A Cell Phone Policy

As a teacher and as someone who observes a lot of classes I see a lot of texting going on. Throughout class, students are checking their cell phones, sometimes under their desks and sometimes just right out in the open. As a teacher I have gone through a range of policies from outright banning cell phone use, to explaining how when they are texting someone outside of the classroom they really aren’t present in our writing community, to explaining that this class gives them the opportunity to “un-plug,” to, well, just giving up and turning a blind eye. None of these strategies worked. When I tried to enforce any kind of cell phone policy, I endured a lot of eye rolling, sighing, and looks of resentment.  I suppose that some of this goes with the territory of being a teacher. Regardless of what level we teach (kindergarten-college) there is some level of classroom management that has to be done. But the constant policing of cell phone use was starting to make me feel more like a disciplinarian than a writing teacher. And the just giving up strategy—well . . . I think you can imagine how that worked.

So this semester I decided to try something different. I asked my students to develop a cell phone policy for our class. I explained my past experiences as a teacher dealing with students texting. I explained that I saw two extremes—one extreme being no cell phones in class to the other extreme of everyone free to  text/check Facebook/the internet all through class. We agreed that neither extreme would work and that together we could come up with something in the middle.

Throughout this process we talked a lot about our experiences with cell phone use. I explained how I felt students weren’t focusing on what we were doing in class when they were texting and they explained how they felt anxious if they couldn’t check their phones. In other words we talked a lot about context – my context as a teacher, their context as a student in our shared classroom space.  As a result we learned something about each other—well at least I did. I didn’t realize how anxious they felt being un-plugged and if they were too focused on not having their cell phones, then it seemed they wouldn’t be focusing on what we were doing in class.

And we talked about respect. The students voiced their dislike of being in social groups and having people texting rather than interacting with the group. They discussed how important it was to focus on what we were doing in class and taking responsibility for their own education.

So here is what we settled on. As a class, we need to be respectful of our educational space. Cell phone use is okay if it isn’t interfering with someone else’s learning. Working in peer response groups, reading someone else’s paper, participating in group work and class discussion is not a good time to check your cell phone. However, if you are working alone and want to check your phone or send a text it’s okay  because you’re not interfering with anyone else’s learning.

This works for me. At least I hope it does. We’ll see. But I’m also hoping that just having this discussion has enabled my students to take more ownership over the class and their own learning.  And, hopefully, I’ll be able to focus on just being a writing teacher.

Posted in classroom management | Leave a comment

Office Concert

Wednesday afternoon I was sitting in my office when Abby and Miguel from my last semester’s College Writing class burst in.

“We wanted to show you this,” they said, giving me a copy of Monday’s Daily Collegian. And there they were in a feature article about the Indi-folk duo called Commonwealth  they have formed.

“Wow,” I said. In the article they talked about how after meeting in my section of College Writing they formed a duo—Miguel on guitar, Abby on violin, both on vocals.

“We want to play for you,” Miguel said as he unzipped his guitar case and Abby unpacked her violin. So they did. I sat at my table where I have student conferences and Miguel and Abby played three of their original songs. They were great! I was amazed! I was proud!

“Make sure you read the end,” Abby said. “We gave you a shout out.” I’m the English teacher they thank at the end.

I’ll admit it.  I was pleased they thanked me. But, really, as their writing teacher, I had nothing to do with any of this.  I can’t even take credit for their song writing ability because College Writing focuses on academic writing.

But this has made me realize something.  I think as teachers we become so focused on getting through the curriculum that we forget that there is more than just writing happening in our classes. College is about being exposed to new things, meeting new people, trying things you may never have the courage or confidence to do. Since all our sections of College Writing are small and activity based, the students have the opportunity to engage with one another.  Sometimes this leads to students developing friendships, sometimes this leads to students being exposed to another way of seeing things, sometimes it leads to the formation of a musical duo.

So although I can’t take credit for the beginning of Abby and Miguel’s musical career, I am pleased that they got to know one another in my class. And I am pleased that I have gotten to know them beyond the academic writing they did.

