From the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium — “Supporting Multilingual Student Experience in the Classroom”

In January of this year, the Writing Program held a symposium that explored how issues of diversity intersect with the first-year writing classroom. The symposium began with a talk from Professor Haivan Hoang entitled “Why Diversity Matters in FWY?” Our instructors then participated in a series of roundtables that focused on language, teacher identity, access/technology, discussion strategies, and issues of disabilities. As a way to continue the conversations that we started at the symposium, we will bring to you an overview of each roundtable’s discussion. This week we are featuring the discussion led by Jenny Krichevsky for the roundtable “Supporting Multilingual Student Experience in the Writing Classroom.” Please add your own thoughts and questions.
Roundtable: Supporting Multilingual Student Experience in the Writing Classroom
Leader: Jenny Krichevsky

Overview of Discussion
In order to begin examining the ways we as teachers can support students in our classroom, we can first see that language difference is not a “special issue,” but rather an inherent aspect of teaching language and literacy. We can see language as a way to address the power dynamic of certain relationships to English and value the different ways our students have come to know English as native and non-native speakers. As teachers, we can understand that language acquisition is a long term, complex process and, as a result, we need to set our priorities for the semester. We also want to understand the external factors impacting our students’ linguistic experiences in the academy, and in addition, explore the ways our students are going to be read and listened to — or not — because of their bodies or other identity markers and the values and predispositions of their readers, listeners, evaluators.

This leads us to a larger question: What are our responsibilities as writing teachers with respect to preparing our students to write in the academy?

The roundtable participants identified the following “best practices” as ways to think about how we could structure activities to support all writers in our classes:

• learn students’ language repertoires and goals for the course
• set manageable goals for each student and yourself as an instructor
• encourage students to identify specific strengths
• use supplemental materials (PowerPoint, handouts) that iterate activity instructions and goals
• slow down instruction, and also talk and write at the same time (or use powerpoint)
• assume and give more: more time, more patience, more flexibility
• create threads for individual students; balance with course/group goals
• have whole-class conversations about the kinds of feedback that are useful
• have students drive peer response vs. teacher-led goals

Peer response can be difficult to manage within the classroom. For a range of reasons—students reading and composing times can vary. Below are suggestions developed by this roundtable to facilitate peer response:

  • Planning Peer Response:
    blind review — lead with strengths of essay
    more reflective writing that interacts with feedback — think about both receiving feedback and giving feedback
  • How to account for extra time?
    linking up peer responders online, to give them access before and after class for more time
    audio-record the essay for responders
    break up peer response into section (e.g., introduction)
    early in semester, give students a weekend to do peer response — build in time to read all materials
Posted in Multilingual writers, peer review, Writing Program 2016 Symposium | Leave a comment

Permission to Continue Building a Writing Community

Sean Bates is a first-year MFA candidate in Poetry at UMass  Amherst where he also teaches College Writing. He hails from the Finger Lakes Region in Upstate New York, and completed his undergraduate studies at Oberlin College in Ohio.

It occurred to me into my second week that I had done ice breakers for two days and still my class felt stagnant when it came to sharing or even speaking in class. When I solicited for their anonymous feedback, the majority said they were enjoying the class. The breakdown appeared to be my assumption that the ice breakers of interviews and names  had been enough to foster a writing community with this particular class.

I was concerned about “giving up a day” to do more community building. I brought this to the table during our course director group meeting, and our director wrote on the board a simple idea that felt like a revelation. She wrote: “Give yourself permission to give your class what they need.”

Our Resource Center mentor followed up by asking me about the classroom space. I explained that although I am thankful for the seminar style table, the room is quite small. He, maybe jokingly, suggested that I have them sit under the tables. In my own experience as a student, I recognized the power of psychology of space and I knew that this would catch my class off guard.

As I walked in, I asked them all to pack up their stuff and move the tables to the side (making sure to not block the door.) We all sat on the floor and I had them rip their papers in half. For the rest of the class, we did one line story exquisite corpse exercise. They were more comfortable in cautious silence, and easily fell back on it. But I forced them to share and we actually had some low stakes fun.

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

Teaching Matters! Podcasts!

I would like to introduce Teaching Matters! A series of podcasts by the Resource Center staff of the Writing Program, here at UMass Amherst. Here you will hear 4-6 teachers talk about their own experiences teaching first-year writing. Each podcast is focused on a specific issue–preparation and lesson-planning, teacher persona, and diversity in the classroom.

