Author Archives: Lindsey

Microteaching Reflection

In reflecting on teaching, I’ve always been told to consider two questions: what went well and what would I change next time? I have to admit that I generally find these questions to be ideal points of consideration because they force me to acknowledge both the positive and the negative, to avoid an emotional evaluation of myself, and to immediately identify solutions rather than simply dwelling on weak spots.

What went well? I was pleased to hear positive feedback about the “starter ideas” that I had included with the prompt. These suggestions were actually a last-minute addition to this activity, one that I felt was required for this presentation since the perspective writing or textual intervention activity that we did in class had to stand independently from the other activities and discussion included in my lesson plan. I also was glad to see that the idea of approaching the text from the fringes seemed to be generally well-received, as I’d had some concern that focusing on this might come off as being too peripheral.

Thinking about my micro-teaching presentation, however, I have had trouble responding to the second question. What would I change next time? There are a few things that stand out, obviously: I’m afraid that the directions I gave for the activity were unclear and I really hated the fact that my timing didn’t allow for the every group to share their work with the class. These are small issues, though, and I feel pretty confident that, having identified these spots, I would be able to avoid them in future lessons. What bothers me more is the fact that I have still not seen my lesson play out in its entirety, with each activity used as a foundation upon which to expand. I recognize that this is just one of the pitfalls of having such a micro-teaching demonstrations, but I am dismayed to find that despite my careful planning, I still have a relatively untested lesson plan.

Priorities, pacing, and prancing ponies

The readings on course design have been great for encouraging me to actually stop and take the time to consider — to question — the class prep process that for many instructors has become rote. I appreciate this aspect of the backward course design best of all, I think; it is one of the few strategies or approaches that we’ve discussed in this class that has as much (more?) value for the teacher as it does for the students. Teachers, often caught up in their own field of specialization, can benefit from the reminder that content teaching is only one small part of education. Prioritizing certain types of knowledge and skills allows teachers to keep their requirements reasonable and to focus on those that will most benefit learners.

Thinking back over the various readings and discussions that we’ve encountered in the course, however, I cannot help but recognize the constraints inherent in teaching. No matter how well you explain an idea or how rigorously you attend to the pacing and materials of a course, there will be students that don’t meet you halfway.

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”
Sometimes, it’s just that simple.

I can develop a rapport with my horse. I can tell him how refreshing it is to enjoy a nice cool drink. I can explain to him that we will be going on a little walk that will end up at a watering hole. I can guide him over the rocks and past the scrub-brush and point out the sparkling waters up ahead. I can find the point with the easiest access to water. I can even get down on the ground next to the watering hole and have a drink myself, just to show him how fine the water is. But damn it all: I can’t make him drink.

There is one thing that I think may encourage these little ponies, a consideration that is important in uniting course design with the day-to-day practice of classroom teaching: transparency. It is essential that students are able to orient themselves not only within a specific activity but also to understand the way in which that activity fits into the plan for the day, the day into the week, and the week into the course. Although this plays into Wiggins’ comments on the need for motivation that is intrinsic with students, it also allows those who do not have much personal interest in a topic or even in a whole course to track their own progress.

Nat Turner, Week II

Background: I always read the responses that are posted on the blog, but this week I found myself more eager to do so than usual. Our inability to discuss the content of Nat Turner in any depth last week made me especially curious to see which areas of the book we were each individually wrapped up in.

Reading through the posts of those of you who posted before me, I found that a lot of the mental threads I had been playing with had already been picked up. I wanted to add my thoughts in a way that would connect and respond to these other posts but I had to admit that I didn’t have any solutions, either. And, man, the post in which I tried to unite all of these ideas started getting long. Obscenely long. So I’m going to take a cue from one of Jacque’s earlier posts and throw out some of my unconnected ideas in bulletpoints. Let’s pretend this is a literary homage to the pulsing instability of the Nat Turner graphic novel.

• Mimi has referred to the “gap” that the graphic novel leaves between “a gifted child’s ethereal piety and its transmutation into unsparing violence.” I was similarly struck by the ‘choppiness’ of the text. I feel that this issue is not limited to the content of the book, however, and that, in large part, Baker’s artistic decisions are responsible for the effect. The style of the illustration used seems to further fictionalize the tale and I wonder about the (literally) black-and-white presentation of a conflict that exists almost entirely in the grey area that lies between stock notions of right and wrong.

