Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Monday, December 30, 2013

Starting Your New Semester

If my Twitter feed is any indication, most academics didn't take much of a break this winter, and instead are spending their time "off" prepping course materials for the spring semester. I keep begging other academics to share their syllabi as they work #syllabishare but no luck so far. My reasoning for this is twofold- first, as a PhD student, I find one of the best ways to expand my reading/interests is to see what others are reading/assigning. The second is that as a PhD student, I want to see what other people's syllabi look like.
I'll keep asking though!

I am just as guilty of working over break. I love prepping classes, and rethinking things, as well as imagining new projects.
So here's my checklist for semester prep:
  • The syllabus: I make mine pretty comprehensive. I like to include policies about everything, so that there is no confusion. Tardies count as half an absence. Six absences get you dropped. I don't take late work, but make one exception per semester, but you have to let me know BEFORE the assignment is due. While there are many complaints that students don't read the syllabus, so far for me, this hasn't been an issue. 
  • I set up my gradebook in Google Spreadsheet, and set the formulas up so it's all set to go. However, I also like hard copies for attendance and grades, so I use the Ward gradebook.
  • I use Jim Burke's Teacher Daybook for staying organized (a holdover from my high school teaching days). I like that the front is a calendar where I can put everything for the classes I take, and teach, and the back half has planing space. I rough out sequences here, then put it into a Google Doc, and flesh out the assignments. This also allows me to directly link all resources (worksheets, webpages, videos, etc.) within the Google Doc. I then copy and paste this straight into Blackboard, so students have access to all of these resources. 
  • If you haven't played with using Google Forms for grading rubrics, I strongly suggest it. It makes life very easy, and grading goes a lot faster.
  • My school uses Blackboard. I make my life easy at the end of the semester by exporting a course copy. While I'll tweak items, and revise, I'm not having to create the entire course shell from scratch, which makes prep easier. I just upload the appropriate course shell. I've been an online instructor for years, so this is easy. But a note of warning to newbies- instructional design online is very important in order for your students to be able to access, and comprehend the information you're offering. If you're not familiar with this, or aren't sure how to approach this, ask for help! If your courses have an online component, it's not enough to just upload files.
  • When I go to class, I carry my Daybook, my Ward book, and a folder (for any student work I may take up). It lightens my load, and makes it infinitely easier to have everything organized. Because all the day's plans and resources are online, it saves me a lot of lugging.
  • I don't give hard copies of items out, all resources are online. Students are encouraged to bring hard copies of writing to class for writing workshops, but they submit everything online. It allows me to comment and return work faster, it ensures I can access stuff all the time and grade during down time (no more wasted time because I left papers at home). A nice bonus of this? I rarely get sick when students do because I'm not handling germy papers.
  • Another reason I like the Daybook is that it has built in reflection. I always think about what went well, what flopped, and what I need to revise. When thinking about assignments, I think it's important to think about WHY you're assigning items, and WHAT you want your students to get out of them (for more on this, see my post about Assignments and Rubrics in the FYC Classroom). I also think addressing this helps eliminate issues with plagiarism/cheating. I'm a firm believer that correctly designed assignments almost completely eliminate cheating.
  • I also find color coding classes makes things easier. I know that the red notebook/folder is ENGL 102, so when my desk is messy, or I'm running around, I just know what color to grab. I also color code my gradebook, so at a glance I can see how students did in a particular sequence.
So I'd love to hear from others- what are your tips or tricks that you use to prep for a smoother semester? What does your syllabi look like (#syllabishare)? Share!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Grad School: Can We Divide the Debate?

Inside Higher Ed just had an article on the 7.7% increase in PhD enrollments in the humanities. While this article does focus on PhD enrollments, it again brought up for me something about the graduate school debate that continues to bother me anew every time something new gets posted. I wish people would start separating the graduate school question.
Attending graduate school to get a Masters and to get a PhD are two very different things. They have very different end goals, and I think that we do a disservice to both groups by not separating them.

Part of this, I fully admit is a bias on my part. I taught high school full time when I earned my Masters in Education (by commuting from Brooklyn to CUNY: CSI), and my Masters in English Literature (by attending summers at the Bread Loaf School of English). I am surprised now in my PhD program that there are people who are going to school full time for a Masters. To me, that's just not something you do. To my thinking, a Masters is something you get to advance yourself in your job or field. Therefore, it always made more sense to work on it as you worked. I also think approaching a Masters this way benefits the student. You're working, so you run a better chance of having tuition reimbursement through work. You are willing to do the work, because I think once you're in the workforce, you at least have a sense (or can identify) of what a work ethic is. I think you value the education more, and therefore are more likely to value what you're getting. Again, this is my bias, because for K-12 teachers, working on a Masters while working full time is the norm, not the exception. I have a hard time understanding a twenty-two year old student who would go into a Masters program without having a solid reason why other than school is a way to put off real life or real responsibilities. I think that the latter approach is what creates many of the graduate school "Don't Go" debates.

