Pedagogy

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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Dispatches from the Dissertation, Part 4

Just a few moments ago, I sent my advisor my first full chapter draft (along w/ a message containing several concerns that I have about it haha). Remember how I was talking about my ever-changing deadline before? Well, this last go-’round, I set it for the end of Fall Break, and I actually made it this time. Huzzah! I know that there’s still a long road ahead with this, but I’m glad to have gotten past one particular hurdle, and I’m (almost) ready to start tackling the next one.

In other news, it’s approximately the middle of the semester. My students had midterms/essays due last week, which means I have a nice chunk of grading on my desk. Part of why I really wanted to get this draft done is so I can focus on that. I hate feeling like I’m shortchanging students, and I always want to try to get work back to them as soon as possible, especially if they have more things to turn in.

(Because what’s the point of feedback if a person doesn’t have it in enough time to actually use it?)

This balancing act is tricky, but I think my already embedded practice of scheduling my life in grad school helps. Back when I taught middle school, there were definitely times where I let the prep and grading bowl me over. There are so many ways in which, even with a degree in English Ed, I wasn’t ready yet. I was exhausted on the daily and not making the progress I wanted/needed to make. I’m better equipped now, thankfully. I just wish I could go back in time and help out 24 year old Jacinta.

(Though that’d likely throw off the time-space continuum, which is probably not a good idea)

A picture of the doctor from Back to the Future

#WritingLife

Dispatches from the Dissertation, Part 2

It’s been a little bit over a month since my last update, and where am I now?

Well, I’m inching closer to being able to have a full first draft of Chapter One, but I’m not there yet. When I first charted out my schedule for the summer a few months ago, I’d hoped to have the draft done by August 1st. I realized about halfway through the summer that that probably wouldn’t happen, so I’ve recaliberated the schedule accordingly. On one hand, I’m a little bit annoyed about not having met the goal I set, but on the other, I’m not really trying to dwell on that. I just want to keep it moving. I do think I’ll have a draft in a few weeks, which will dovetail into the beginning of the school year (more on that momentarily).

Remember how I was researching Beauty and the Beast(s) before? Now I’m on Battlestar Galactica(s). I’d never watched them previously (I know, I know), but I’m a big ol’ nerd (I think I’m actually becoming more nerdy as I get older haha), so this is right in my wheelhouse.

Incidentally, now that folks know I’m working on remakes, I get tags from friends every time there’s new articles about them (#MyBrand). Shout out to y’all for helping with my research!

(I’m not adding anymore shows than what I already have allotted though. Because if I did, at the rate remakes are being churned out, I’d never finish.)

As the semester looms closer, I’ve been thinking more about how I’ll try to stay productive at this stage. I’m completely done with course work, and I’m past all of the various checkboxes except the dissertation itself. There are things that I’ve been doing for years now, such as scheduling everything on my Google Calendar, that I think will continue to be helpful going forward. And I’ve been setting goals for daily writing that I’ve been able to meet fairly well. But I also wanted to see if adding something else into the mix would be helpful. So I got a Passion Planner. It’s been years since I’ve had a real planner, but I used them all throughout high school and undergrad. Though I do rely heavily on GCal, I think that using both will both help to remind of what’s coming up as well as force me to be intentional in thinking about and planning for the tasks that are ahead. I looked at a lot of different planners before I made my purchase, but I really like how the Passion Planner encourages you to identify goals, break them up into smaller tasks, and embed those tasks into your schedule.

Speaking of schedules, I found out I’m teaching Intro to Film this fall. At my university, the way this works is there’s a prof who does the lecture two days a week, and the grad students teach discussion sections one day a week. I’ve taught this class before, and I’m looking forward to doing it again with some definite tweaks to what I did previously. It’s a little bit wild to think about since it hasn’t been that long since I last taught the class, but I know my pedagogical beliefs and goals have changed significantly since then. I do find it a bit strange to teach this way though because I’ve almost always been the Instructor of Record. One perk with this arrangement is that I have to do a lot less planning, and I grade less often, which should be a good thing as I continue to work on the dissertation. But when I do have to grade, it’s a lot more papers because we’re given more students in this arrangement, and I never feel like I have enough time with the students since I only get them once a week. Tradeoffs. Nevertheless, it’s a film class, and there are few things I enjoy more than being able to talk to students about film, TV, and pop culture, so it should be a good time 🙂

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.