Author Archives: cdonahu2

enjoying the warm, sunny light past the tunnel

You know at the end of the Breakfast Club, when Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) gives himself a friendly punch on the arm after writing their ‘breaking stereotype’ transcendent essay?  Yea, well, last night was kind of like that.

At the outset I was a bit nervous; still, once we settled in and we started interacting as a class, I was much more at ease.  Candidly, the best feedback I received was actually privately afterwards from fellow friends who were in ENGH615, Teaching Composition, with me.  They noted a positive difference and improvement from my last lesson.  I’ve been on a cloud ever since.  Really, that feedback meant the world to me. Whew, I did it.  I have a ‘teacher Christine’ who, apparently, is pretty ok!

As for the content itself, randomly earlier this semester Dr. Sample noted, sometimes your favorite texts aren’t ‘teachable texts’ (or something to that effect).  Frankly, last night was a relatively, risk-free test of that.  I was genuinely unsure if ‘Winter in the Air,’ which I find completely charming, could be taught.   I was pleasantly surprised the short story not only could be, but it could unravel much easier than I imagined.  Folks had the same initial, ‘huh, interesting’ and dense reaction I had.  (Which mad props to Alicia for acknowledging the difficulty in her lesson; I wish I had done that).  But if scaffolded properly and as a complement to ‘A Winter’s Tale,’ Warner’s piece could really work not only as an interesting story, but as vehicle to many interpretative strategies.

My regrets: slow down; I should have reiterated the directions again and asked if there were any questions like Meghan did—hat tip to her for being clear, receptive, and on top of those friendly classroom practices.

Sidebar: I’m always very self-conscious of my lesson plans; I’m afraid if anybody ever looked at them, they wouldn’t see what they’re supposed to.  I construct basic outlines for class, with the brunt of the material being questions.  While, I can’t anticipate how the conversation will go or how students respond, in the end, thankfully, the questions always lead to engaging discussion.  And with each success, last night included, I become more confident in my hap-hazard, rundown, lets-fill-in-the-blanks-together method.

My pat on the back: steering and weaving students’ comments into an effective discussion.  I feel confident, if given the time, we would have arrived somewhere – a means to an enlightening end.

Thanks to everybody for a solid, thought provoking last semester.

the needs and wants of learning

I’d like to piggy back of Megan’s ideas with a bit of my own experience.  As she aptly pointed out from the text, “the work must be purposeful from the student’s point of view in order to properly focus attention and provide direction” (199).  While I agree with the nugget of this idea, in practice, it’s really what the instructor believes is purposeful for the student—which is where things can get hazy. Allow me to provide a personal example.

At the end of each unit writers take part in ‘real world days.’  The lesson usually begins with when writers exhaustively—pretty much near brain dead–reflect on their papers (What’s your favorite part; What did you find more challenging; What grade do you believe this piece earned; If it’s not an A what would you do to change it; Any other thoughts you want me to know).  Then, we take part in the real word application of the unit’s critical concept.  Its my way of hammering home, “For those of you in the back, if you remember one thing from the past three weeks, this is it.”

Its important to note, while I am not going so far as to incorporate experiences that solely they want, I am providing diverse activities they need. For instance, in unit one, the genre was definition; we focused on active voice and incorporating strong verbs.  So, at the end of the unit, writers applied to be King of Queen of the World; in doing so, they must write five active voice, creative sentences demonstrating their ‘experience’ to the voting committee (yes, there’s actually a secret ballot and the winner is awarded three percentage points to their paper).  Here the delineation is from definition paper to resume, active voice and strong verbs anchor the sentences in both genres.  Now, do I think students really want practice in resume writing? No. But do I think they need it? Yes.

