Category Archives: education

New Publication: “The Classroom Is a Mirror: Learning Spaces as a Reflection of Instructional Design”

Standard

I have been an admirer and friend of Buffy Hamilton since we met in 2014. She is one of the most creative teachers I have ever met, and her commitment to her students in unparalleled. I have wanted to write with her for years, and finally the perfect call came from the NCTE journal Voices from the Middle. It was a short notice collaboration, but since I had studied Buffy’s practices for so long, I was able to take her ideas and teaching practices and compose an article that was published September 2020.

This article is about how classroom design that reflects student needs can help students feel good about their learning. The space put them in a mindset where they weren’t “doing school” as much as they were learning by choice.

I am excited about the article, written before the pandemic, and hope to write a follow-up with how Buffy has maintained her creative voice during the pandemic.

The article is available to NCTE members (https://library.ncte.org/journals/VM/issues/v28-1/30916), through university libraries and Galileo.

UNLV-my academic home sweet home

Standard

COVID19 has done a lot of damage. It has devastated the economy, wreaked havoc on schools, and caused unparalleled harm to people around the world. COVID19 quarantines meant the spring semester finished online, and I felt cheated out of my one-year adventure in Las Vegas.

My contract was only for a year, and I knew that I couldn’t stay even if I was offered a second year because my family was still in Georgia. I loved Nevada. I never thought I would, but I did. My colleagues at UNLV were welcoming and made me feel immediately at home. I was part of the Teaching and Learning community from the first day. It was special. I loved the student body, with all its true diversity. I learned about more cultures than I imagined possible in such a short time and small space. My classes were places of discovery and dialogue, connection and community. Of course, there were a few people who didn’t love me or my teaching style, but for the most part, student comments were positive and their critiques genuinely useful for my growth as an educator. I was truly sad that I would only have a year there–and then that year was truncated by a pandemic.

A hiring freeze further killed any hopes of continuing my career at UNLV. I applied for several jobs, and interviewed for one not far from me, but was passed over for other applicants whose skills better served the needs of those universities. I started to think about alternatives to the academy. I wasn’t entirely sure what those looked like, but I was open to pretty much anything.

And then I started to hear questions from my colleagues. Would I be interested in remote work? Would I be available for online classes? Would I be willing to host live Zoom sessions of evening classes on Pacific time? That last one gave me pause, I’ll admit. 7-9:45 classes are hard enough, but when the actual time for me is 10p- 12:45a? I’m a night owl, but…

Finally last month I had conversations with the department chair about a one year visiting assistant professor position that would be fully remote. It would require a pay cut, but since I wouldn’t have to maintain a separate home, that was not an issue. The offer came, I accepted, and I’m pretty sure people in Las Vegas heard my shouts of joy. No one saw my happy dance, but it was exuberant.

So, my new home office (perks of being an empty-nester) is buzzing with new ideas, preparations for classes, both new and familiar, and plans to make the best of a new school year filled with challenges and possibilities.

Thinking, pondering, reflecting

Standard

While I wait to learn where and what I’ll be teaching in the Fall, I do know that a good portion (if not all) will be online. So, to prepare, I am teaching myself how to create good videos. I can lecture, but I prefer interaction; I think it goes back to my acting/directing days when I much preferred a live audience to anything else. However, with the constraints of bandwidth, access, and Zoom fatigue, I need to keep my synchronous sessions focused and interactive and use asynchronous communication to do the heavy lifting.

It’s always a challenge to balance learning preferences and making sure the content is mastered. Adding distance further complicated matters. But this is the current reality. Some students will thrive, some will be frustrated. I know how to put together a solid online course, so I will work to my strengths. Video editing will add a level of watchability that I didn’t need to think much about five or six years ago. I want my students to feel connected; I think good video helps with that. How many of them feel like they know Instagram influencers even though they will never meet them? The connectivity of students has changed, so my teaching methods must adapt.

Hmmm…Instagram. As a teaching method? Insta-stories with polls as lectures? I may have to figure that out- or mimic it somehow.

So much to learn.

Rethinking grades

Standard

I hate grades. There, I’ve said it. Grades, particularly in the humanities are often arbitrary and subject to the grader’s mood, the weather, fatigue, and any number of factors unrelated to learning. It’s always been true, but it seems like the pandemic has made many students hyper-sensitive to numbers and some are using quarantine as a convenient excuse for missing assignments, poorly written work, and incomplete tasks.

