Classroom Activities

Going Analog

So, I like technology in the classroom. Every time the…uh…debates about it come up, I’m definitively on the “for” side for numerous reasons. That doesn’t mean that I don’t see the flaws with using some tech and/or the complications that can arise from having tech in the classroom. I just think the good outweighs the bad.

That being said, I also like to have my students do a lot of things on paper (if possible and accessible) for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s just faster. Sometimes I might want them to sketch something in a way that might be more complicated to do on a device. Sometimes I might want them to easily swap an activity with one another. Etc.

Another important reason that comes to mind is that sometimes it can be valuable to have them work out and/or practice something that they’re going to be doing digitally in an analog format first. Because sometimes the very digital-ness of an assignment can become a bit of a distraction to the thinking process. This is something that I’ve been thinking about since last year’s Digital Media and Composition Institute (DMAC). If you’re not familiar with DMAC, it is essentially what the title describes. During the institute, several educators, from across the country, come to OSU to discuss digital media, composition, pedagogy, and issues of access. Additionally, during the institute, participants create their own compositions in a variety of formats. I attended the institute in 2015, and I’ve been lucky enough to be employed by the institute both last year and this year, which has been a fantastic experience.

During last year’s DMAC, one of the things participants composed, as well as discussed using in the classroom, was an infographic. Things we did in that process included talking about infographics, looking at examples, and examining sites that can be used to make them (shout out to Canva and Piktochart). But perhaps one of the key components of the process (at least to me) was having folks make infographics on paper first. Participant Tiffany Mitchell talks about the value of that step here.

As I was retooling my First Year Writing syllabus this semester, I knew that I wanted to make some changes to how my students would first start to think about their research. I wanted them to think more about how to assess the quality of a source (rather than how to find a specific type of source), and I wanted them to think more about the secondary sources in relation to one another. This developed into a 3-step resource chunk in the middle of the semester, which entails: an evaluation of sources they’ve found in their preliminary research, a brief presentation on one of the sources, and a listicle about their research.

I got the idea for that last piece here. I really liked the idea of the listicle because it would get at the synthesis I wanted, and it would also challenge to think about rhetoric a bit differently than what we’ve done in the class thus far. Plus, I’ve been encouraging them to develop their voices this semester, and I try to provide some creative options that allow them to do that more easily. I also knew that it was probably a format that most of them had not written in (explicitly) even though they’ve probably encountered them on the internet (in fact, as we talked about them in class, it became clear to me that some of them had never encountered the word “listicle” even if they had read listicles before).

Earlier this week, I posted a handful of listicles on our class home page and gave them time in class to explore them (some were just text, some were text and pictures, and some were text plus various other forms of media). We then discussed how the listicles function, how the text interacts with the images/gifs/etc, and ways in which they could create listicles. I’ve done a similar process in the past when I’ve had students making podcasts and transmedia extensions. I think it’s really valuable for them to be able to see and analyze several examples of unfamiliar forms before they start creating their own.

Building off of that, today I had the students work in small groups to make analog listicles. I brought in a bunch of materials (poster boards, construction paper, magazines, glue sticks, scissors, and glue sticks) to facilitate the process. The readings that they had for class today were about the intersection of food and technology, so I told them that their listicles needed to, in some way, reflect the impact that technology has had on food. At the end of class, they had to display their listicles in the classroom, and I talked a bit about why I had them do this so that they could make the connection to their upcoming assignment.

It was fun to watch them work on this and listen to how they figured out what to write. At first, some of the students were really baffled by how to start, and I did give some nudges here and there. But for the most part, they figured it out on their own. And they got pretty creative with the available resources. I really liked doing this because it gives them practice, I could see how they were thinking in real time, I could see where I need to do some further explanation next week ahead of the due date for their actual listicle assignment (for example, I think a little bit more clarity about the difference between a listicle and an outline might be useful), and it was honestly just a nice way to break up the standard flow of class. I suppose some folks might think this assignment is a bit too K-12 for college students, but uh, (1) I was a secondary teacher before I started grad school, and I’d say that quite a lot of things that work well with 12 year olds also work well with 20 year olds, and (2) I mean, you’re never too old to color.