Bottom line, it comes down to creativity.  Teachers must be aware of themselves, their teaching style, and, as pointed out in chapter nine, “What do learners need, given the desired results?” (192).  Forgive my bluntness, but off the bat, automatically assume what they need is boring; because as much as we love it, its guaranteed to fatigue the hell out of at least one student.  So, remaining cognizant of that, just be creative with what they need—and maybe, just maybe, they’ll actually want it.

mirror, mirror

Amidst all the new developments gleaned from this contextual research, the concept below pierced through the most preconceived notions:

“Gray intentionally or inadvertently organized Turner’s confession so that it confirmed his own interpretation of the rebellion.  Whether or not Gray actually wrote this letter, it seems likely that he intended the Confessions to bolster a position already articulated by other white Southerners – the belief that Nat Turner was insane.  The Confessions would never have been circulated had it overtly suggested that the rebellion had roots in the nature of slavery rather than in the madness of a single slave.”

So despite all his greed, mischief, and possible bribing—none of it really mattered.  A hardened, socially accepted well-established belief was the foundation to Gray’s pamphlet.  He was writing within the narrow scope of racist cultural attitudes. Echoing a previous class, the author had set out a goal—and now we know—biasedly achieved it.  Still, whether that was just making money or further the South’s mission…I think it was both, as made evident by getting the copyright the day before Turner’s hanging.

I’ve head before the majority of folks only like listening to people they agree with.  This is an interesting sociological concept, which, if credible, apparently has deep roots. In that vein of thought, hypothetically, if Gray went ahead contextualizing a different set of circumstances, would it have sold in the North?  Would be it uncovered and shed light on a different Southern reputation?   On the other side of the story, would Nat Turner have gained such a following if others believed he had overtly made clear his religious motives as compared to the raw, physical retribution?

as time goes by

In the same vein as previous commentaries, I revere those talented enough to take an indescribable, in this case habitual, processes and turn them inside out; thereby unraveling, even evaluating invisible sequence of events.  Piggy-backing off of what Molly wrote—I found Rabkin and McCloud’s work on temporal awareness, sincerely enlightening.

Positioning myself in Rabkin’s camp, he won me over from the get-go, beginning with the glaringly obvious concept, “…we need extended time to apprehend art, to read it” (36).  Of course that what it is!  You couldn’t stay we need more time to stare—too much emptiness implied.  I guess gaze would fit, but the term doesn’t really indicate a deeper level of critical thinking, not to mention the action seems pretty one-way.  Reading fits, because reading, as writing, is cyclical.  The piece presents information, one takes it all in–comprehending, evaluating, disseminating, etc.–then, said individual contributes these new ideas to the piece, do they fit?, not fit,? oh hey look, the piece brought up something new, and by extension, I have a new idea—and around and around we go.  As Rabkin noted, developing ‘analytical principles’ (43).

If that didn’t win you over, this next one might—although it’s a bit of a stretch. Pivoting off of the image, ‘reading in between the lines,’ that is reading blank space—if you just turned that space, vertical, you’d get a gutter…to read!

Still, Rabkin takes the idea of time happening in between the panels a step further, which I agree with; “But McCloud’s view of the reader’s role also needs refinement…we find single frames that can hold our eye for minutes as we note and decode a wealth of half-understood detail. Time, in graphic novels, then, is controlled, among other ways, by the degree of information density and representational immediacy in each frame” (37).

Take for instance, the many fight scenes in Nat Turner.  While one frame illustrates Nat attacking, the next frame doesn’t necessarily portray the other person’s reaction, let alone them fighting back.  More often then not, the next sketch was of a disfigured, dead body.  Here, the reader’s imagination is processing much more than what’s represented—and the gutters merely helped, not instigated said process.  Even if you could say, the author rendered the ‘quick and dirty’ nature of the killings, the contents of the frames themselves still represent time more than the space between.

And this all was routine.  Readers just knew—it’s not as if words were put in the past tense and you could point, to something tangible, and say here, I knew this sequence of events took longer, no.  The busyness of the frame subliminally measured time.

Whatever happened to Colonel Mustard in the Library?

