Opening Doors

This semester I’m teaching College Writing, and I’m about to begin our second unit – “Interacting with Texts.” Seems like a typical academic type assignment—students read one-two essays from our reader and then develop a critical response. Developing a critical response—meaning a response that moves beyond pure summary and agreeing or disagreeing with the author’s main point—may be challenging for students. As a writing teacher, this is a challenge that I feel a bit more comfortable with—developing ways through writing that enable students to develop their own ideas and responses to a text.

But what I really struggle with as a teacher is not so much with the writing process, but more with the reading process.  The essays in our reader have been selected to challenge first-year students and they do so for a variety of reasons. Many of the ideas raised by the authors included in Opening Conversations are complicated and complex, and combined with being unfamiliar with the different kinds of rhetorical choices these writers make in terms of form/ genre, our students may misread or misunderstand the content.

So here are a few things I try to keep in mind when I work through this unit.

What is an essay?

Many of our students may have traditional expectations when it comes to what constitutes an essay. They may expect to see a very clear and well defined thesis statement announced very early in the text. They may expect the author to be arguing either for a specific point or against it. Many of the essays we ask them to read don’t fit neatly into these expectations. These essays are meant to challenge our students’ notions of form and genre as a way to broaden their knowledge of texts. Since the audiences for most of these essays were not written directly for first-year college students, some of the essays will contain references (cultural and academic) that will be unfamiliar to our students. Our students may also bring a cultural frame of reference that differs from the author’s and our own. For example, I have to keep reminding myself that our students have grown up post 9/11. As a result, their relationship to the events surrounding 9/11 differs from those of us who are older and remember life before these events occurred. These differences can provide points of discussion as well as an introduction to research since students can research events and/or cultural references that they find unfamiliar.

Context – Mine and the Students.

One of the reasons why I wanted to go to graduate school was to have the space to continue reading challenging texts and discussing them with people who also loved discussing ideas and concepts. Many of the readings in Opening Conversations raises issues that many of us engaged in the exploration of these ideas want to discuss. However what I try to remember is that although these are ideas that I have been thinking, reading, and writing about for several years, this may be the first time our first-year students have come into contact with these ideas. Understanding white privilege, the fluidity of gender, systems of power are not learned in one 50 minute class period, or a week or even one semester.  Through our own reading and writing, this is what we work through most of our academic lives. College Writing provides our students with the space to be introduced to these ideas, a space that enables them to become aware of these different perspectives and to begin the questioning process.

When I was about to enter my first year of college, my mother told me that one of the reasons she and my father were sending me to the university was to expose me to new ideas, new concepts, new experiences that growing up in our small, rural New Hampshire town could not do. A part of being exposed to new ideas means having our assumptions and understanding of the world challenged in ways they would not be if we had stayed in our “comfort zones.” Sometimes this makes us uncomfortable and resistant. Sometimes this makes us confused and unsure what to say or think. Sometimes we may say things that may appear inappropriate.

As a teacher I try to practice what Judith Johnson, my mentor in graduate school, called a poetics of generosity—the assumption that everyone is writing and speaking from a good place, from a place where everyone is open to learning.  I try to keep reminding myself that our first-year students are beginning the process of understanding, and it is through the interaction of reading, discussing, and writing about these essays that will enable them to begin working through these ideas.

Building a Classroom Community

Since this may be the first time many students have interacted with the ideas raised in Opening Conversations, they may not only be unsure what to say, but unsure how to articulate what they are thinking. This may result in many uncomfortable silences in the classroom and students may make mistakes—they may say things that sound offensive.  Building a classroom community based on generosity, the assumption that we are all trying to figure these ideas out, and are all speaking from a place of learning enables students to work through these complex and complicated ideas without the fear of getting it “wrong.” Many teachers find it useful to work with the class to set up guidelines for discussions. Together as a class you can develop guidelines as to what kinds of statements would be useful, what kinds of questions would be useful, and the importance of clarification. “Class Discussions Suggestions” by Amber Engelson in the Writing Program’s Resource Database is an excellent example of how to establish a classroom based on generosity.