So.

Fridays are when they do their minute papers for the week, and here are some of the responses I got at the end of today’s class:

  • Several variations of “I now know/understand what a listicle is”
  • “The most important thing this week was the examples of the listicles. I have never heard of this before, but now I feel more prepared to create one on my own”
  • “The most important thing I learned this week is that listicles are very fun to read and make. Great way to express oneself”

And some questions that I plan to follow up on next week:

  • “Do we cite pictures in the listicle?”
  • “Can we look at more listicle examples next week?”
  • “Are we allowed to hand write our listicle?” (honestly, did not see this one coming, but I’m intrigued)

And finally, some pictures:

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Adventures in Assessment

Throughout the years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve taken various approaches to assessing student work. I’ve used really rigid numeric rubrics, single point rubrics, and no rubrics at all, depending on the class/assignment/my general pedagogical perspective at the time. On a somewhat related note, one thing I’ve been trying to do more of this semester is provide my students with more opportunities to steer the class in several areas, including assessment.

Here’s the truth: I hate grades. I love giving feedback, but I hate assigning letter/number grades. I have a much longer spiel about this than I want to go into in this particular post, but I think grades really do a great job of ripping the joy and appreciation out of learning. And I say this as a (mostly) reformed overachiever. I’ve worked really hard to structure my class this semester in such a way that grades are deemphasized. Instead, we’re focusing on process and feedback.

(FWIW several of my students have commented that this approach has made the class a more enjoyable experience than they’d anticipated having in First Year Writing, and I consider that to be a win)

But since I’m not able to go gradeless (yet), I still have to figure out how assess student work and assign grades. For the first writing assignment of the semester, a creative writing piece, I asked a simple assessment question that I picked up from John Warner: Is it interesting to read?

I think this was a great entry point for the semester, and it really took some of the pressure off while also avoiding that pesky hyperfocus on “correctness.”

Their first analytical essay is due this week, and when we first went over the prompt weeks ago, I told them we’d talk about assessment criteria later. What I was trying to avoid here was them writing their way into a “meets expectations.” I wanted them to build off the notion that the thing should be interesting to read, to grapple with analysis, and to buy into the process of drafting, feedback, and revision, without focusing entirely on the finish line.

This is a hard thing to make happen because the education system is not really set up for this, and even if I’m going mildly rogue, that doesn’t mean the other classes my students are taking are. I think this requires some trust, which we’ve been building since the semester started. If my students didn’t have some faith that I wouldn’t leave them hanging, I don’t think any of this would work.

At any rate, I always intended to provide them with assessment criteria when we got closer to the due date but then I wondered why **I** needed to be the one providing it at all. I didn’t get here on my own. I was inspired by this post and this post, amongst many others. See we’ve spent several weeks talking about analysis, analyzing media in class, writing together, discussing, looking at samples, etc. I think they actually know quite a lot about analysis, and rather than me saying, “This is what your essay should be,” I knew they could come up with their own criteria that would more than fit the bill.

So this is what we did (pulling primarily from that second post): I, first, asked them to tell me what the class is asking them to learn. Then, I asked them what they needed to do in the class to meet those goals. I took notes on a projected Google doc at both of these steps. Once we’d discussed both, I asked them what their essays needed to do and/or look like in order to meet the goals. Here’s what they said the essay should do:

  • Should have analysis that goes beyond surface level/explicit meaning
  • Essay should have some sense of structure
  • Should demonstrate awareness of how primary source can influence consumers
  • Should be aware of context in such a way that analysis makes sense
  • Should have a short summary/description of artifact
  • Good, clear transitions
  • Should demonstrate audience awareness
  • Should indicate having gone through various revisions

I told them that they’d identified the criteria that I’d be using to assess their essays. And I had them each vote for the top three points that they think are most important for this analytical essay. The order above reflects those preferences. Indeed, the top three points got many more votes the other points.

