Discussion

About Classroom Participation…

I have a problem with classroom participation.

Well.

I have a problem with grading classroom participation.

This problem has been brewing for a long time. Even back when I was in undergrad, I found it a bit strange to be graded on participation. And once I began teaching (first at the secondary level and then the college level), I incorporated participation into the assessment because it was something I believed I was supposed to do, not because it was something I actually knew I wanted to do.

To me, it’s always seemed bit fuzzy (even when you provide specific things you’re looking for), and I have a hard time making it fit in my head next to student work when I think about the learning that takes place in the classroom. I also know that my perception of what “good” participation looks like is somewhat colored by my own behavior as a student as well as the types of student behaviors typically privileged by the educational system.

(Sup, fellow extroverts?)

In the past few semesters, I’ve actively started to pull away from more traditional methods of assessing participation. Last fall, I had my students complete participation logs, which I mostly liked because they allowed students to take the opportunity to be thoughtful about their experiences. And they gave me an insight into things I may not have recognized. In the spring semester of this year, I didn’t grade participation at all, and in case anybody is wonder, I didn’t notice any discernible difference in how much students participated (lol) in the class.

This semester, I taught Intro to Film, which is a big lecture class here. The lecture meets twice a week, and then recitations (discussion sections) are taught by grad students on Fridays. This was my second time teaching the class, and one of the things I knew going in this time is that it can be quite difficult to foster community when you only see each other for 55 minutes per week. And without that community foundation, typically important elements that folks designate to participation, like discussion, become even more challenging.

The course’s professor included participation in the assessment, and so I spent some time thinking about what I could do with that this semester. Of course, I’m always observing them throughout the class, but I wanted to hear more from them about participation. But I knew that our recitation meetings wouldn’t necessarily afford the same level of detail as what students pulled out in the course in which I used that method. So this time, I decided I’d just have students complete a relatively simple form at the end of the semester that would give me a sense of how they understand “participation” and how they saw themselves participating in the class. Here’s what I asked them to respond to:

  1. Describe what “participation” means to you within the context of the class.
  2. Describe how you participated in lecture throughout the course of the semester.
  3. Describe how you participated in recitation throughout the semester.
  4. Describe ways that you think you could have participated more effectively in the course throughout the semester.
  5. Are there any other factors or details related to your ability to participate in the class that you think I should know?
  6. If you were responsible for giving yourself a letter grade for your participation in this course, what would it be and why?

While these produced an assortment of interesting responses, I think the most useful to me came in response to #1 and #5. Regardless of what we might perceive, students know what participation is generally expected to look like. Responses to #1 included points such as, read/watch the material before class, answer questions, pay attention (which is a whole other soapbox I have, but I’ll leave that one for another day), complete work on time, etc. I don’t think any of these responses are bad, but when I read them together, they make me feel pretty…blah.

Now there were some responses to that question that I thought hit on really important points like developing your understanding, knowing that your answer doesn’t have to be “good” or “correct,” being generous while listening to other people sharing, and thinking critically. Some of these items are not the easiest to measure, but if I think about why participation might be important, these are things I care more about.

For #5, students often to took the opportunity to explain why they might not have participated much (in the conventional sense). Many students expressed shyness and anxiety, some noted depression, some pointed out that sometimes they literally just didn’t have anything to say, some felt more inclined to discuss material they felt strongly connected to, some felt that my choice to ask specific questions made them more likely to speak up, and some noted that since this was their first film class, they would much rather listen to what others had to say.

There’s a lot going on here, but my key takeaway is that there are several factors intersecting with a student’s participation. And if participation doesn’t look the way you think it should, maybe it’d be worthwhile to think about some of those factors and ways to work with them. I didn’t do a midterm eval for this class (that’s my bad), but if I did, I think I could have addressed some of these issues earlier.

But do you want to know what at least half of the students noted as something that made them more likely to participate?

Small group work.

I think a lot of us already believed this, but it was nice to hear it from the students. I often incorporate such work into my teaching, and I will continue to do so going forward.

(even when I fully stop grading participation :D)

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A-Ha

Do you trick your students?

I’m not referring to magic tricks. Although being able to wave a wand could come in handy. Also:

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Keep Calm and Ask to be Put in Hufflepuff

Ahem.

At any rate, what I mean by trick is that sometimes I take a circuitous or backdoor route into getting them to see/understand something that I want them to see/understand. To some extent, this seems like a fairly obvious thing to do, but I’ve only recently started to think about how/why it works.

For their first longer paper this semester, my students have to write a scene analysis. They’ve written shorter papers this semester that require them to analyze readings, we’ve verbally done analyses in class on the documentaries we’ve watched, and, of course, I know that analysis is part of their daily lives in a variety of ways. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll (initially) recognize the abundance of skills that they already have and apply them usefully to their essays.

So last week, we looked at a sample student essay, and I had them analyze a first draft and a final draft, looking particularly at the structure of the analysis, claims, evidence, etc. They discussed their findings with partners, and we also had a larger group discussion. As expected, they did a great job at finding places that needed improvement in these sample essays, and they were able to articulate specifically how/why the arguments didn’t work (or didn’t work as well as they could). Also, they really seemed to enjoy being able to rip apart some stranger’s essay.

Them: 😈

To pull the strands together, as we approached the end of class, I pointed out how well they’d done and how they clearly had a good sense of what worked and what didn’t in writing. And then I hit them with the: “Of course, now the trick is to remember and do all of these things in your own essays .”