Put me on the ‘now what?’ boat too.  Echoing Megan, okay, so there are 36 principles I’m willing into buy into — traveling across generational, cultural, and academic bridges—how do I make them work for my students?  Low and behold, the bright-minded among us, Liz, created a pretty remarkable three-identity translation.  I strongly applaud her work and agree with all three.  Taking inspiration, if I may, want pivot ever so slightly…

In regards to the projective identity, another idea might be how do the other characters perceive Jane?  Despite Gee distinctly pointing out the difference, “Remember that the projective identity is the interface identity between one’s real world-identities and the virtual identity. The projective identity is the space in which the learner can transcend the limitations both of the virtual identity and the learner’s own real-world identity”, what happens if a virtual identity isn’t even a century away?  What happens when you want to keep students present and cognizant of that world’s rules? (63)  To me, I’d turn to the next best comparison, public versus private identity and discussing how authenticity appears there.

Perhaps its just because I’m on Dowtown Abbey withdrawals or Liz has me in the classical Jane Eyre mindset, but I can’t help but delineate Gee’s concept to Lady Mary.   For the non-PBS enthusiasts, this particular character doesn’t have a strong history of kindness.  Then, she gets married and has all these warm, wonderful, private moments with her husband—one of which specifically acknowledges the public v. private fact: I’m glad you think I’m nice, even though no one else does.

The virtual-world, for all books we discuss pre-1990, was a steep social, class hierarchy—how characters are selectively viewed out in society (as compared to online). Complications escalate when reputations precede characters, characters are/are not privy to such facts, how this all informs their identity/action, etc. etc.—abundant classroom discussions ensue.

And, if I can rewind to his first identity to comment on the following: “Of course, the students are not ‘real’ scientists and are not going to become real scientists any time soon” (55).  Extrapolating this idea to my composition classroom, I take large, hefty disagreement.  It would seem, ‘students as scientists’ is as lightly applied and removed as one’s hat.  I want students to become real (without quotations!) lifelong readers and writers.

While I am trying not to base Gee’s learning theory on my own limited experience, its hard not to travel down that slippery slope; Tetris, Mario Tennis, Donkey Kong, Mario Super Kart, or Sean White’s snowboarding game did not provide me  “learning, and learning in deep ways” (215).  Comparatively, I’d venture to say Clue, Monopoly, and the obvious Game of Life, provided a much deeper learning experience—but then again [playing my own devil’s advocate] aren’t video games today’s Hasbro equivalent?

The Cheesy ‘We’re All in this Together’ Post

And the parallel tracks of my classes, graduate and otherwise, continue to thicken.  I’m currently grading students’ first paper; the timing is morbidly ironic really. After coming across this little gem, “…I believe…for us to assume that we generally get the papers we deserve” I started yelling at the book (153).

First—a step back.  One of his claims seems to address lofty, stylistic vocabulary concerns—I’m more a practical, concise E.B. White kind of girl anyways—so yes we’re in agreement there.  And if I may digress to point out a keen observation:  during several moments it seems he’s pulling high-minded literature instructors, or should I say the pre-American authors with healthcare, down a peg (re: unknowingly promoting sanctimonious, complex vocabulary; looking to hear themselves in students paper, etc.). (Silent cheer!)

Still, back to the chapter, I disagree we should turn our nose up at “papers made of prefabricated parts” or asking a student to write “a formal academic paper is an assignment to make themselves stupid” (153, 157).  Now, to be fair, no I don’t think every paper, every student writes should come in a nice five-paragraph package.  My outlook is more, to step out of the box, students must know a. the box exists and b. what’s exactly in it.  So with that, yes I do believe students should write their fair share of “conventional topos” (153).  And really, as a composition instructor, it would be nice to know our time and effort spent on the ‘blueprint basics,’ structure, organization, logical flow, etc. is being supported by our literature colleagues—not collapsed and reworked.

There are plenty of opportunities to write creatively in a compare and contrast paper—you don’t need to chuck the whole framework.  Put another way, structure does not inform content.  Just because I handed my students an outline to complete, does not make their prose any less restrictive.  How they develop, tease out, and choose the proper resources to support their points is entirely unique.  So, yes, by all means throw out the dull, prescriptive prompts, but don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater (re: five-paragraph essay showing how Hamlet was indecisive p. 154).

Nevertheless, was the outline an organization and focus tool? You betcha! Do they need it? Absolutely!  As mentioned above, before students step out of the conventional box, I better make sure there is some sort of reliable floor beneath them—or they’ll drown in the creative, no-rules abyss.