Now, a PhD program is a different beast. But if we can separate these two, or even better, if the university system can start to separate these two, I think it would help many of the PhD program issues as well. If the norm becomes that students graduate from undergraduate and are first encouraged to go into the workforce, I think this opens them up to many of the alt-ac careers people are encouraging. I also think that it creates some pretty valuable work/life skills. I also think that if you go to work full time right after college you have a very different perspective on what you're willing to give up in order to return to school. Again, speaking only from experience, out of the hundreds of teachers I know who worked on their Masters while working full time, I don't know a single one who didn't finish and graduate. That's a very different statistic than you hear in a lot of these articles on grad school. The difference is, they already have jobs, and are working on Masters to improve their performance in those jobs. The focus is entirely different. They're not competing for the job pool. A few of these teachers have then decided to go back to school and pursue their PhD. And while they are still early in the process, every one I know is thriving. They are not weighed down by the workload, not because they're in easy programs, but because they're already used to balancing heavy work loads, and have a strong work ethic for getting things done. Their teaching load isn't a problem, because quite frankly, teaching two classes of 22 students is nothing after teaching five sections of 25 students each. These teachers are grateful to be in an environment that focuses on scholarly work, and where their mature, responsible attitude is rewarded that they thrive. Again, while the teachers I know all want tenure-track jobs as an end goal, I also have a hard time thinking they couldn't succeed elsewhere.

Now, none of these solve the issues that there are too many PhDs being produced, and that there are no tenure track tracks for the few who graduate. However, I can't help but think that if the system could start separating these two things, and refocus the logic behind the two prongs of grad school, that some basic changes would occur, and that these changes could radically affect the entire landscape of the problem. People keep talking about changing the conversation about grad school. And there have been recent articles on possible changes at the university level (like Johns Hopkins). However, I think the biggest change needs to be how we define grad school, and we need to start looking at this as two separate problems.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Teaching and Rubrics in the FYC Classroom

I had lunch with a former professor yesterday, and it was wonderful. One of the things we talked about was what I had struggled with in my first year composition class this past semester. One of the things I struggled with was specific, almost creative writing rhetorical situations. The other big thing I struggled with was the use of rubrics.

It got me thinking about WHY I struggled with these issues. And to me, it came down to teaching. I taught high school for 12 years. I adjuncted at a community college for two. I have a Master's in Education. So I have experience, both academic, and practical, in what works in a classroom, and with instructional design, and why it works.

I am a firm believer in choice in a writing classroom. I believe that an assignment should have clear guidelines and expectations, for example, I have my students write a research report in ENGL 101. I give them clear guidelines as to what a research report should contain, but they are allowed to write on any topic they want. They are allowed to choose an argumentative or expository paper. They have choice. And the tone, audience, and purpose of their paper comes from this choice. I think this allows students to explore who they are as writers, as well as take risks, and figure out for themselves what certain things mean. It also forces students to internalize these choices because they have to justify why they made the choices they did. This does not mean that I let them sink without help, we do a lot of mini-lessons in class, and look at different models of different types of research reports as well as a lot of workshopping/peer editing in class.
I do not think students learn all of these things if instead they are given a specific prompt that robs them of all agency.

For example:
Imagine you are a staff writer for the New York Times. Your boss has assigned you a recent technology topic to research and report on for the Science section. 

This assignment, while specific, denies the student any chance to explore their own thinking, writing to think, or using research as a form of exploration. 
Instead, what if you assigned the student a research report as the genre, and made clear all the conventions of that genre and then, you let the student decide the rhetorical situation? Have them explain what it was in detail in a writer's memo to you that they turned in with the assignment?