So I would like to return the favor and give Commonwealth a shout out. They are great! And if you hear about them performing on campus or somewhere in the Pioneer Valley, go see them! You won’t regret it!

And if you hear of an EP called “Other Words” and think it’s a coincidence that it’s the same name as our reader, it isn’t.

Posted in essays about teaching and writing | Leave a comment

Celebrating Writing

This time of year I sometimes find it hard not to be crabby. Although it’s almost the middle of April, it’s still cold in the morning, there is still snow in my yard, and the lake still has ice on it. And this time of the semester I also seem focused on what the students aren’t doing—they aren’t coming to class, they aren’t turning their essays in on time, they aren’t doing their Works Cited pages correctly, they aren’t doing their in-text citations correctly, they don’t “get” the essays we are reading from our reader.

And this past week, I’m afraid to admit, I was crabby about organizing the Writing Program’s Celebration of Writing that was held on Sunday—an event where we recognized the undergraduate students who are completing our year-long tutoring course, the winners of our annual Best Text Contest for Basic Writing, College Writing, and Junior-Year Writing, and the students selected to be published in our Student Writing Anthology.  I know. I know. The Celebration of Writing is a good event and this is something that I should not be crabby about, but anyone who has ever organized large events knows that the details that go into the planning of these kinds of events can make anyone cranky.

One of my tasks for the Celebration was to present the Best Text Awards for the College Writing category. Now although as one of the judges I had read all the entries, I decided to re-read the winning essays so I could say something specific about each piece. Once again, I was impressed with these pieces. Not only were they well written, each essay had a strong sense of voice and was truly a pleasure to read. I learned something from each essay I read, and I was moved by each writer’s use of language. As I read, my crabbiness began to fade.

For this year’s Celebration our program consisted of a keynote speaker, Nick McBride from the Department of Journalism, and several students speakers/readers. As I listened to each of our speakers, I realized a theme was emerging. (And since I was one of the organizers I can tell you the theme was unplanned!) Each speaker talked about how through writing they realized that they had a voice and that they had something to say. And, even more importantly, for each of these writers somewhere along the way there was someone who wanted to hear what they had to say.

Currently, I think, there is a lot of discussion and focus on assessment, outcomes, goals, and objectives. Of course, I’m not against all this. But listening to all our speakers discuss the power of finding their voices, the confidence they gained from someone validating what they had to say, and, as Nick told us, that writing can enable us to discover the truth within ourselves, makes me realize that the most important thing that we do in our writing classes is to provide a space for writers to discover themselves.

Our students have fascinating things to say and our writing classrooms provide them with the space to say these things.

And this is what excites me the most as a teacher.

Posted in essays about teaching and writing | Leave a comment

Seize the Teaching Moment

This week the conversation around campus and the whole Pioneer Valley is the “Blarney Blowout” and its aftermath.  Everyone is talking about it—some are claiming the police are too brutal, some are wondering why the students think it is okay to gather in a large crowd and drink, some are embarrassed by the negative attention this has drawn to our campus, some think everyone is over reacting, some are discussing what the University should have done, should not have done and what the University should do now. Everyone has something to say about this.

As teachers, and especially as teachers of first-year students, this seems like something that we should talk to our students about. But I’m afraid if I bring this up in class the conversation may start out okay, but would take a bad turn, and I would gradually end up sounding like my mother.

Me: “Did any of you go to the Blarney Blowout?”

The students: “It was fun.”

Me: “Fun? What are you talking about? People were arrested.”

The students: “It was fun until the police came and sprayed tear gas and beat people.”

Me: “People were throwing beer cans and ice balls at the police. What did you expect?”

The students: “It was really the police who started everything. It was really about police brutality.”

Me: “You shouldn’t have even been there. With that many people together drinking that early in the day there is bound to be trouble.”

The students: “We have a right to party.”

Me: “Right to party? What are you talking about?”

The students: “We have a right to have fun.”

Me: “What??  You aren’t here for fun. You’re supposed to be studying.  Do you know how much it costs to send you there?”

Okay—maybe not so gradually turning into my mother.