Opening Doors

I think the most important thing that I try to keep in mind is that in my first-year writing class, I’m opening a door to these ideas. Some students may have already taken the steps through the door, some may be willing to take a step or two through it, and some may be resistant right now to go through it. That’s all okay. They are just beginning. The important thing is that the door has been opened.

 

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From the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium — “Who Gets Left Out of the ‘Paperless’ 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 discussions 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 Shastri Akella and Rebecca Petitti for the roundtable “Who Gets Left Out of the ‘Paperless’ Classroom.” Please add your own thoughts and questions.

Roundtable: Who Gets Left Out of the “Paperless” Classroom

Leaders: Shastri Akella and Rebecca Petitti

Paperless classrooms can have their benefits. They can entail the sharing of assignments/lectures; collecting assignments; sharing feedback. However for a paperless classroom to work we, as teachers, need to have a shared understanding of the technology we are using with our students – in a sense we all need to be on the same page. It is important to keep in mind that this does not need to be an either/or situation – meaning as teachers we do not  have to have either a paperless or paper classroom. It is possible to explore having a hybrid classroom.

In order to explore the paperless and hybrid classroom, Shastri and Rebecca posed the following questions to the participants of this roundtable:

  • What is a paperless classroom to you—what are some ways in which you use technology?
  • What are some concerns you have about using technology in the classroom, particularly in terms of limitations for both students and teachers? What are some challenges?

Here are their responses or, in some cases, even more questions that were raised:

Challenges & Possible Strategies

Availability of technology on campus: lack of access; limited technology in classrooms; UMass does not have a laptop requirement for students

  •  Survey students at the beginning of class: natures of learning (digital vs. tactile)
  • Survey students at the beginning of class: can you bring in laptops?
  • Survey students about their technology usage

Distraction from laptops: students not paying attention; interacting with each other

  • Ask students to have all their technology/notifications on to see how they use that within a classroom space
  • Ask students to close laptops when you’re done writing
  • Have clear goals for writing; have students summarize the class; clarifying community membership—provide outline. Discussion might go well.
  • More and more students are learning (being forced to learn!) through technology

Classroom spaces: classrooms across campus are uneven in their technological capabilities; not  every classroom  has a projector

  • Possible to get a projector from AIMS

Reasons for not using technology

  • Preparation is harder?
  • Technology investment for teachers (dongles etc.)
  • Students might disengage with speaker (instructor/classmates) and look instead at the screen
  • Why do I need multimedia when I all want to teach is a sentence?
  • Different kinds of technology?
  • Different kinds of media?

Ideas/Opportunities

  • Using a grammar blog to integrate student writing with technology
  • Converting “Adding to the Conversation” unit into new form (how form/content influences content)
  • Using new media but making sure all students are on the same page (ex: Vine video)
  • What form/media do students reach out for? Physical/digital media
  • Playing music as students write
  • Using music with speakers. TBA Unit: Bring in a musician into class. Creative process across disciplines. Q&A, writing exercises. Artists also talk about their revision process.
  • Usage of Power Points. Posting online might remove the incentive to come into class
  • Provide only outlines, helps with attention issues and multilingual writers
  • Focus and helping with goals vs. making sure students are respectful in class
  • Everything except final draft on Google Doc
  • Stop editing their papers if it’s online. Give targeted feedback
  • Students can interact with comments on Google Docs
  • Google Docs for peer reviews; students work at different pace. If students are done, they read another one—teacher can see comments and encourage then to write more if they are not detailed. Allow only comments, not in-line edits
  • In-class debate, students started doing research proactively
  • Peer-editing in Google Docs
  • Student can collaborate

Takeaways/Best Practices/Classroom Activities

  • Have conversations on how students use technology
  • Might be hard to incorporate technology in your first semester (when you might want to focus on content and not medium)
  • Having varied platforms for different writing styles: be adaptable
  • How do we have teachers step out of their comfort zone in terms of using technology?
  • Have workshops for teachers on different technology platforms
  • Continue to have books
  • Working on a common computer in peer groups—access ease
  • Focus issues—perhaps not use laptops?
  • Writing on paper and then putting up on Google Docs might give students the opportunity to sit longer with ideas
  • Writing Program Tech Coordinator can come to your classrooms for help with technology!