A lot of this comes back to Understanding By Design, that you have to start with the end in mind. What do you want students to learn (not what will you teach) by the end of your course? Why are you assigning certain assignments? These are two questions that I think can get lost in the FYC classroom.
For example, let's say your university teaches a genre approach, and the following are the approved genres to teach in ENGL 101:
  • Memoirs
  • Profiles
  • Reviews
  • Rhetorical Analysis
  • Report

Now, let's just ahead for a moment and look at the approved genres for ENGL 102:
  • Genre Analysis
  • Rhetorical Analysis
  • Proposal
  • Report
  • Argument/Position Paper
  • Research Paper
  • Review or Evaluation
  • Literary Analysis
If we begin with the end in mind, we have to look at what the end result for ENGL 102 is. I want my students to be able to analyze texts, in a way that will transfer to their other coursework. So if I want to scaffold it, I need to start with my last assignments, and work backwards:

Literary Analysis --- Rhetorical Analysis --- Argument/Position Paper
  •  I want students to be able to analyze a work of literature. So I scaffold these skills by having them analyze non-fiction works, with smaller assignments that look at the rhetoric of artifacts or ads. I introduce students to these concepts by starting them off with the argument/position paper, so that they can learn the basic strategies and elements of argument and use them in creating their own argument. This preps them for examining these same elements in other texts.
If these are my sequences for ENGL 102, then I next need to think about what assignments in ENGL 101 will build up to this:

Report --- Review --- Memoir
  • I want students to end the course with basic research skills. They should know not only the correct formatting for a paper, but also how to use the writing process, and how to organize their thoughts and interact with sources, not just paraphrase them. I also want them to use some sort of media/graphics in their report. So I start with the students writing a memoir. I do this for several reasons, it allows students a low risk, high confidence topic to write about for the first time in class. I ask them to write a memoir that focuses on an interest of theirs, and I ask them to base their memoir on a picture they have. This introduces students to writing focus, and using media to accomplish their purpose. The next assignment is a literature review of four articles or a book in a field they're interested in. I stress that it can build on what they wrote their memoir on, but does not have to. I use the rhetorical precis model for the review, asking the students to identify what the works are saying/arguing. This preps them for their research report, which they can write on any topic, but again, I stress it can be on the same topic they've written on before. It can be argumentative or expository. The choice empowers the student, while still teaching all the skills I think are important.
These assignments answer the WHY I'm assigning each assignment, as well as what I want my students to learn by the end of their freshman year.

So you have your assignments, how do we grade them?

I will tell you, I am not a big believer in rubrics. I think that they teach students that writing is a set of checklists, and does not encourage the critical thinking skills we always argue writing builds. I also believe that most rubrics are not understandable to students, so they can't internalize the lessons you want. I also think that students can make great moves, take interesting risks in their writing, yet score poorly on a rubric. However, if your university requires them, there is a way to work around them. And again, we start with what you want your students to get out of the feedback you give. With my students I want them to:
  • Answer questions about why they made certain decisions in their writing
  • Understand where they may have omitted or not fulfilled requirements of the genre
  • Understand what they did well
  • Realize that writing is thinking
  • Internalize these changes/improvements
I believe the best way to do this is a combination of feedback given on papers (I use the comment feature in Word or Google Docs) and a holistic rubric. I do not believe that a rubric with only point values assigned to Focus, Style, Organization accomplishes this. Even if you go over the rubric in class (which I highly recommend) there is no guarantee that the student will internalize what a 10 in Focus means.  So, let's start with what your students understand. They understand grades. The grades they get in classes. So what if we use that as our basis for our rubric?

This rubric is divided in a way that students can understand- most of them have an idea of what an "A" paper looks like versus a "D". So right off the bat, it's an improvement. Students can understand the rubric. The rubric then breaks down for students some specific differences between each grade. Notice that the language addresses elements, but is general enough to be used for all major writing assignments throughout the semester. This goes back to allowing students to create their rhetorical situations. You can give the students this rubric and tell them it's the rubric you'll use all semester. You can have discussions about how it will be used to grade- perhaps a student scores low on style, but does some really cool things otherwise (style points) and their other grades fall into the A or B range. Your comments would clarify this, pointing out what they need to work on/improve for their next assignment. If you have low stakes writing assignments in your course, perhaps based on student performance you want to incorporate assignments that specifically focus on organization or style, using this rubric as a guide.
You'll notice that on this rubric is a built in reflection piece. The students are required to submit a cover letter for each assignment. You can alter this for each assignment, but at a minimum the students should say what audience they were writing for, what their purpose was, and why they made the choices they did. If your university requires you to have students reflect on Student Learning Objectives, this is also where they can reflect on their progress towards those objectives.

I think that every teacher needs to figure out what kind of teacher they are, especially if they are new to the FYC classroom. However, while feedback and genre writing can be important focuses, I believe that there are some pedagogical basics that FYC teachers need to examine and think about when designing their curriculum.