Too much of what goes on around the teaching profession these days seems designed to undermine the confidence and effectiveness of teachers. I know, it’s not meant that way, not really. But low pay, false narratives about “failing” schools, imposed methodologies and mythical “outcomes,” the quantification of assessment, and the fallacious idea that “anyone can do it” (backed by training programs claiming a few weeks preparation is enough before entering the classroom) tell us otherwise.
“Houston, we have a problem.”
And I don’t think it can be solved by improvisation or instruction from base.
The students coming into City Tech (and, I am sure, most other American colleges) have been ill-used by a secondary-education structure and by a society that cares for surfaces, not depth–and they have been overwhelmed by information technologies that make command of even a simple issue complex. Their response (a learned response, fostered by formula writing and high-stakes tests) has been to narrow their focus, to write by rote, imitation and routinized incorporation of external information. Their response has been to prepare for writing by skimming, by glancing through pages of links to information and then scanning one or two for something they could pull out and into their papers.
I have no idea which of you introduced me to the phrase “stepping in” in terms of composition, but I am stealing it from you and, maybe, using it in a different way. Thank you, though.
In class, yesterday, I used “stepping in” as a phrase for, initially, the transition from the unit on discourse communities to the one on the argumentative essay. As I talked, I realized that “stepping in” could do much more for me and for the students than I had originally imagined.
One of the things I have become attuned to in the classroom is what Ira Shor refers to as “Siberia.” I’ve had to; we all have. The row of disaffected and suspicious young men, often African-American, at the rear of the classroom. One of Shor’s strategies is to walk back and speak to the class from next to them. That doesn’t work for me, but I do have ways of addressing the problem that do–sometimes. An experience in one of my 1121 sections over the past week shows that one of them, at least, can work.
For a decade or so, I would make a little extra cash by grading CUNY entrance/exit exams in writing, the CAT-W and whatever it was before that. I hated it, but needed the money. I hated it because I could never really read the papers but had to simply evaluate them in terms of a rubric and with knowledge that my numerical judgement had to match fairly closely the judgement of the other reader on each paper. I could not respond to the students; all I was allowed to do was judge them.
Though I have long admired James Berlin, I haven’t read his work for many, many years. My interests have shifted into other (primarily cultural studies) directions. Though the moves were, in part, in response to what I had learned from him and people of similar stance, they led me to concentrate on topics other than the ones that concerned him. Still, in terms of attitude, I found much of what I discovered in this piece resonating with my own—and yet the article put me off, my very feelings on reading it actually shocking me, given my reverence for the author.
In our meeting on Wednesday, Jackie brought up the old saw “better a guide on the side than a sage on the stage.” While I understand the valid intent of her comment and do recognize the context of Jackie’s use of the phrase (it was a comment on the changes in teaching strategies since I was an undergraduate back when we chiseled on stone tablets), it started me thinking about the dangers of relying on balance scales–dangers that apply, by the way, to our political discussions (just what is this right-center-middle thing, anyway?) as well as education.
As one who tends to look to the old before the new, a lot of my philosophy of teaching also remains mired in conclusions drawn by those who were involved, for example, with teaching machines in the 1950s and early 1960s. Most of these people eventually moved away from machine learning in favor of face-to-face instruction, leading to things like the Keller Method and Mastery, where elements of what had been learned through work with teaching machines were retained even though the machines were moved from the center of the process. These teachers recognized that there was no either/or, that you keep what works instead of worrying about what seems, for the moment, to outweigh whatever has been defined, at the time, as the “other.” Fred Keller himself wanted to mix things up, using lectures, multimedia, pairings of students (advanced with those still struggling) within a physical framework expanded from traditional classrooms and offices. He wasn’t claiming weight for any one thing or lightening the value of any other. He was trying, to put it into games-theory parlance, to create a win-win situation.
If anyone doesn’t know by now that smartphones are as much curse as blessing, they’ve been spelunking without emerging, probably for a decade. Smartphones are shaping our behavior (to speak blandly) in numerous ways, most particularly (for us teachers of composition), they are changing the ways we communicate in writing (through the ubiquity of texting) and are disrupting how our classrooms are managed.
Though I roll my eyes when anyone uses the term “creative disruption,” I think that the disruption happening in our classrooms right now gives us a chance to improve our teaching, tailoring it to success within an environment expanded, whether we like it or not, into the digital. Our classrooms are no longer cut off from the world when we close the doors but are in constant interaction, digitally, with the outside. How we react to this will determine our future successes as teachers and will even determine what future classrooms look like.
Much of our work in class over the first four class sessions has focused on the intertwined task of building trust and understanding audience. The students need to trust me, for I am asking them to write in ways outside their experience; they need to trust each other, for they (like me) are audience to each other’s writing; and I need to trust that the students will not resist me but work with me. We have also been establishing the ground rules for the semester and orienting ourselves to the progression of the five units.
If any of you happens to look at the blogs of any of my sections, you might see a post “Would You Trust This Man?” It has a picture of someone in a turban, sunglasses and mustache. It’s part of an exercise we’ll be doing in class tomorrow about diversity and stereotypes. I realize that it might cause concern–which I will allay in class. For those who won’t be there, don’t worry: The man in the picture is me.