Conference

I put off writing this last post to the very end so I could go to a conference, hopefully be inspired, and then write up something worth putting on this blog. I know, that was a huge risk, especially for someone like me who is increasingly weary of conferences.

But it worked out. I’ve learned some great things and remembered some things I forgot.

So, here it goes, some new things I’d like to start doing with my classes.

1) Civic Engagement. I want to do more of it. Right now, in some of my classes, I have my students write letters to public figures and send them out. It’s easily the most meaningful and exciting assignment I give my students, both for them and for me. But there are some other interesting ways to have students engage with their local communities that I’m interested in trying out. A) In my writing class, I could require students to spend a few hours at a local community service (homeless shelter, soup kitchen, convalescent home, open space, nature reserve, etc.) and then write a narrative about a person they met or a place they helped restore. B) Or maybe students can hold a conference on campus where they present an important local or global issue to other students in workshops or at booths. C) I already have students write a robust and challenging “Literature Review” assignment which must look and read like a peer-reviewed academic article – perhaps it’s time I actually have all my classes “peer-review” these articles, narrow them down to 4 or 5, and then publish them in a Foothill College Academic Periodical available to the entire campus at the end of the year. I think it could work; their topics are always a delight – I’ve had students write about the Socioeconomics of Sugar Dating, the Mathematics of Black Holes, Feminist Themes in Miyazaki’s Disney Films, the Neurology of LSD Use, the Historiography of Video Games set in WWII, the Engineering of Eco Jetliners, the Politics of Crypto-Currencies… just to name a few. Scott Lankford’s students are doing something similar with a literary magazine written around the theme of climate change, so I think there could be some interest in something like this and I’m wondering if any other teachers would be interested in having their students read and/or contribute to a student peer-reviewed academic publication.

2) Guided Pathways. As you might know, Governor Brown has allocated $150 million towards the development of guided pathways in post-secondary schools. I think Foothill has plenty of “invisible” pathways all over campus, but I’m wondering if anyone else would be interested in collaborating to make all the various pathways more visible to students. Maybe a single resource on the website and in a printed brochure that would help students figure out: What do they want to do? What career/degree/certificate do they want to pursue? What classes should they take to do it? When should they take those classes? What other campus services should they be using? These are questions students are lucky to have answered only when they’ve booked a single 20 minute meeting with a counselor.

3) Open Source Textbooks. I was going to write about this here, but the post is already on the long side, so I’ll wrap it.

All this to say I haven’t yet completely lost faith in conferences. I think they’re worthwhile so long as you get to have some crosstalk with creative faculty and administrators from all over the place.

Conference

Canvas

It took me a long while to get online with my face-to-face classes. Mostly because it seemed like it was going to be enormously disruptive to all of my routines. What if it resulted in a whole quarter of disastrous classes? How many extra hours would I spend entering all my assignments into a website?

But I’ve done it. And it was fine. No disaster. No 100% fail rate. And here’s the best part… not really very much extra work. In some ways there’s a lot less.

I’ve always known if students could log in and see every assignment they passed and missed they would be encouraged to keep themselves current on the homework to improve their numerical scores (… it’s a lot of extrinsic motivation). That’s happened. Anecdotally, I can say a higher rate of students are on top of the assignments and among those students who aren’t, I have many more who take me up on my offer to submit late work. (My late work policy for home work is generous. I like how Falk put it once, “I don’t care when a student learns the concept in my class, so long as they learn it before the end.”) In my basic skills class, over half the students have done every single assignment, and those who haven’t are still in the 80-90% completion range. I think it might have something to do with that terrible Black Mirror episode where everyone is obsessed with their aggregate social rating numbers.

I also like how moving all of the homework online allows students to archive their writing so they can revise it to include it in their essays. If students are writing homework online instead of handing it in to me, the always have it. They can pull material from their previous work, and splice it into the essays they’re writing. If I collect it, sometimes it takes a while to grade, then respond, then enter the grades, and then finally, hopefully everyone is in class when I hand it back because if even one student is absent, then, that student’s work is going to sit languishing and neglected on my office desk until the day I remember to schlep it back to class and give it to them and hopefully they’re in class that day. Online, it doesn’t matter. They keep it and can see the grades and comments immediately after I’ve entered them.

On Canvas, I’m still trying to figure out how to streamline the grade book and also create groups (which were a disaster the first and only time I tried them), but I’m convinced. Every face-to-face class I teach from here on will essentially be hybrid.

Canvas

Unplanned

“What’s the definition of that word?”

“Well… that’s a tricky question.”

I’ve been working with my basic skills students on an argumentative paper – How do we decide what evidence to use? How do we address counter arguments to our own ideas? How do we organize all those arguments so our essay reads cohesively?

As for a topic, we began with the infamous Gallup International Poll: “What Country Poses the Greatest Threat to World Peace?” As you probably know, the United States won by a wide margin. I picked this topic because there’s plenty of ways to argue it, and the students saw that immediately. After only posing the question (and the results map), the class was animated with responses.