The other day I went to observe Zoe Mungin’s class as she was beginning our “Adding to the Conversation.” This unit asks students to select a conversation (topic), do some research to narrow the topic in order to develop a purpose to communicate to a specific audience.  Zoe began by asking the students about the “Blarney Blowout.” She asked the students what they thought about the weekend and then she let them talk. Her students said the things I’ve heard other students say this week—it wasn’t as bad as the media made it out to be, the police were too violent, if the University hadn’t “warned” students they, as first-year students, never would known about it, etc. She asked questions and more importantly she didn’t turn into my mother. She didn’t judge.

And then Zoe asked the students to think about the “Blarney Blowout” as a conversation.

“What have you read about the blowout?” She asked. “Where did you read it? What was it about? What perspective was it from?”

Again the students talked, but now drawing from a range of online sources. As the students talked, Zoe kept asking questions. She kept pushing. “Remember how we have been talking about credibility? Remember how we have talked about logical and emotional appeals? Is this a logical appeal? How so? Is this credible? How so?”

Soon the class wasn’t just talking about the “Blarney Blowout,” but rather how it was a conversation, a conversation consisting of a range of perspectives, all with different purposes for voicing their opinions.

“There seems to be a lot of different ways of looking at this,” Zoe said. “There also seems to be different issues to focus on here. What’s one issue we can focus on?” Now she was getting the students to narrow the topic.

“Police brutality,” someone said.

“Let’s imagine we would be writing an open letter about ‘Blarney’ focusing on police brutality to a news outlet. Name a news outlet.”

Fox News,” someone called out.

“Okay, who is the audience for Fox News? What tone would you use? What would this audience expect to hear?”

After the students worked through these questions, Zoe said, “Give me another news outlet. One different from Fox News.”

Her Campus,” someone else called.

“Okay,” Zoe said. “Who is the audience? How is this audience different from Fox News? What about tone? How would the tone here be different from Fox News?”

In other words, Zoe used the “Blarney Blowout” as a teaching moment. She was able to take something that all the students had an opinion about and turned it into a lesson about narrowing a research topic and the rhetorical situation.

And she also did something else.  By gradually moving “Blarney” from the main topic of discussion to an example to illustrate audience and purpose, Zoe enabled the students to begin seeing the “Blarney Blowout” from different perspectives.

The conversation about “Blarney” seems to be continuing. The University announced yesterday that they have hired former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis to conduct a review of the University’s and the town of Amherst’s handling of the event.  I also heard this morning on New England Public Radio a very interesting report about “celebratory rioting” that not only broadens the conversation, but puts it into a different context.  It seems that “Blarney” may provide us with even more teaching moments as we move through the rest of the semester.

Please share how you are using this as a teaching moment in your class.

Posted in class discussions, essays about teaching and writing | Leave a comment

Putting Students in Motion

“My class seems really quiet this semester. Is there something I can do to get them talking more? Anything I can do to get more energy in my classroom?”

This is a question I’ve been asked frequently this semester. I can understand why the students don’t seem as lively as they did during the fall semester. It’s cold. It’s snowing. And when it hasn’t been snowing, it’s cloudy. This is the perfect weather for staying in, reading a book, watching a movie, watching t.v. Who really wants to bundle up and trudge around campus?  And once our students actually get to our overheated classrooms, it does seem time for a nap.

My answer to this question is simple. Get the students moving. Don’t just let them sit there. Get them up. Get them walking around. This will wake them up and get their blood moving. Put them in groups and make them talk to one another early on. Don’t just let them settle into their chairs. Half-way through class have them get up again and move around. The more active they are the more energy (hopefully) will be in the classroom.

This does seem simple, but I’m going to have to admit something. As a teacher it took me a long time to take my own advice. I used to tell myself that it would take up too much time to ask the students to form groups with students across the room rather than with the people sitting next to them. I used to tell myself that it would be too chaotic to have all these people walking around a small space. It would take too much time to bring the class back together once they had been moving around. In other words, I was afraid of losing control of the class.