Now, back to my deserving pile of ‘C’s’ and ‘D’s’.  Do I, personally, deserve them?  No!  Do I, as an instructor of first-year composition and stakeholder in the English pedagogy, past, present, and future deserve them? Yes.  That is to say, we are forever tied to our unknowing, ghost colleagues academic successes and failures—and our small, humanities niche needs every bit of reminder and representation of that.

Act I in Active Reading

The following seems so incredibly obvious, but reading the passage brought an extra, sharper ‘ping’ to the concept’s crystal clarity: “In fact, given what they have experienced in literature classes, most students never had the opportunity to learn that reading, like writing, is a process of making meaning or text construction that is frequently accompanied by false starts and faulty visions, requiring frequent and mess reconstruction and revision” (31).

Pivoting to a its small, albeit attempt at thoughtful application, this week I assigned students a chapter on active reading (annotating, highlighting, paraphrasing, etc).  Knowing most of them didn’t read the chapter on active reading, oh the irony, I went over the genuinely straightforward section.  In the middle of our discussion, one of my elder students asked, “So, what’s the difference between active and inactive reading?”

Here I was presented with a perfectly wrapped teachable moment on a silver platter—and alas, I feel as if I feel short.  I used the word to describe its definition—a major no, no.  My haphazard response, “Well, active reading is exactly that, taking some sort of action with the text, be it note taking, writing in the margins, marking areas of confusion, the whole gambit—whatever you feel and notice as important, so at the end you have a deeper understanding compared to inactive surface level reading which casually absorbs every other word.”  I felt I didn’t reach or answer her question to its fullest illuminating potential.

So, another route was taken; as their first papers were due today I circled back to our writing process and its parallels to the reading process—similar as Bleu mentions.  Revision : Rereading; Free Writing: Read Though Once for General Understanding.  I’m pleased to report a few more light bulbs went on…

Still, while the aforementioned ideas may have helped, the underlying problem stems from their lack of metaphorical acceptance of the text as fluid instead of more literally a tangible, heavy object.  With the majority of students, it’s a one-way street; they read, absorb, and regurgitate.  When I do—excitedly, mind you—point out areas of disagreement with the text, they hesitate and retreat.  I feel the following statement applies to all texts: “readings that treat texts as objects requiring mechanical analysis rather than as invitations to genuine human illumination and pleasure” (101).  Reading for the sake of learning, fueling a spark of curiosity—gone. All gone.  I then spend the rest of the semester making sure students aren’t afraid of their own insightful shadowy thoughts.

Huge digression, when the author was discussing his frustration with tests and formulas for AP exams, all I could think about was this:  It astounds me how relevant and topical testing is ten years later—perhaps exacerbated.

The Chaotic Coach Approach

I found Collins’ et al. ‘Cognitive Apprenticeship…” and Linkon’s ‘Visible Knowledge Project’ complemented each other’s overarching message quite nicely; while one aims to make the invisible, visible, the other subtly steers students through similar mental, albeit metaphorical environment of dense fog.  Both share a messy, complicated perspective of reading and understanding context—and if students were only made aware of said complexity—that’s half the battle.  The aforementioned statement is half true.

To sincerely take on exploring a complicated text with a “multilayered, shifting, complex, and often contradictory” meaning, implies one must embrace a level of unknown chaos.  As Joy alluded too, students, whether they know it or not, love structure.  So while Collins and Linkon flush out all the mental clutter in the world, the fact remains, higher order reading comprehension is a bungled ball of brain yarn.  Getting students to accept learning is messy—THAT’S half the battle.

It would seem Linkon, although subtly and mentioned briefly, would agree: “For students, however, this way of thinking about reading can be challenging, in part because it contradicts the assumption they have been taught about texts: that texts have set meanings that are available for identification by the informed reader, and that the purpose of reading a text is to locate and define its meaning…they read to find “the answer (1).”  I’m going to extend and push Linkon’s view, to that with a holistic sense of learning.  As Collins’ pointed out “…in solving mathematics problems, students rely on their knowledge of standard textbook patterns of problem presentation rather than on their own knowledge of problem-solving strategies or intrinsic properties of the problems themselves (2).”  Students stubbornly and knowingly avoid thought-driven entanglement—about any subject.

