small set of “terms” on the contract–all of which pertain to the process of engagement in the course, then they are guaranteed at least a B for the semester. Again, none of these terms has anything to do with the quality of the written product, only the degree of participation in the process of the class. Essentially, it rewards work ethic. This deemphasis on quality of the written product may raise some controversy, but my bet is that if students just do the work of the class (I mean really do it) and do it consistently, their writing will improve and reach at least the quality of B level writing (as defined in the “official” grading criteria of our department). Could students do the work and still be crappy writers? Sure, it is possible, but this is a chance I’m willing to take. And you know what else? It’s also possible for “naturally talented” writers to do poorly in the class if they don’t engage fully in the process of the class. Churning out a strong written product in my course is not enough. It’s all about participating in the course experience. Check out the details of my grading contract from my course syllabus. Clicking the image below will take you there.
A Grading Contract
   Click to see my grading contract.

You can see that the contract focuses mostly on the B, implying this grade is attainable by everyone. In fact, students start with this grade and only have to worry about keeping it by doing the work of the course. If the B contract is broken, a student can earn a C, D, or F at my professional discretion. If a student keeps all the terms of the B contract and demonstrates exemplary work (clearly defined) on his or her final portfolio, then the student earns an A for the course. It’s all pretty cut and dry, or at least it seems so to me.

My hope in implementing a contract like this one was to liberate students from fear of grades and to pull the rug from beneath the feet of those who are quick to profess, “I am not a writer.” In this class, you don’t have to be some kind of natural born writer to succeed. You just have to do the work, consistently, fully, honestly–but therein lies the rub. As things are turning out, I think many of my students just don’t want to do the work. What I thought was a gift to students has turned out to be quite a brutal challenge for most of them.

results so far

This whole contract grading thing has students taking responsibility for their own successes and their own failures.

Well, at this 15th week of the 16-week semester, my attrition rate is pretty high, and the grade distribution is comparable to what it’s been with other approaches. I’d say the majority of students did not keep the terms of the grading contact pushing them to the sub-B grade range. Those who have kept the contract are clearly the strongest, most conscientious students (and writers), many of whom are on track for an A in the course. Those who broke the terms of the B contract seemed to have gone one of two directions: they either disengaged completely upon learning they could no longer earn anything higher than a C in the course (and as a result of disengaging will likely earn a D and in some cases an F for the course), or they kept at it and will, in fact, retain the C. This latter half was the smaller group. So what can I conclude from this? Is the grading contract demoralizing to those who could not keep on top of the work? Is the work too much? Are these students just lazy slugs (no offense to my gastropod friends)? I don’t know, but I’m not ready yet to give up on the contract.

The positive thing in this approach seems to be with regard to student accountability. While the distribution of grades has changed little from other approaches, I now have very few students blaming me for how things are turning out for them. They seem to be owning the results of their own actions in the course. The terms of the grading contract are mostly quite objective. Students can practically grade themselves against the contract; they either did the work as explicitly described on the contract, or they did not. It seems that, if nothing else, this whole contract thing has students being more accountable for their own successes and shortcomings. To me, that’s a good thing.

In my class, every student can choose to be a writer–and earn at least a B for making that choice.

And there have been some successes. A student the other day came up to me after class and expressed how accomplished she feels as a writer–after just finishing her course portfolio. She told me that at the start of the course, she didn’t want to do it. She knew how much work it would be, and she doubted her ability. She didn’t think she had anything worth saying. After turning in her portfolio, she told me she feels for the first time in her life like a writer–not a professional writer or anything like that–but simply someone who can and does write, like someone who has something worth saying. She mentioned that in high school she was told she was a bad writer and couldn’t do it. This silenced her. In my class, she did do it, and she did it well. On the brink of tears, she told me how proud she was of herself. And I was proud of her too.

In my class, every student is invited to be a writer–and earn at least a B for being that writer–that is, by being someone who writes regularly at least for the 16 weeks they spend with me. Anyone can do it. It’s a choice, not a talent.

© 2017 Writing 101. All rights reserved.

Theme by Anders Norén.