Since part of my job is to visit classes, I had observed several of our graduate instructors doing just what I had advised. To form groups, these teachers would have the students select shapes out of a hat and would then have them walk around the room to find the people who matched their shapes. These teachers would have the students do revision exercises that required them to move from station to station within the classroom. Whenever I observed these classes I was always envious of how these teachers were able to get the students out of their seats and interacting with one another. The energy level in the room was always increased. The classroom on the surface may have appeared to be chaotic, but it was clear that everything was under control. I wished I could do this too. But I was still hesitant.

Okay, I was actually afraid.

During my observations I would see teachers with a range of teaching styles. Some would sit at the teacher’s desk, some would sit on the desk, some would sit at a desk in a circle with the students. Some would move around the room, sitting, and standing. This made me notice something about my own teaching style. I realized I was always standing. I would move around the room, but I would never sit at the teacher’s desk. Some times I would sit at a desk in a circle with my students, but I would get up to write on the board and remain standing.

I could say this was my preferred teaching style. But I’m not sure that was completely true. After thinking about I realized it wasn’t so much that I felt more comfortable standing in front of my students as I felt the need to be standing above them. In other words, I was confusing authority with height. I’m short and the majority of the students are taller (and some are really a lot taller) than me. I felt being physically above my students gave me more control and authority in the classroom.

But one day I went to observe a class where the instructor was like me – a short woman. During this particular class she had the students standing and moving throughout the entire class meeting. She had them do one activity that asked them to move around the room asking one another questions. When they were ready to transition to the next activity she called them together and they all stood around her and listened. Watching her I realized that authority comes not from height or age, but rather from being prepared, from having a purposeful plan, from speaking with confidence. I realized that I didn’t have to speak over my students to gain their attention or their trust.

So I tried it. I first had the students move around in order to get into groups. When that worked, and I felt more comfortable I began incorporating activities that asked the students to move around the room. I still catch myself standing a lot. I still feel a little uncomfortable when a really tall student comes up to speak to me after class.  But I just try not to let my discomfort get in the way.

Posted in classroom management, essays about teaching and writing | Leave a comment

Showing vs. Telling in the Teaching of Revision

Since the start of the semester I’ve been reading course evaluations and talking to teachers about their plans for the semester. These discussions usually lead to teachers wanting to work on a specific part of the curriculum. Sometimes it’s how to make in-class activities more purposeful, sometimes it’s how to use the readings more effectively, sometimes it’s how to design better peer review activities/exercises. These are all great things to work on. One thing I’m always working on is how to make each class meeting productive.

When we, as teachers, say we want to make peer review more useful, class time more productive, in-class activities more effective, I think we are pointing to a larger issue about our classes. The bulk of what we do—the readings, the peer response activities, the in-class exercises, our responses during the drafting process—are all about moving the students through a revision process. The drafting process that we teach is really a revision process, a process that enables our students to develop and complicate their ideas, a process that enables them to evaluate the choices they have in terms of tone, voice, language, structure, and organization.

So maybe it would be useful to ask ourselves two questions:

How can we teach revision better?

How can we enable students to see and understand the importance of revision?

As a writer and as a teacher of writing, I understand the importance of revision. Despite the longing in all of us (I admit it, I have that longing too) to write an essay, a short story, an article, etc. “right” the first time, it rarely happens. Writing is a process. We begin with an idea, a question, a thought and then we work at it. We read texts about what we are thinking about, we talk to colleagues about our ideas, we write more, we get feedback about what we are writing and that makes us write more, question more, read more, and then write more again. We work on shaping, testing out different introductions, conclusions, different organizations, different language. We write more. Revision helps us to think more deeply and more critically about what we want to say. Revision enables us to know and understand what we want to say.

So how do we enable our students to see the importance of revision?

The other morning when I was walking my dog I was thinking about this. In my own class, I know the things that I do are all geared to enabling the students to revise their papers. I even tell them at the beginning of the class the purpose of the in-class or peer review activity we are doing is to help them further revise their papers. At the end of class, I even remind them that everything we have done is to help them revise. But sometimes something seems to get lost along the way. Somehow somewhere along the line the things we do in class just seem like the things we do in class and writing multiple drafts seems like writing the same draft over and over again.