• Robb mentions the rage that characterizes the violence on pages 174-178. Because these pages were brought to my attention in light of my own consideration of the graphic novel as a medium, I began to think about the fact that each episode of the story – every frame, every stroke of charcoal – resulted from a deliberate choice on the part of the author. If there is rage in these pages, it cannot be reduced to the rage of the characters; it is Kyle Baker’s rage every bit as much as it is Nat Turner’s.

• Several students have touched on the uncertainty that familiarity with this week’s historical documents caused them. This issue brings me back to the idea that I attempted to articulate last week about the appropriateness of a medium for a story and the way that the choice of medium influences the reader’s understanding of the text. Is Nat Turner a historical record? Is it an example of historical fiction? Do the answers to these questions change the way in which teachers and other readers approach the work? Should they?

• Finally, one issue kept bothering me when going through Gray’s base text: Why do we have this tendency to think of historical writings as factual simply because they were written during or soon after the event they describe? Why do we, informed readers who routinely question the media reports we encounter in this day and age, suddenly lose our ability to consider the myriad of biases, estimations, and outright lies that can (and do!) make their way into historical documents?

Taking the Fun out of It: Alternative texts in the literature classroom

Even conservative English classes have begun to incorporate more and more of the types of materials once reserved for cultural studies, an understandable combination since the latter in many ways grew out of the study of literature and the line between these two fields has always been somewhat indistinct. I find much to celebrate in the inclusion of many of these new forms and genres and, more broadly, with the mindset that acknowledges “reading” as a not-exclusively-textual act of understanding and interpreting. This week’s reading of Nat Turner and the other articles on graphic novels, however, has been instrumental in helping me to articulate what I feel to be one of the major weaknesses with using alternative texts into classrooms (and with students) that are not aware of the different approaches which must be employed here.

My issue is not with the texts themselves but with the way in which teachers and students deal with them. Although I believe that critical reading skills can be applied to all sorts of texts, I have found that literature classes rarely give proper consideration to the merits and limitations of different forms. They also tend to ignore critical discussion of the success of a given work in a particular medium. An example: Compare the graphic novel Nat Turner with the recent film Django Unchained. While there are obvious differences in the two stories, their similarities are immediately apparent to anyone who has been exposed to both works. Both offer vivid, violent depictions of slave uprisings but I found the effect of the two texts to be completely different: while I found Nat Turner to be somewhat superficial in terms of character development and explanation (a great ‘jumping off place’ for classroom discussions), Django Unchained offers viewers a more fully-realized situation that is also more limited in scope (a personal revenge story rather than a rebellion against the entire institution of slavery).

But literature teachers who incorporate these “alternative” texts into their classrooms must make a conscious effort to discuss interpretive strategies that are unique to each medium. The pacing/time issues that Rabkin mentioned in his article are just one aspect of the challenges that readers have when they encounter these materials. Failing to think critically about the type of texts that they have often consumed in non-academic settings may ultimately lead to more frustration than enlightenment.

To live the experience vicarious: gaming, reading, and the reading of games

I am not a gamer.
As a child of the 80s, this has always been a significant self-identification for me. In terms of its descriptive value, it ranks right up there with “child of divorce,” “coffee over tea,” and “lover of cake” as a way of communicating my identity. When I was younger, I thought there was something wrong with me for failing to appreciate the games that held universal appeal to members of my generation. I’ve had my hands on the controls maybe a half-dozen times in my life, though I’ve spent countless hours watching, with varying levels of engagement, my friends play video games. For some reason, it just never took. I could recognize that certain games had great visual styles and graphics or that others followed an interesting storyline but I never had any desire to play the games myself. I was pleased to note, then, that Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy not only helped me understand how video games encourage learning but also helped me to connect the experience of gaming with an interest more relevant to me personally: reading.

Early on in the book, Gee convolutedly states: “[Video games] situate meaning in a multimodal space through embodied experiences to solve problems and reflect on the intricacies of the design of imagined worlds and the design of both real and imagines social relationships and identities in the modern world” (40-41). Blah blah blah. What he means, in essence, is that if people learn best through experience, what better way could we learn than by experiencing for ourselves a variety of identities, actions, and events? If we learn best through experience, the most intelligent among us will be those who have had the most experiences and who have been able to reflect critically on both the situations and our own role within them.