Here’s the thing: I think the criteria I would have given would have been somewhat similar to what they came up with here. But I think it’s important that this didn’t come from me. This is what they think strong analysis should look like based on the work we’ve done together throughout the first half of the semester, and this is what they’re choosing to hold themselves accountable for.

My favorite part? They didn’t say a thing about grammar or spelling or punctuation, which is where students often get hung up in the quest for “correct.” I love that they’re paying more attention to the ideas and how those ideas get conveyed.

This particular choice doesn’t solve all of my grading woes (though it’s also not the only thing I’m trying this semester 😉 ), but I like it thus far. I wouldn’t necessarily do it for every assignment, but I definitely see it having space in my ongoing pedagogical toolkit.

Local Flavor

TIL none of my students have seen the movie Soul Food 😳
Ahmad from the movie Soul Food

Ahmad is displeased by this revelation.

*more on that momentarily*

For today’s class, we had a reading about how Black chefs have shaped American cuisine throughout history and a reading about the similarities and differences between “Southern Food” and “Soul Food” and the power dynamics between those distinctions.

After going over some of the key details in the readings, I pulled up Yelp searches I’d done for the highest rated restaurants in Columbus categorized as “Southern Food” and the highest rated restaurants categorized as “Soul Food.” I pointed out how there was some overlap, but most of the restaurants at the top of the list for the former have White owners and a lot of the ones at the top of the list for the latter have Black owners.

I asked them if they could see any other differences between the lists, and this is what they noticed:
-Restaurants labeled as “Southern Food” tended to have images that showed more “stylish” or “upscale” plating
-Restaurants labeled as “Southern Food” tended to be more expensive
-Restaurants labeled as “Southern Food” tended to have many more reviews

-Restaurants labeled as “Southern Food” were more centrally located within the city, whereas restaurants labeled as “Soul Food” were pushed out to the perimeter

And we talked briefly about what all of this might mean: about stereotyping, about power, about who can afford rent where, about segregation in Columbus, etc.

What I’m finding with this particular theme is that it’s really easy to make connections to our local community (for example, in Monday’s class, we analyzed images from a local coffee shop’s website as part of a discussion about the ethics of craft culture). And I think that *maybe* these things might stick in their minds better (time will tell) than more abstract or distant examples. One of the things I’m trying to do is highlight how rhetoric, analysis, and rhetorical analysis factor into more than just the essays they write for me.

Toward the end of class, we shifted to analyzing the trailer for Soul Food. Hence, the above revelation haha. Their next essay requires them to choose a food-related artifact (such as a commercial, a print ad, a movie trailer, etc) and analyze the messages its conveying. I’m a big proponent of in-class practice and modeling. I want them to see what I mean when I say analysis and to ask questions if they don’t understand something. So today, we went through some of the first steps of notetaking for analytical purposes with the trailer. We talked about what details you might look for in something you’re analyzing, how you would then identify the meanings conveyed by those details, and you would ultimately think about the significance of those meanings. I try to model my responses to them on this process. So someone might say, “I noticed x detail,” and I might ask “Ok, what do you think that means?” Or someone might say, “I think this means x,” and I might ask, “Ok, why is that important?”

Ideally, they’ll keep asking questions as well.

Incorporating Student Feedback from the Start

The new semester started at my university this week, and I’m teaching First Year Writing for the first time in a couple of years. Our First Year Writing classes are themed, and they focus on analytical writing. I decided to have my section be themed “Representations of Food in Culture” because I’ve been wanting to teach a class about food for a long time and because I knew it’d be fairly accessible to the entire class.