Also them: 😏

Here’s the thing. I know that I’m not the first person to talk to them about this stuff, and they even had a reading on the subject for class last week (which, as we all know, some of the probably definitely didn’t read). But there’s a difference between having that information and applying it (or even realizing that you have it hanging out in your brain somewhere). However, I think that there’s a real chance that what we worked on that day will stick in their minds simply because they realized that they already knew how to do the thing I want them to do, and now all they have to do is do it.

(say that sentence 5 times fast)

Their essays are due in a week, so we’ll see how it goes, but based on the conversations we had in class, I’m cautiously optimistic.

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)

Netflix-y

In class this week, we pivoted from a focus on social media and television to a focus on Netflix and how it has (or hasn’t) changed the television landscape. We’ll be working with Netflix for a few weeks and exploring a variety of areas, such as how Netflix has affected television production, Netflix’s relationship to viewer desires and expectations, and binge watching. This week was primarily just about laying the groundwork and beginning to think about the ways in which Netflix came into such a position of prominence. Amongst the many questions we’re considering is “what makes a show a Netflix show?” To that end, we started our foray by looking at the first episode of Full House and the first episode of Fuller House. To some extent, they are essentially the same show (after all, that’s why people bought into the reboot), but there are ways in which the reboot definitely became Netflix-y that I wanted us to be able to identify. And we’ll be continuing to make such comparisons between broadcast/cable shows and Netflix shows for the next few weeks as we consider how Netflix has affected television production.

Today, we talked a lot about whether Netflix was turning us into puppets and about whether we were comfortable with the amount of data that Netflix is gleaning from us. We talked about data mining previously when we discussed live tweeting, and the students were apt to pick up the connection here. The readings for today’s class presented different perspectives on the issue, and I could tell that many of the students had mixed feelings about how Netflix was using their information.

In order to really dig into the readings, I had them each choose what they believed to be the most significant/important/interesting quote from each reading. Then I had them share their quotes or reasonings in groups. Next, each group had to agree one significant quote from each reading that they would share with the class. And then, as we went through each reading, each group presented their quotes, we discussed them, and I went over additional points from the readings that I wanted to address. If it hasn’t already become obvious, I really enjoy making them talk to each other. It serves a variety of purposes, including but not limited to me not having to talk the entire time and it gives me the opportunity to listen in on what they’re thinking, bearing in mind that when I ask people to speak as large group, some people are uncomfortable doing so. But hearing how they’re thinking through things in their smaller groups helps me to figure out what I need to emphasize in my contributions.

They also had to watch episodes of Chef’s Table and Bojack Horseman for today (so we could deepen our discussion of what makes a show Netflix-y) to which their respective reactions were basically “great” and “weird.” Yeah, basically.

Scandalous Conversations

We started our conversation about social media and TV in class today. While the primary focus for the next couple weeks is going to be on Twitter and TV, we did begin by just thinking about social media more broadly. To start the conversation, students got into groups and were given three sheets of paper (one for TV, one for Social Media, and one for Social TV). They were tasked with defining and visually representing each of those terms. I personally love activities like this because I think they provide space for those who think in a variety of different ways to come together and make meaning. After they were finished, they had to post their papers on the wall, and we did a mini-gallery walk before launching into conversation. Here’s some shots from the class:

We spent the rest of the class talking about the network/show reasoning for encouraging live tweeting & then we picked up our case study for the week, which was Scandal. Incidentally (or perhaps not so incidentally), that show was the first that I personally felt deeply driven to live tweet & the connection between those two things was responsible for my first ever conference paper in 2013 (shout out to PAMLA). I mainly wanted students to understand today why the network has such an investment in the being live tweeted and why this particular show lends itself to such engagement, and I think both goals were accomplished.

From Andy to Michael

In preparation for today’s class, my students had to read a few articles, and watch the first episode of The Andy Griffith Show, the first episode of Cheers, and the first episode of Friends. Since the class is built on exploring how digital media has changed television, I thought it was necessary to have a little bit of a foundational history regarding how television has evolved. We also talked about how early television was marketed and some of the broader technological changes that have occurred, especially within the last 30 years.

Today’s activities were a mix of small group discussion, the most mini of lectures, and large group discussion. I really do prefer to mix and match activities if for no other reason than lengthy lectures make me tired (maybe I need to work on my endurance haha). But honestly, I think limiting most things to twenty minute, or less, increments helps to keep the class fresh. When the students were having their small group discussions, I was able to circulate and listen to their conversations, which gave me ideas for things to focus on in large group discussion and other portions of the class. Luckily, my classroom this semester makes it easy to do this, but most of the other classrooms I’ve been in during my college teaching career do not make it easy for instructors to move between the students easily. I’m sure there are valid reasons why most rooms are constructed as they are, but as long as I have the spacious room that I’ve got, I’m definitely going to take advantage of it.

Relatedly, over the summer, I bought this guy:

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Kensington Wireless Presenter

It’s a Kensington Wireless Presenter ($32 on Amazon), and while at first I was a bit worried that it’d be a little pretentious to walk around the room with these thing, I have to say that it has been quite useful. I don’t like to be married to the podium, and this lets me move around w/o having to dash back to the computer to show the next slide or start the next video.

For the last chunk of class, we looked at the first episode of The Office (U.S). It’s only the second day, but they were already able to draw on some of the significant influences of technology. Next week, we’re jumping into examining how social media and television have become intertwined, and they’ll begin to move toward their first composition, which will involve both Twitter and Storify. This is my excited face-> 😃