So how we do get students to overcome memorizing skills as “stitching buttonholes”, rather become aware and embrace idea knots so they can learn, absorb, and transfer skills throughout their educational tenure—and more importantly beyond?  We coach.

I was delighted at Collins’ pedagogical approach; personally speaking, my best teachers took on a coach role, over an instructor.  Similar, but pivoting slightly from the sample, in a few weeks I will introduce Socratic discussions/questioning.  Talk about magic! I love that day! Its like academic 20 questions, only better; the partners are given a sheet with several questions, the first being “What is History?”, then half way through “How many of the events during a given time period are left out in a history of that time period?, finally, “How can we begin to judge a historical point of view?.”  Circling back to the idea of chaos, this exercise exposes, and holds their hand while they realize our harsh reality: all questions don’t have one answer.  More importantly, I could easily stand in front of the class instructing such a comment until my face turned blue, but I coached and “oversaw the students’ [independent] learning” (Linkon 2).  I’ve observed students hold and cherish an idea/concept more, once they make it “their own.”  And coaching cuts out the middleman holding up this, selfish possession process—aka you, the teacher.  By putting critical thinking, analyzing skills, a broader worldly perspective, and discussion questions on a silver platter for students to take, it automatically becomes their own.  Which, when applied again, makes students much more engaged and generates an expansive effect on their classroom participation and overall comprehension.

Christine Donahue’s Response to “How People Learn…” and “Engaging Ideas…”

Beginning with “How People Learn…”, I found myself in large agreement with, what I believe, to be their overarching point:  “Experts’ thinking seems to be organized around big ideas in physics, such as Newton’s second law and how it would apply, while novices tend to perceive problem solving in physics as memorizing, recalling, and manipulating equations to get answers” (38).  Echoed again, this time perhaps a step closer to our humanities home, “Experts in other social sciences also organize their problem solving around big ideas (42). With only one semester under my belt, I must admit, I’m relieved to know that I’m on the right track.

Let me backtrack; I’ve structured my class in such a way where students pick a current issue of national importance to research the entire semester, thereby steering away from the “mile wide and an inch deep” approach (42).  Then, they are assigned four different genre papers (definition, narrative, persuasive, and expository) guiding their deeper critical learning and kaleidoscopic view, as I call it.  With each unit, I extract one major step in the writing process and flush it out: research, voice, revision, and context.  But perhaps, the biggest parallel to “How People Learn…” is in one particular concept: revision.  I assign students, hefty but manageable, Nancy Sommers piece: “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Writers.”  The general idea being the same as the first excerpt mentioned; experienced, or expert, writers see revision as molding, reworking, and creation on a grander idea level; beginning writers see revision as how we would see editing that is changing out words, punctuation, and other basic in-line corrections.  To get them to see and approach writing creatively, they have to be aware of the metaphorical misshapen chunk of marble first–then comes David.  Just being aware there is a difference, between revision and editing, sparks a light bulb.  And in my little, but trying, experience, they ‘get it.’  Then again, they also get the revision process takes time and effort—much more than they’re willing to offer.  That’s where I loose them…

Shifting to “Engaging Ideas…”, as I vaguely mentioned in unit four, I cover context and encourage students to disagree with what their reading and add their own comments, ideas, etc. The thought there is a conversation going on with, in their minds is, an intimate object let alone “what conversation the text belongs too” boggles and opens their young, budding minds (135).  I love it!  Again, such a basic idea of thinking for one self and not agreeing with everything one read’s is huge for community college students!  For a whole unit, I stand in front of class acting like a cheerleader, “Your ideas matter! You just studied one thing for 16 weeks, surely you have some insight to offer!”  Truth be told, that’s the hardest part—unveiling confidence.  But I digress.

(As a general ‘hat tip’ moment, I’m plan on utilizing the marginal note approach and writing translations—both I think will come in handy for my now ESL majority group.)