This is my second time teaching First Year Writing here. As I prepared for the new semester, I found that I really wanted to slow down the process, and I wanted to make sure there was some solid foundation before we get to working on the bigger assignments.

As such, we’ve spent most of this week on topics like using your voice, how to read for college, how to take notes, what we know about writing, etc. We’ve had one reading related to the theme, and we talked about their first essay today, but beyond that, we’ve been taking our time to get established. Thus far, I’m enjoying this approach. I’m one of those people who gets REALLY into course prep, and I’m susceptible to the impulse to DO ALL THE THINGS. But I think that sometimes less really is more. There’s more breathing room and more time for things to marinate.

Over the years, I’ve done various things to get feedback from students, such as mid-semester evaluations and course blogs. I don’t generally like to wait until end-of-semester evaluations comes because (a) we should all know by now that those evals can be #problematic and (b) while that feedback is useful for future classes, getting feedback earlier is more useful to the current students.

Thus, I’ve decided to incorporate various reflective and metacognitive activities into the course this semester. One such activity is the Minute Paper. I’m sure a fair amount of you are familiar with the activity (or something similar). Essentially, at the end of class, you have students turn in a short response noting something they learned and a question they have. You could do this at the end of every class session, but I’m having my students submit it once a week.

What I like about this, besides the fact that it allows me to make changes/tailor future sessions as needed, is that students will write things they would probably never say to me directly. This opens up a line of communication between me and them that might not exist otherwise. It also allows me to check and make sure that the messages I’m trying to convey are coming across clearly. Here are some things they found important this week:

  • “The most important thing I learned is that you value the writing portion of the class more than the grades, which I appreciate”
  • “The most important thing I’ve learned this week is that writing doesn’t have to be so structured and put-together, which basically throws everything I’ve ever learned about writing out the window”
  • “The most important thing I learned this week is that you are encouraged to tell your own story and not simply conform to ‘normal English rules.'”
  • “Most important: speak truthfully and with purpose. Write the same way.”
  • “The most important thing I learned all week was how to approach academic readings. The excerpt we read the first night was very helpful.”
  • “I learned that there are not as many limitations to writing. It’s just how, when, and where these limitations can be applied. Writing can be whatever the writer wants it to be.”

When I look at these I responses, I feel reasonably confident that they got what I wanted them to get out of this first week. When we have class again next week, I’ll respond to some of their questions. All in all, I think this is turning out to be a much appreciated addition to my teaching repertoire.

Another Ending (…almost)

Today was the last official class meeting for the documentary class I’ve been teaching this semester. My students have a final paper and project due within the coming days, but beyond that, we’re pretty much done. In recent semesters, I’ve always tried to find interesting ways to wrap up the semester, and this time, I went with what I called the Takeaway Tweet. Essentially, I asked the students to write on blank slips of paper one idea/concept/skill/etc that they’d be taking away from the class. And they had to do so in 140 characters or less. This, of course, is building off of other assignments I’ve seen online in which educators ask students to make headlines or bumper stickers on the last day except I wanted to make it ~millennial~.

(shout out to all of my fellow 80s/90s kids)

But seriously, end of semester evaluations are what they are, and while I do find them somewhat useful (depending on the specific evaluation), I also find that the ways that they’re structured often don’t give me the information I need. But this particular task not only allows students to reflect on their experiences in the class but also allows me to see if what I was attempting to convey actually made its way through.