As my dog and I got closer to the lake we walk to each morning, the creative writing advice, “show don’t tell” popped into my mind. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time telling my students about the importance of revision rather than showing them why revision is important.

How can we do this?

This semester I want to keep working on making my class more productive. I want to make peer review more effective, my in-class activities purposeful, the discussion of the readings we do more useful. But I want to think about all of this in terms of how these activities and exercises show students the importance of revision. Here is my question:

How can I more effectively show my students the importance of revision?

Any thoughts?

 

Posted in essays about teaching and writing, revision | Leave a comment

November

The other day in class I found myself answering the same questions over and over. What is it you want us to do again for peer response? Did you say we’re supposed to read the papers out loud? Are we supposed to write our partner a letter? When is the draft due? When is the final due again? Where is your office? Is it okay to use “I” in this paper? Will you take points off if I use “I”? Are we supposed to read our papers out loud? What do you want us to do?”

I try my best to answer each question as if it was the first time I have ever heard it today. I try to smile, but by the end of our class I can hear the impatience creeping into my voice. As I said earlier the draft is due on Thursday and it is on the assignment sheet I gave you last week. It’s also posted on Moodle. And maybe if you put your phones away you would know. I don’t actually say that about the phones, but I think it because I’ve had to remind a couple of people to put their phones away.

After class I go up to my office and check my email. Several students from my other class have emailed me to explain why they may not be able to come to class tomorrow: I’m sick. I have an appointment at health services. I have a review session for another class. I have to . . . .

I shut my office door and put my head down on my desk.

What is the matter with students?
Why can’t they just do what they’re supposed to do?
Why don’t they listen?
Why don’t they read the syllabus?
Why don’t they read the handouts I give them?
Why don’t they stop texting in class?
Why don’t they just stop talking in class?
Why don’t they pay attention?
Why haven’t they learned anything?
What is the matter with them?

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m cranky. I’m crabby. And I’m tired.

I’m also over-whelmed.

Every time I look at the calendar that first twinge of panic I felt when I flipped the page from October to November becomes stronger. The end of the semester is coming and coming fast. There seems to be so much to do and so little time. Every night I wake up at 3:00am wondering if I’m really going to get everything done.

I find myself complaining about everything. It’s cold in the morning. It gets dark too early. My classes aren’t going well. I have papers to read. I don’t know when I can get the yard raked. I don’t have time to do anything.  I’m tired.  I didn’t teach my students anything.

My husband points out that I always feel like this in November. He’s right.  The end of the semester is over-whelming. Back in September it seemed like we had all the time in the world to work through the writing process and the units. But now, in November, the end is so close and the number of classes that we have left seems to be slipping away. And, because it is November, the weeks we do have left for the semester are shorter due to the two holidays. It becomes clear that we have no buffer—the semester is going to end.

And if I’m feeling over-whelmed what are my students feeling? My students are working at finishing up not just my class, but three to four other classes. They are facing finals for the first time. They are registering for next semester classes for the first time on their own. And they are looking ahead to the holidays and the January break. In other words, this is the first time they have faced this end of semester crunch.

So maybe my students seeming inability to focus is really a symptom of being over-whelmed. Our students are learning how to manage their time and how to deal with the end of the semester stress. They are learning there is light at the end of this tunnel.

So how do we all deal with all this over-whelmness?

First, I try to remember that my students have been writing all semester and because they have been drafting and revising they have learned how to draft and how to revise. Writing is an on-going process and since they have been writing consistently and talking about writing they have all grown as writers and will continue to progress when they leave the classroom.  Even though my students don’t have the same amount of time to complete their final units as they did the earlier units, I remind myself they have already learned what they need to do.  So I tell them. You know how to draft. You know how to develop your ideas. You know how to do peer response. You know how to copy edit.

I also remind myself that being a little more concrete isn’t a bad thing. Going over the plan for the end of the semester at the beginning of each class helps to make things appear more manageable. Here is what we need to accomplish before the end of the semester and here is how we are going to do it.