Give it a listen!


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Semester of Conversations on Technology

Along with being the Technology Coordinator for the UMass Amherst Writing Program, guest blogger Shastri Akella teaches first-year writing. He has most recently received his MFA degree and is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature.

As technology coordinator, I worked with teachers to expand the meaning of what a text means—it is an essay in Other Words or Student Anthology, and it is also a song, a movie clip, a blog post, a videogame, or a list of curated tweets, as long they’re each read in the context of an audience and unit goal. Together we expanded the possibilities for portfolio collection: all student writing for a given unit can live in a single Google Doc, making it easy for the instructor to check off activities as they’re grading, and more importantly, to see, with a single doc, how a student’s writing has grown over the course of the unit. We spoke about Moodle and conference scheduling, Unit IV activities and final portfolios.

This process of knowledge-expansion took place in one-on-one conversations and also in classrooms; teachers invited me to their classes and together we had conversations with students on the forms of technology they would be using in the class and why it was helpful—why it made sense, for instance, to do peer review on a shared Google Doc. We spoke about hurdles students might face in facilitating a technology-driven, paperless classroom, and some possible solutions. I will be collating and sharing these solutions with teachers during the Spring symposium.

As a teacher I found that technology, by channeling the external into the classroom, facilitated the opposite: it placed the skills learned in 112 classrooms in the context of the social reality students interact with. In reframing a Facebook post for a non-native speaker of English, or for a high school teacher, students understood the meaning of audience. In watching a foreign language film without subtitles and “guessing” what was happening in the scene, and then seeing what was actually happening, they appreciated the meaning of context. And in setting a section of a videogame in dialogue with a film, they understood what it meant to get resources to interact. It was a pleasure sharing these ideas with fellow-teachers and hearing their perspectives.

I enjoy talking about technology in the context of teaching writing, and I hope, in the upcoming semester, to have conversations with more teachers on how they can bring in technology that works well with their teaching personality, and in the process help more students learn that the skills they learn in our classes have contextual applications in spaces beyond our classrooms.

Posted in essays about teaching and writing, Guest blogger, technology | Leave a comment

Multimedia Resources for a Digital Age

Along with being the Technology Coordinator for the UMass Amherst Writing Program, guest blogger  Shastri Akella teaches first-year writing. He has most recently received his MFA degree  and is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature.

“Use a multimedia source as one of your resources,” I told my students as I was describing to them my expectations for the “Adding to the Conversation” paper.

“So we can use a YouTube video?” asked a student, her interest clearly piqued.

“And a tweet too?” went another student.

To engage their curiosity, I had them discuss, in groups of three, possible multimedia sources that can be used to support their assertions. Together we had a laundry list of, astonishingly, sixteen different kind of multimedia resources. My students never fail to astonish me with their resourcefulness. Getting them engaged is what it begins with.

“Let’s switch roles,” I said. “You are the audience. Assume you see an article in the Daily Collegian that says your favorite band plagiarized all their tracks. And as evidence they cite a YouTube video which has some anonymous UMass students stating this opinion. Will you believe them?”

“Of course we would not,” they said.

“But what if you listened to a YouTube video which showed you album covers from which the tracks were plagiarized and gives you links where you can verify that their release date preceded the release date of your favorite band’s song?”

“Then we would have to believe the video,” they said, albeit reluctantly.

Sources may change form, I went on to explain, but the essential need, what we look for in a resource, does not change. We still need a resource to be credible in its support – or dispute – of a claim. We need our resources to be unbiased, to have no motivation other than to interact with the nature of an idea’s truth and arrive at a conclusion in a clear, logical fashion.

“So what is the point of using a web resource?” I asked my students. “Why look for a new form of a resource if the requirements are just the same? Remember how excited you all got when I asked you to use a multimedia resource? It is because the digital form is vital to our social interactions. It has become a critical part of public discourse, how information is circulated to a target audience. And you want to set your essay in dialogue with this digital space, not only because it interests you, but also because it is the space your audience draws their information from.”

If we do have our students use multimedia resources, given their interest in the medium then, along with asking them to verify the resource for credibility and bias, we may want to consider talking to them about how the resource we use is ultimately a function of audience: moving beyond the essential goal of wanting to convince our audience, we want them to believe that the topic which the resource supports is of interest to them because of the digital space they’re engaged with.

Posted in essays about teaching and writing, Guest blogger, technology | Leave a comment

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