This notion, which I caught myself thinking of as “vicarious experience,” is the basis for Gee’s defense of video games and it has helped me to recognize part of the reason why these games never appealed to me. I am not immune to the charms of vicarious experience: rather, I have used (and continue to use) reading as a way of indulging in multiple different personas and experiencing situations and events deeply removed from my everyday life. Although there are many differences between the execution of these skills, reading and gaming both offer vicarious experiences and the opportunity to reflect on both content and form in a way that leads to metacognitive understanding.

While I have never really considered video games a waste of time, I am guilty of failing to recognize their appeal. By connecting the basic goals and skills of gaming with the textual literary skills I am more familiar with, Gee has enhanced my understanding of the value of both interests.

Success, failure, and sucking it up

The mixed feelings that I experienced while reading about the assignments and activities that Sheridan Blau discusses in The Literature Workshop largely result from the internal conflicts I face in attempting to determine the goal of liberal arts education. While I do value the emphasis that the author places on creativity and personal engagement, I am not convinced that an entirely student-centric learning environment is fair preparation for the type of demands that students will encounter in the ‘real world.’ The Interpretation Project outlined in chapter 8, for example, “reflects an ideal, healthy, and democratic academic community” (176); I remain unconvinced that such a description could be applied to most professional environments. In catering to the individual needs of each student, to his interests and abilities, I worry that Blau may be failing to exercise an arguably more important skill – their ability to “suck it up and get it done.”

Don’t let me be misunderstood: I love the assignments that are explained in this book. Despite the fact that I have reservations about whether the activities themselves can be applied to a greater context, I do believe that Blau has hit on a wonderful way to encourage critical reading, writing, and thinking skills. Perhaps his greatest success in this regard is the creation of a safe-fail (as opposed to a fail-safe) learning environment.

The disadvantages of failure-proof learning have been widely discussed lately, with a number of studies proving that students who always succeed are those least able to improvise or reconfigure a plan to address difficulties. In some ways, the approach that Blau takes to individualized assignments and minimal assessment reminds me of fail-proof learning. The major difference between his safe-fail classroom and the failure-proof learning that has proven so problematic, however, is the fact that his class seems predicated on students’ exposure to difficulty.

It’s official: I’m sick of pedagogy.

Or, to be more precise, I’m sick of pedagogical articles implying that the sentiment “teachers need to be flexible and reflective” remains a meaningful contribution to theoretical dialogue in the field. Ho hum, teachers are not always right. Ho hum, teaching must be adapted to the audience and context. Ho hum.

The problem with this argument (and the endless number of articles promoting it) is that, when carried to a logical conclusion, it negates the value of pedagogical instruction. If every interaction with a student or group of students is unique, if even the instructor herself endeavors never to be the same river twice, what is the purpose of trading tales of classroom success? Aren’t these tales little more than the self-congratulatory palaver of veterans? (I’m looking at you, Wilner.)

With my apologies to Sylvia Plath, I would suggest that teaching is an art, like everything else, and if you do it exceptionally well, it feels like hell.

Successful teaching is that which balances the observation of students’ backgrounds, competencies, and needs with the assumptions and demands of the cultural moment. It asks teachers to plan carefully, prepare diligently, and cheerfully scrap it all and begin again when any one of the multitudes of classroom variables invalidates all of the work done in advance. Successful teaching requires knowledge of both the content area and the pedagogical strategies that will encourage learner autonomy.

In comparing the week’s readings, I am struck by how much more realistic, practical, and useful – in short, how much more valuable – I found the chapters by Blau. Like Wilner, Blau acknowledges the necessity of recognizing the various viewpoints and personalities that come together in the classroom. Rather than allowing these divergent points of entry to tempt him into a solipsistic exploration of the role of the teacher, however, he attempts to propose thoughtful ideas (I hesitate to use the word “solutions”) that allow students to engage with a text or an activity at a level appropriate for them as individuals.

Blau and Wilner both seem to imply that every class meeting, every assignment, indeed, every interaction in some way represents a kind of battle. Wilner’s hyper reflective approach seems to make an enemy of the self, refusing both pat assumptions and the confidence that might otherwise accompany a long and successful career. She seems to delight in making teaching, already a difficult task, impossible. Blau, on the other hand, implies that the instructor has an opportunity to join students in the struggle, completely re-conceptualizing both the union between these groups and their goal.