I also keep in mind what I have learned from Gertrude Stein—there is no such thing as repetition.  Or in other words, repetition isn’t a bad thing. When we are over-whelmed it can be difficult to take in information. So repeating can help to make sure everyone is and stays on the same page.

And just acknowledging that the end of the semester can be over-whelming helps. It lets the students know they aren’t alone.  We’ll get everything done – it will be crazy, it will be hectic, but we’ll get everything done.

 

Posted in classroom management, essays about teaching and writing | Leave a comment

Student Conferences

It’s that time of the semester again! Student conferences!

I do look forward to having conferences with my students. I enjoy sitting down with them and talking about their drafts. To be honest, this is why I became a writing teacher – so I could talk to people about their writing. I love the process of figuring out with a fellow writer how the piece of writing they are working on could be developed and revised.

Although the goal of these conferences in first-year writing is to work together with the student/writer, there is no one correct or perfect way of doing it. Me—I prefer to collect the students’ drafts ahead of time. I read through the drafts and then make notes and questions about things I want to talk about. Then when the student/writer comes in I use this as the start of the conversation. I begin by asking questions and (hopefully) the dialogue begins and together we work out a plan for revision.

I know others do it differently – some teachers have the students bring in their drafts, some people have group conferences. But I like the chance to think about the papers before I respond. However there is a danger here. Sometimes I think too much about the drafts and I have to be careful I’m not telling the students what to do. In other words I have to be careful that I don’t take their papers over. I also need to be careful I don’t spend too much time responding to the draft before the student/writer comes to my office. One of the advantages of having student conferences is so I don’t have to spend a lot of time writing comments. The 20 or so minutes I spend in the conference is supposed to be my responding time. So I don’t want to spend another 20-30 minutes planning out my response before the conference. So I limit myself to a small post-it note. I read through the draft, make notes on a post-it note. This limits my response and also allows the conversation between myself and the student to develop since I haven’t scripted out a plan for the student’s paper.  I also always begin by asking the student to tell me what he/she is thinking. And since we have done a round of peer response before they have come to the conference, I ask them what their responders have said too. And since their responders usually have good ideas, it makes my job easier. I can validate their peer responders and build off what they have said.

But this is just the way I do it. How do you do your conferences?

Posted in Student Conferences | 3 Comments

The Balancing Act

The start of the new year and the balancing act begins. We are teachers, but we have other “lives” as well — graduate studies, scholary work, families, etc.

How do we balance all these lives?

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Take Away

This seems to be the new buzz work – the take away. What is the take away? What are the students taking away from this class? What should the take away from this class be? All this talk of a “take away” implies that whatever the enterprise, students should leave with something. I’m not against this and I’m not really against the term take away. To be honest this term is much better than what I usually say at the end of my classes—“So what have we learned?” But to me this term implies there is something tangible that can be taken away, something concrete that students can carry away.  I’m not against this either. I think whatever enterprise we are engaged in there should be concrete goals and objectives.

These past couple of weeks I’ve been attending end of the semester events and I’ve seen some things happening.

At a reading at a local bookstore for one of our undergraduate experimental writing classes I saw a group of students stand up and read the most powerful poems, short fiction and manifestos about identity. 

At another reading for an undergraduate chapbook contest, I tried not to cry when the winner read her most recent poems. I have rarely been so moved at a poetry reading.

At the annual Residential Life First-Year Student Recognition Awards banquet I saw over 100 first-year students receive awards. These students were nominated by their teachers, not for being A students; rather for seeking extra help, being motivated to learn, and/or making a positive contribution in class. I saw 52 teachers recognized for being nominated by students because as teachers they made a difference in these students’ first-year at UMass by being available for extra help, giving them encouragement, helping them adjust to college, etc.

I attended a reading for senior creative writing English majors at another local bookstore and was amazed not only by the quality (and in many cases the humor) of their poems, fiction, and memoirs, but in their confidence as readers.

So this is my take away. If you give students the space they will write the most amazing and powerful things. And students take many more things away from our classes than the specific goals and objectives we have set.

Posted in essays about teaching and writing | Leave a comment