Part of the discussion settled on drone warfare and terrorists and the debate in the room was moving along just fine – we had all sorts of arguments and counterarguments – but then a student asked a question that sent us down a long tangent. She asked me to define the word terrorist.

What happened next was completely unplanned, which is risky, but with this class it turned out to be one of the most exciting discussions of the quarter. I just opened a google search page and started entering students questions, pausing after each to let students discuss among themselves and then as a large group.

First we happened upon the FBI’s legal definition: “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Immediately, some students had some examples to fit the description – The Boston Marathon, The Pulse Shooting, The San Bernardino Shooting… But then students started asking about examples of mass violence that seemed to fit the FBI’s description but were never classified as terrorism. Dylan Storm Roof, Robert Dear, Micah Xavier Johnson,The Millers : “Were they terrorists too? It seems like they were trying to further political or social objectives.

Most of the class agreed there was a discrepancy here in the way the word “terrorist” has been used and defined. It seemed if someone used violence in conjunction with muslim extremist ideas, they would readily be labeled a terrorist. But if someone else were to do nearly the exact same thing but claim their motive was Jesus, or the Tea Party, or Black Lives Matter, then at most this person’s actions seem to be labeled a hate crime.

The entire activity reminded me how fruitful it can be to define words. Even more, though, I remembered how exciting it can be some time to drop my whole lesson plan and just go on a web search with my students.

Unplanned

Colleagues

I went to the Reading Initiative workshop on campus a few weeks ago.

The whole session was framed around one of Andrew Lam’s articles from a few years back, an optimistic pastiche of the senses, blending all the Bay Area’s sounds, sights, and tastes to celebrate our local multiculturalism. How would we teach it? How could we get students engaged? More specifically, we were tasked with focusing our lesson plans to activate a particular learning modality (visual, aural, kinesthetic, etc. Ultimately, we all agreed it’s best to try to engage as many senses as possible as frequently as possible, but to do that, it helps to first consider how to engage them discretely).

My group had aural learning – audio/sound/listening – and since our colleagues here at Foothill are among the best in the world, I’m not surprised that the series of lessons we cobbled together were fantastic. However, my favorite were the pre and post reading activities – What sounds do students hear when they’re in public (e.g. BART, Starbucks, Mall) and what do those sounds tell them about the community they live in? More importantly, what do those sounds tell them about their perception of the Bay Area? Finally, as a post reading, what sounds were missing in Andrew Lam’s article? He didn’t mention anything that would resemble things like Milo Yiannopoulos or the responding Berkeley riots or the Ghost Ship fire or anything else that might contradict his cheerful multiculturalism. Considering what wasn’t in his article became just as interesting as what was.

I don’t teach enough in that way. I find myself wanting to give students a wider breadth of materials rather than carefully pre-reading and post-reading a smaller few. And, I’m usually so focused on the essays students will produce it’s too easy to slip into a drive for efficiency where I under-use the readings we’re going over in class, and unwittingly treat them like they are little more than receptacles for quotes students can pilfer for their upcoming essays.

The workshop also highlighted something else I don’t do enough of either, which is collaborate with other teachers to craft and revise actual lessons. And I don’t just mean sharing a prompt or a lesson plan or reading assignment, or talking after a J1 observation; I mean gathering together to create something from beginning to end, sharing our experience and expertise.

Sitting in my group of four, it was a near nonstop flow of ideas, each of us suggesting a change here or there or asking thoughtful questions; the string of assignments we came up either together was far better than what I would have made by myself and many of the improvements we made along the way were things it would take me two or three quarters of trial runs in the classroom before I would tinker enough to optimize the assignment.

I’d like to be a part of these efforts on campus – teachers across campus talking about how they can engage students in their own classes regardless of department or discipline. We don’t do enough of that.

Colleagues

Events

A spectre is haunting Foothill – the spectre of activism.


I know. That’s over the top. But it’s been thrilling to see that almost every week, President Thuy has helped pull together a new, practically impromptu gathering on campus in response to current events. So far, students attend en masse, and the topics have all been so interesting – Fake News, Banned 7 – that I’m more disappointed than ever that my teaching schedule doesn’t allow me to attend.

Every quarter, I track as much as I can of what’s happening on campus and then periodically offer my students extra credit to attend  activities and report back to me. This quarter, the responses have had a different edge. While in the past, many of my students wrote about what I hoped they would – that they felt a stronger connection to the community at Foothill – this quarter, students are hinting that they might take it a step further and actually get active on campus.

I’ve excerpted a sampling of their reactions to recent campus activities:

“…I understand that there is more than simply proclaiming my support, I must also take action.”

“After hearing this talk, what i know is not just to sit there and watch things getting worse but to take an action. What we all can do is that we can be a part of protests that are against the ban and also, we can contact the senators to talk about the ban or even just by posting things about how you feel about this immigration order on social media. I believe every little actions counts and gets congregated and make a big change.”