Anyways, here’s what they’re taking away (p.s. I did not actually count their characters so don’t @ me 😛 :

  • “I will pay more attention to the small choices made (lighting, sound) in the films that I watch”
  • “Don’t do crime #youaintslick” (I will relevantly point out here that the class’ theme was Crime, Power, and Justice haha)
  • “Systematic injustices occur across the country. Despite the media coverage, these instances are not isolated”
  • “The main thing I took away from this class is that there sometimes is no such thing as the real truth, or at least sometimes it’s impossible to know what is and isn’t true”
  • “Truth is subjective and all people deserve justice”
  • “Things are not always what they seem & truth is a construct that can be bent & shaped in many different ways”
  • “I have a more profound understanding of the power of media in society”
  • “The directory decides their truth in documentary film #stress #fun”
  • “U.S. Film & Documentary opened my eyes to who has power within society and how they use that power #Corruption #GetOutofTheNorms”
  • “In this class, I watched a lot of interesting documentaries that were very thought provoking, and my analysis skills also improved”
  • “Always question the presentation of “truth” and “fact” “
  • “Documentary film is not always the truth. Consider who has power and why”
  • “I learned about how hard it is to make a documentary. I’ve learned to respect the process”
  • “I enjoyed watching documentaries in this class. Many documentaries are thought-provoking and mind-blowing. I’m glad that I learned these events/social issues.”
  • “Truth is subjective. Documentaries bias. Always consider the author’s intention.”
  • “Power and justice are generally relegated to the “haves” of society while the “have nots” live without it”
  • “I learned that the world is unfair”

Me after reading these:

Screen-Shot-2016-03-07-at-20.20.25.png

Fat Joe & Remy Ma’s “All the Way Up” is a good representation of my feelings in this moment. (I still don’t know what a French Montana is though)

I think this final day activity is a keeper ✌🏾

Embracing the Challenge

Recently, there’s been a lot of conversation about how to navigate difficult subject matter in the classroom. Sometimes this has to do with helping students cope with the reverberations of trauma and/or horrifying world events, and other times it might have to do with engaging with “controversial” subject matter. This particular school year has seemed especially inundated with moments (on a local, national, and global level) in which I’ve felt like I HAVE to talk about what’s going on in class (and if we aren’t meeting that day/week, then via email). This is partially because I want my students to always see connections between what we’re doing in class, but also because I want to (as best I can) provide them with tools to make sense of what’s going on and to survive. To thrive even.

Last year (in its entirety) is basically responsible for the documentary class I’m teaching this semester being thematically focused on crime, justice, and power. We started with The Thin Blue Line (as one does) and have subsequently watched a variety of docs that cover a wide range perspectives and issues related to the theme. Such a focus presents numerous potential challenges, and as I was crafting the syllabus, I often thought about what types of discussions the individual documentaries might elicit, what types of pushback might come up, etc.

In most cases, I’m up for a challenge, but one subject that sometimes gives me pause is the discussion of sexual violence. There are so many reasons why this is the case, including my own personal experiences of engaging in such discussions (both online and in person) and the facts that I know that sometimes there’s a lack of understanding here that might lead to someone saying something that isn’t intended to cause harm but still manages to do so.

So as I developed the syllabus, I tried to think of ways to mitigate these issues. There are clauses on my syllabus about both inclusive language and class content, which I went over on the first day. And throughout the semester, I’ve given reminders when we were engaging with films that I knew might be especially challenging in terms of content. Sexual violence comes up in a few different documentaries that we’ve watched this semester, but it is most especially the focus of Audrie and Daisy and The Hunting Ground.

This is a MWF class, so I’ve structured it so that we generally have readings on Mondays that are about documentary form and/or about the content in the documentary for that given week. They watch the documentaries at home, and we discuss them in class on Wednesdays. I set it up this way for a few different reasons, but particularly because I didn’t want them going into the viewings cold or without context. I figured they would have better understandings of the films with some initial foundation and discussion. The week that they watched Audrie and Daisy, we read and discussed a short reading on consent. For a handful of the readings in the class, students have to write detailed response papers, and this was one of those readings. The students covered a lot of ground in their responses, but a common strain was that the reading made many of them realize how little they knew or had been taught about consent. This also came up in our class discussion of the reading, and as expected, helped to inform their understanding of the film. To my great relief, these discussions all went well.