 

 

 

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From the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium — “Beyond Cold Calling: Engaging ‘Quiet’ Students in Discussion”

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 discussions that we started at the symposium, we will bring to you an overview of each roundtable’s discussion. This post features the discussion led by Sarah Stetson and Kate Litterer for the roundtable “Beyond Cold Calling Engaging ‘Quiet’ Students in Discussion.” Please add your own thoughts and questions.

Roundtable: Beyond Cold Calling: Engaging “Quiet” Students in Discussion

Leaders: Sarah Stetson & Kate Litterer
We wanted to structure our roundtable around “quiet” students in our classroom—with emphasis on “quiet” in quotations. We wanted roundtable participants to think about why students are quiet in the first place, whether or not teachers see that as a problem, and why teachers may want lots of students to participate. We discussed how to encourage teachers to think beyond the “cold call,” and we proposed the idea that it is okay if not every single person talks in large groups. We, also, discussed how to get students talking in other situations like pairs, small groups, conferences, and other classroom configurations.
We posed two questions to the teachers at our roundtable – “Why do you think students are quiet?” and “What is one thing you would adapt about a lesson plan to include more students in discussion?” Additionally, teachers shared specific examples from in-class discussions they had facilitated when they felt that their “quiet” students stood out.
Here are some comments we received from teaches about teaching “quiet” students.

Question: Why do you think students are quiet?
• Students are afraid to be tone policed
• Students are self-conscious or have stage fright
• Gender disparity in the classroom
• Students are happy to listen, and may talk a lot in conferences
• Students rely on other talkative students to lead discussions
• Students may not understand questions
• Students may not be paying attention
• The pace of conversation may feel difficult to enter and student is unsure of when to speak
• Students feel comfortable talking in small groups but not in large groups

Question: What is one thing you would adapt about a lesson plan to include more students in discussion?
• Have students comment on low stakes in class reading
• Listen and take notes with names so you can measure participation
• Ask students to lead a discussion and make their own discussion questions, so students can plan ahead
• Write discussion questions on an index card and pass it around
• Ask students to do generative writing before discussions
• Use “rock, paper, scissors” to choose students to speak
• Narrow down the scope of questions you ask students
• Have everyone contribute a little bit to answering a question, so each person says something
• Have students post on Moodle and read before class
• Have students answer a low stakes ice breaker question so they can hear their own voice in the classroom
• Have students play a role on a card you hand out, such as “devil’s advocate”

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From the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium — “Localizing Discussions of Diversity: Bringing Campus-Wide Conversations into the Writing 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 discussions that we started at the symposium, we will bring to you an overview of each roundtable’s discussion.  This post features the discussion led by Cal Angus and Nirmala Iswari for the roundtable “Localizing Discussions of Diversity: Bringing Campus-Wide Conversations into the Writing Classroom.” Please add your own thoughts and questions.

Roundtable: Localizing Discussions of Diversity: Bringing Campus-Wide Conversations into the Writing Classroom

Leaders: Cal Angus & Nirmala Iswari

I co-led, along with Nirmala Iswari, two short discussion sessions at the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium: Exploring How Issues of Diversity Intersect with the Writing Classroom. Our sessions attempted to address how TOs might go about engaging with controversial campus events or topics in their classrooms. Rather than wait for these issues to erupt in our classrooms, we wanted to provide TOs with a framework for bringing up campus issues in their classes early and often, even using them as lenses for different units or rhetorical strategies. This way, when something does happen during a semester, students are accustomed to talking through it in a mediated manner, and are hopefully even able to see it as an occasion for listening and learning from their classmates.

In our discussion sessions, we talked about establishing a routine that works for you, as the instructor, when bringing up controversial topics. Participants referenced one method shared during one of last year’s Center for Teaching sessions on diversity training, which emphasized a three-step approach to opening up a difficult conversation in the classroom:

Observe: Verbally acknowledge the atmosphere in the room, i.e. “I noticed that when you brought up _____, many people grew quiet or uncomfortable,” or “I’m seeing a lot of eye rolling or indications that people have differing opinions on this issue.” Bringing this out into the open makes you and your students witnesses to what is often an unspoken allusion.