“The really terrible part is that these people are victims and refugees and after experiencing violence and corruption in their homeland the United States are not only closing their doors to them, but have also labeled them as the oppressors and terrorists. The victims of the crime are being called criminals[…] It is very disheartening that after all these examples in history we are still making the same mistakes.  On the bright side, many people in our community are coming together to fight this modern times segregation…”

This poses a fascinating opportunity for us as faculty and staff at Foothill. We can engage our students with these new movements on campus where they can see how problems in the world connect directly to their own peers. They’re seeing how the news from around the globe is actually news about their fellow students who may be sitting next to them in class. And it’s not as if many of these problems hadn’t existed for our students before, but now they’re coming up more obviously to the surface. In the same way, their education has always been something they could use to be transformative in the world, but now that’s more tangible. Students can’t help but realize that what they’re doing at Foothill College already has global implications.

I also know there are plans already in motion to bring back student led journalism on campus. It couldn’t be more timely. Students are listening, they want to act, and pretty soon they’ll be using free press to write about it too.

Events

DISAPPROVAL

After my last post, it only seemed fair to write about the other kind of stubborn memory that stays in the mind… When a teacher flames your writing with a harsh marginal comment.

There are several such embarrassing moments for me, but one that really got under my skin happened in grad school. And you have to understand that this context made it all worse because I was getting my master’s degree in English Composition, where there was a reasonable expectation that students should be able to turn out some highly wrought prose. For me, and for one teacher in particular, that wasn’t the case.

As an undergrad, my teachers had exposed me to a handful of theoretical texts; I don’t think I read them too closely. But it wasn’t until grad school that I was reading this stuff week in week out. It was ordinary to trudge through authors who wrote sentences like:

“It is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and is continually born anew; the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.”

Unfortunately (or fortunately for some?), when the mind is swollen with this kind of writing, the style seeps out. I sometimes wonder if this is only the curse of English majors – we couldn’t help but start to sound like the things our teachers made us read so there was always a little Jane Austen and James Weldon Johnson in my literature essays. At any rate, the habit carried on into my Comp essays, so I would find myself trying to wrest some profound thought out of my meager sentences and would just end up with a convoluted string of gobbledygook.

I can’t remember exactly what I wrote or even what I was writing about, but the above was my process for creating a paper I submitted that was returned to me with a single comment, “Work on your writing. You’re in grad school.

Mortified, I turned the page over on my desk and looked around. Other students were gleefully feasting on their own long marginal notes written in the teacher’s classic purple ink. I didn’t have that. What I did have was an immediate impression that I did not belong in the room, in the program, or even at the school for that matter.

The comment made me retreat back to my Strunk & White and other style manuals that I hadn’t looked at in years, and I labored over the other essays I wrote in that class to a point of tedium. But I’m not sure any of this made my essays better. It just made me embarrassed to turn them in.

What strikes me about these two stories (this one and the one I posted last week), is the way a teacher’s comments can mark out a student’s position in the university. One welcomes them in. The other does not.

DISAPPROVAL

LITERACY

Last time we did this I ended with a proposition. It was intended more for myself but now I’d like to extend it to everyone else. Would anyone be willing to write at least one or more of their posts as a literacy narrative about their community college (or university) days? Something specific about your own experiences entering into and experiencing academia? It could be related to reading and writing, or it could be related to your own field of study.

Here is the initial prompt I’d like to use for this but feel free to make up your own: “What is one of your most prominent memories of reading and writing when you were in college? Why do you think this memory stands out to you?”


For me, it was the first time I had ever met with a teacher one-on-one to talk about my work. Prior to that I’d only carried on written conversations with instructors; I would submit my word processed essays and they would respond with scribble red notes in the margins. Sometimes those notes would be legible.

Professor Bruce’s office had all the accessories of an academic – scattered stacks of books, piles of folders with papers spilling out of them. A small potted plant lived on the window sill, and the usual Shakespeare poster hanging on the wall listed all the idioms the Bard had given the English language, “in a pickle… too much of a good thing… seen better days… good riddance.”

I had been fretting over the essay for days, scanning line by line for errors, writing and rewriting whole paragraphs, but when I handed over the pages, I lied, “This probably has a lot of mistakes. I wrote it late last night.” It wasn’t a humble brag; it was an cover just in case the whole thing was a steaming pile of refuse. I think he caught onto my panic because he just smiled and said, “Don’t worry, I remember those days writing papers at 2AM. Let’s have a look. I’m sure it’s great.”

I don’t recall anything else about the meeting, just that comment. It instantly put me at ease. We were no longer the brilliant professor and the mediocre student, we were compatriots with a shared experience of anxiety in our early academia, and we now were sitting down to collaborate on an essay. He made it okay to have a messy piece of writing; he didn’t seem to mind, and it didn’t seem to have any effect whatsoever on whether or not he thought I could write an essay was worth reading. I belonged.
For me now as a teacher, I often wonder how I can change the way I talk to student in and out of the classroom. When and where can I say things that might disabuse them of any self-illusioned incompetence?

LITERACY