Category Archives: Teaching

Balance Scale

A Dichotomy and Its Dangers: A Ramble

Balance Scale

By The original uploader was AntonyB at French Wikipedia. – Photo personnelle de ma collection, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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.

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Angel Footsteps

Stepping In

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.

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Compiling a List of Genres

Hi Folks,

So I’m working on compiling a list of usable, visible, practical genres for our students. I’d appreciate if you’d add any you can think of in the comments.


Spotify “About the Artists
Police Blotter  Brooklyn Daily
Death Announcements
Urban dictionary entries and Sample Sentences
Mug writing
SNL Weekend Update Jokes
Movie/Show synopsis (NYT Watching)
You Write the Cartoon Caption
Questions and Answers to Judge John Hodgson (A Twist on the Advice Column)


New York Times Best of Late Night
New York Times Morning Briefings
Book Back Cover Copy
Time Out New York News
Our Favorite Songs Playlist

Game Guides and Walkthroughs
Band Interviews 


Siberian ice

Thawing Siberia

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.

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Epistolary Rap: What Passes?

Hi Aaron: you wrote a while back asking about Hip-Hop songs that reference writing or the act of writing and I meant to respond. Apologies.

Stan” by Eminem. That’s a whole heartbreaking story told in letters. And it’s rap and I am guessing that hundreds of students at this school can recite it by heart.

Lots of rap references writing directly, to answer your question. Unfortunately, the lyrics are quite rough. I wonder if we can talk about what is “ok” to use in class? Not just the words, the messages…for instance, Kendrick Lamar is probably the best contemporary artistic voice out there. Period. To Pimp a Butterfly is quite literary. But…

Responding to Papers

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.

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Chaucer's Canterbury Tales Clerk

Disappointment and Respect

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.

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Reflection on Reflection

So, in my 1101 today I had students reflect on their first essays. I usually am kind of disappointed in reflections, as they often seem pretty phoned in, so I decided to do something a bit different, and it seems to potentially have been helpful.

First, I had students write one thing they learned about themselves as a writer, or that they learned about their writing process.

Second, I had them write about the ONE MAIN THING they struggled with in their writing. This could have been something process-oriented (distraction by phone) or more technical (organization.)

But THEN, we took a break from writing, and I asked them to confer with another student to talk about possible strategies for working with that issue. Then we regrouped as a class to discuss both problems and strategies. The problems really ran the gamut: from procrastination, to wanting to sound academic, to feeling like they were repeating themselves, to problems with organization. Interestingly, I noticed a lot of note-taking (which is not always the case in my classes.)

The third part of the writing task was to have students write down the strategies they want to employ to work on their struggles. I’m not really concerned if they picked the right strategies, or even the right struggles, but this is the most successful reflection I’ve ever had, as far as students actually writing reflections and engaging with the discussion.

1121 is going very well indeed. I’m so glad I decided to do these group presentations, even if they turn out terrible. In part because making the students look for similarities in the group makes them see themselves as a part of a conversation and I think is going to really help when it comes time for revision. Now it is not just ME and MY EDUCATION, but how “my education” fits in to a system of education. I actually had 100% attendance today. And these guys are so engaged I have to keep telling them to PIPE DOWN.

This idea of “it doesn’t matter if the end product is terrible” in both classes is interesting. I feel like in both cases, they are learning from the experience– in 1101 from metacognition, in 1121, from the synthesis of creating scholarship out of their narratives with other narratives and (minimal) research. It’s exciting!! I’m excited! I’d like to milk this a little bit more in 1121 when it comes to revising the class ebook. Can I ask individuals to use their group themes in their revisions? I don’t know where to go with this.

Here is the link to the book, btw. Please don’t share outside of this group:  1121Book

Transitioning between Units 1 and 2 and 3…my “shelf” idea

A quick thought here about flow. A number of us commented about the fact that the UNITS lend themselves nicely to transition assignments. Or vice-versa? Anyway, as you know, I think rather physically / kinaesthetically / or just-plain weirdly. For the last week and a half, I have been having the students build a virtual “shelf” of their influences. This shelf/list/whathaveyou is a resource to which they can add, over time. It is visual, or physical, or just written down for now. I hope to use it as a kind of font from which we might draw  topics or arguments to which each student personally relates, and then use them in papers and projects in UNITS 2 and 3.

For instance, here is one of my (personal, I like to model) recent shelves, which I posted to our site:

My shelf of favorite influences, soon to be in bibliographic form.

Here’s an old one, to give you an idea of how I re-jigger them:

What will I do with that first one — with the numbers scrawled on it? Well, I’ve asked Monica and Nora in the Library to use our Library Instruction Session to give us information on how to create citations in MLA format using Zotero or Easybib…how easy it is…how helpful it is to have a clear and clean document. Anyway, soon my photograph/physical shelf  will transform into MLA format. Viola! Magic! It’s a start for de-fanging the dreaded Research Paper, anyway.

If you want to look, on our OpenLab site some of the students have their shelf/lists, but they’re really nascent, in progress.

During UNIT 1, I made a low-stakes small-group discussion activity to watch/read/listen to something from another person’s influences list.