Expressing Thoughts/Feelings: After acknowledging that a difficult topic has been broached in the classroom, express to the classroom why you think it’s important to stop and talk about it. i.e. “I think we should spend some time discussing this as a class so we can hear all the different points of view on the subject, and so no one feels silenced in this space.” This is also a good chance to draw connections between opening such a conversation and the lesson for the day, or the learning objectives for the unit.

Concrete Actions: Make clear the next steps the class should take to proceed with discussion. “I’d like for us all to get in a circle, and for people to raise their hands when they have something to say. We’ll spend the next twenty minutes listening and responding to our classmates, followed by ten minutes of reflective writing.” Be sure not to step away from the discussion, and to remain an active moderator, perhaps even adding a time limit or turn limit to prevent people from dominating the discussion.

Among our two groups at the symposium, we also discussed how campus issues can be used as a lens into both the personal and the broader national or global community. Students sometimes resist digging into their personal histories, especially early on in class, or else feel uncomfortable talking about larger social problems that could remain abstractions in their minds (racism, sexism, class etc.). But by talking about Black Lives Matter graffiti on campus that was vandalized, or past UMass admissions policies toward Iranian students, we can put these larger issues into context for students. Below you will find three scenarios that TOs were asked to read and discuss how they would address these issues in class, or how they might incorporate them into a lesson plan.

Stumbling Blocks

We also discussed that this is not a perfect framework, and that bringing campus issues into the classroom will often be more personally fraught for some students than others. This was one of the stumbling blocks we tried to address during our symposium discussions, but despite talking about it as a group, we didn’t get far in how to address it. Different TOs shared their strategies: some said they set clear expectations on day one about the political and personal content students are expected to engage with in their class, while others said they sometimes allowed their students to steer away from uncomfortable topics in their writing if they noticed it made them exceedingly uncomfortable.

In the end, it was pretty clear that there are some major obstacles or flaws with relying too heavily on campus events to form the backbone of a class. But the general consensus between our two discussion groups was that as a supplementary part of the classroom, discussing and analyzing controversial campus issues could provide a new way for students to examine rhetoric with personal relevance, as long as discussions are mediated and managed by the instructor. Instructors shouldn’t veer away from discussing such things, especially since often the chance to step outside of assigned readings is welcomed by students.

Scenarios

Please note that this is not intended as a “controversial issues worksheet” for students. Rather, these were used as examples for TOs at the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium, specifically those who wanted to discuss how they might address these issues in the classroom, or how they might incorporate them into lesson plans.

  1. In spring 2015, Black Lives Matter activists and members of the campus Black Student Union gave a makeover to the UMass campus graffiti wall in the central residential area with the slogan of the movement for racial equality and against police brutality in African American communities. The next day, the Black Lives Matter graffiti was painted over with “All Lives Matter,” with many of the activist slogans erased with red paint by unidentified individuals.
  1. In February, 2015, UMass administration made the decision to bar Iranian students from enrolling in specific programs in the Colleges of Engineering and Natural Sciences, citing federal recommendations that to do so could endanger national security. After the news broke, the Boston Globe ran an article in which State Department officials were quoted as saying they had never heard of such a restriction, and that UMass was “rare if not unique among U.S. universities” for instituting the admission ban. Around this time, negotiations for a nuclear deal between the U.S. government and Iran were ongoing. UMass eventually reversed its decision after vocal negative reaction from the UMass community.
  1. In 2014 the federal government pledged another $3 billion in support of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) programs. The same year saw federal support of the humanities education increase only slightly to $145 million. Meanwhile, a study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that graduates of the class of 2008 who majored in STEM averaged a significantly higher salary than those majoring in the humanities. A New York Timesarticle, however, still found a reason to major in the humanities: many STEM jobs could be easily computerized or traded overseas in the coming decades.
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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
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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.

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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!

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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