Viewed this way, the value of exchanging experiences becomes obvious: while no two lessons will ever be the same, the benefit of having other teachers’ ideas and approaches to draw on helps prevent instructors from having to continually re-invent the wheel. In doing so, teachers are free to focus on observing and empowering their students, confident that they will be able to respond to whatever each class session may bring.

Cognitive apprenticeship and the myth of “natural ability”

As students of pedagogy, we all occupy a somewhat unique space in which we are able to test out the waters on either side of the classroom experience. Personally, I’ve noticed that my tendency to reorganize the weekly reading assignments is indicative of this dual role, both because it allows me to keep like ideas together (or to transition more cohesively from one idea to the next) and because it provides an opportunity for me to reflect on the original order of the readings in an attempt to recognize the logic or the pattern intended by the professor. After scanning through the pieces assigned for the week, I decided to read them in the following order: Rabinowitz, Linkon (Making Critical Cultural Reading Visible), Linkon (Developing Critical Reading), Collins, Showalter, and Fish. In ordering them this way, I felt I was better able to trace the development of the idea, from general theorizing on audiences to more practical classroom approaches to teaching literature and finally into a specific genre, poetry.

I was struck by two main ideas that were present in all of the pieces to varying degrees: first, that reading and writing are dependent upon culture for their meaning and interpretation; and second, that cognitive modeling can help students develop the cultural and intellectual skills needed to successfully navigate texts. The ideas are closely related but, despite my familiarity with the former concept, I had never considered the latter. Because my own development of literary skills was largely unconscious, I have struggled with teaching the skills to students. Learning about the learning process has been of limited value since so many of the readings describe the stages without offering any real suggestions about how a proficient reader can harness their own abilities in their attempts to teach others.

The discussions of cognitive apprenticeship and its focus on making thinking visible were eye-opening. I realized long ago that students who seem to develop critical thinking and reading skills “naturally” are actually just those who are better able to follow and internalize the steps and strategies of their teachers, family members, or other models. Without explicit instruction and modeling, students who are less observant have little opportunity to develop the same skills. This is largely reflective of Bourdieu’s insight that: “By doing away with giving explicitly to everyone what it implicitly demands of everyone, the educational system demands of everyone alike that they have what it does not give” (Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture). I have to admit that I am embarrassed by my own failure to recognize the obvious solution to this problem. Make it visible. Make it explicit. Doing so not only gives every student the opportunity to develop the strategies implicitly demanded of them, it also allows teachers to remove the veil of mysticism surrounding the myth of “natural ability.”

Difficulty and Expertise

Bransford’s chapter from How People Learn detailing the differences between the way novices and experts categorize, retrieve, and use information was fascinating to me not only as a teacher but also as a student interested in observing and improving my own mental functioning. While the piece did an admirable job of describing the differences, I was disappointed with the complete lack of advice that the authors provided for instructors who wanted to foster these habits of mind in their students (and, of course, for students desirous of developing the habits themselves). Surveying our offerings for the week, I began to consider the relationship between the habits discussed in this piece and the theoretical and practical approaches outlined in the other works. Though the Pope chapter struck me as the most pedagogically self-aware reading for the week, I felt that the Salvatori chapter on difficulty was, in fact, the best complement for Bransford.

In the first chapter of Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, Salvatori and Donahue emphasize the value of struggle, claiming that it is only through the recognition of difficulty that we are able to develop the self-awareness and agency required to make the leap from “students” to “independent learners.”  It was the awareness-raising aspect of this chapter that most captured my attention: the fact that students who completed assignments like the Difficulty Paper were better able to think not only about a difficult text or problem but also their own response to that text or approach to that problem. The authors began to talk about how success bred confidence in learners and how that confidence was then applied to even more difficult texts and assignments.

An awareness of the mental processes used – both their own and those of experts – seems to lie at the heart of the readings by Bransford and Salvatori. The most immediate question to arise from their juxtaposition might be: How does exposure to expert thinking help students develop their own strategies for dealing with difficult material? A more successful dialogue between the two, however, might consider the student as more than just a learner encountering difficulty. He is, after all, almost certainly an expert in some field or another in his own right. For an instructor who acknowledges this fact, the question may undergo a fundamental shift: Can students actually become their own expert models through a heightened awareness of their thought processes or approaches when encountering tasks in which they demonstrate expertise?