Still, that success didn’t reduce or remove my anxiety going into this week, which is when we covered The Hunting Ground. As current college students, I imagined that this film might produce some different responses. So as we got closer to this week, I tried to think about how I could localize our pre-film discussion for them so that the reading that they had this week about rape culture might resonate more strongly. Then I remembered that my friend/fellow grad student/awesome teacher, Sam, wrote this a couple years ago when some less than welcoming signs were posted in our town and on campuses across the country: Lessons at BrOhio State, The piece is brief, about as funny as one can be about the given situation, confrontational, and to the point. Once I thought of it, I knew I had to use it. But then I also had the idea to invite Sam to the class to join in the conversation about her post, rape culture, etc.

On Monday, I had the students tease out their understandings of rape culture, and look for connections amongst the definitions. We then turned our attention to looking at several of those move in week signs and discussing what kind of environments they create, who has power in these situations, etc. And Sam specifically led them through some of the most salient points that she wanted to get across, both in her post and in general. (Sidenote: Sam and I teaching a class together is a little bit like a comedy routine with me as the straight man and Sam as the off-the-wall one I have to pull back from the edge).

And on Wednesday, when we discussed The Hunting Ground, it seemed pretty clear to me that my students not only understood the film, but they also had a good sense of the broader content and context. They also very clearly made connections back to issues that were raised when we watched Audrie and Daisy. And the terrible nightmare scenarios that I always imagined in a conversation about sexual violence? They didn’t happen (at least not this time around).

I don’t think the success of this is entirely predicated on how I’ve structured the class. My students are pretty great (I know I’m biased lol). That being said, I do think that this helped to make a challenging topic less challenging. I don’t think that this is going to stop be from being anxious about teaching certain topics/engaging challenging conversations in the classroom, but now I know for sure how fruitful embracing the challenge can be.

Recovering Writing

Today is the fifth day of the new semester, and in a couple of hours, my students and I will be embarking on our third class meeting in which we will be tackling our first documentary (The Thin Blue Line for anybody who happens to be curious). I’m always, always excited to teach, but I’m especially excited to teach on days in which we’re discussing film and/or television shows because that is my jam. That’s what I do in my own work, and I love being able to open that up to students who often don’t know  (like I didn’t know when I was an undergrad) that this is something that has value, something that they can build a life on. In fact, we spent part of class during our second meeting discussing the importance of pop culture in our lives. On the short list of things that I’d like them to take away from this class (ok the list isn’t really that short, but still), I want them to understand how pop culture is intrinsically intertwined with our culture more broadly.

The other significant focus of our second class meeting was discussing writing. Though my class is one that is centered on documentaries, it is also a second year writing course. Throughout the semester, my students will be composing several different writing assignments, and I thought it necessary to both remind them of that component of the class and to see where their heads were at about writing.

When I asked how many people enjoyed writing, the raised hands were unsurprisingly few and far between. I’m not the first to say this (in fact, John Warner was tweeting about this yesterday: https://twitter.com/biblioracle/status/819534603165831168), but I think school often does ruin writing for students. It makes writing something that is wholly unenjoyable and uninspired, which is something that I intend to try to work against in my class. One of my colleagues mentioned a few days ago that one of his students said they had a teacher who dock them for the very particular way the essay was stapled.

For. The. Way. It. Was. Stapled. Y’all.

*Headdesk*

This is why, when I asked my students to write down something that they knew or believed about writing (inspired by this post: https://jcmadams.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/in-class-activity-what-we-know-about-writing/), I wasn’t surprised by answers like “Writing is tedious and time-consuming.” At some point, writing, particularly “academic writing,” all too easily becomes a series of hoops to jump through and requirements to check off without being emphasized as a valuable process, a useful means of expression, a creative outlet (yes, even the academic stuff), etc. So one of my goals this semester? Counter that. Counter it aggressively. Wish me luck, eh?

(And if you have any handy tips or suggestions, feel free to send them my way)