Don’t get me wrong; I know this semester has been a nightmare for a lot of people. I have students dealing with job loss, health issues, family issues, balancing working from home with making sure their school aged children get their work done, too. I implemented a grace-before-grades mentality for the final eight weeks of the 15-week semester: no late penalties, options to resubmit after corrections, fewer assignments, alternative assignments, and extended office hours (as in you-tell-me-when-and-I’ll-be there-for-you). But now that grades are due, I am hit with a larger-than-usual barrage of late assignments, many of them from January and February, well before quarantine. Few of these students were dealing with pandemic stressors; they just didn’t do the work when it was assigned. It’s finals week and many of them are dealing with the repercussions of procrastination, not COVID19.

It’s funny because it’s true.

Part of the issue is my fault for not being clear. When we went under quarantine in the middle of March, there were some semester-length assignments that could not be completed because they required interaction with students. Half of the work should have been done by the end of February, but when I offered an alternative assignment, I neglected to spell out the exact terms for what that alternative actually covered. I should have indicated the alternative only covered the length of time we were actually in quarantine. Several students assumed the alternative covered all four sections of the semester-long assignment. I assumed they would understand that the work due before the second week of March was not included in the alternative. My fault, so I spread grace and mercy like rain over the semester. Others, however, had no intention of doing the semester-long assignment and also assumed that any alternative would cover all the missing work. I will say that most of the students found creative ways to just do the work as originally assigned, so I know it was possible to do.

One thing I do love is giving feedback. I write pages of notes for assignments to that my students will know that I read (or listened to) their work to the end and that I want them to master the material and practice of becoming reflective teachers who put students first. So, when I get a response back from a student who turned in a missing assignment late and poorly done telling me that the work was A quality (not the very generous 58 it earned), I am reminded of why I hate grades. Other students want to do make up work so they can get an A in the course– even though they are missing assignments from the third or fourth week of the semester.

Feedback is useful only if students read it

Doing just enough to get (not earn) an A in a course seems to defeat the purpose of education, especially for people who plan to be teachers. So, I’m rethinking how I want to handle grades. Numbers don’t mean anything except as how they translate to a letter grade, which also doesn’t actually demonstrate critical thinking, creativity, ability, or mastery.

I am pondering taking a page out of academic publication submissions as a way to make grading a better reflection of student work and potential. I’m quite familiar with rejection, revise and resubmit, and reviewer feedback. I’m thinking major course assignments could be treated similarly.

  • Accepted without revision (A): The work submitted represents publishable quality, meets or exceeds the objectives of the assignment, and demonstrates mastery of the material.
  • Conditionally accepted (CA): The work submitted nearly represents publishable quality but may be lacking in form, mechanics, citations, or other minor elements of style. The work may meet the objectives of the assignment, but can be improved. May be resubmitted with corrections based on provided feedback.
  • Revise and resubmit, moderate revision (RMo): The work submitted may be lacking in more than one area: mechanics and style, meeting objectives of the assignment, and/or demonstrating mastery of the material. Details for improvement are in the comments. May be revised and resubmitted, but resubmission must be accompanied by an explanation of measures taken to improve the work based on provided feedback.
  • Revise and resubmit, major revision (RMa): The work submitted does not reflect a thorough understanding of the assignment objectives, nor does it demonstrate any mastery of the material. It is also deficient in form, style, and/or mechanics. The work may be resubmitted, but must be accompanied by an explanation of measures taken to improve the work based on provided feedback AND at least one peer-review by a colleague in the class.
Revise and resubmit is a learning opportunity, right?

My hope is that this kind of grading system would discourage procrastination, since revisions are possible. I know I give good feedback, so I am confident that students who utilize it could produce the level of work expected of college graduates. It means I must improve my practice for clarity and be explicit in my directions. I will also have to limit how much time is permitted for revisions;; I’m thinking one week for CA and two weeks for RMo and RMa would be enough, particularly since the work of the course doesn’t stop. I also have to think about how many times the same assignment may be resubmitted. No more than twice for the revise-and-resubmit, I think.

Revise and resubmit is grace and mercy

I’m still thinking, and I know that somehow even this system must translate to letter grades, but I have more work to grade right now. It’s just a few days until I have to submit final grades for everyone, and then I’ll have time (and maybe headspace) to think.

I do love a snarky meme.

Sharing a great column

Standard

This is a great column by Stephanie Jones in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Professor: Doubling down on ‘diagnostics’ and  ‘aggressive remediation’ just benefits testing industry

Having more robust, creative, and rich in-school educational experiences should have been a priority before the widespread shut-down of schools, but it will be even more important to prioritize when schooling resumes some semblance of normalcy.  To do so will mean that focusing on tools that attempt to quantify student learning – such as high-stakes tests – will have to be put on the backburner, or eliminated entirely (which would, in the process, help with budgeting issues too since tests are expensive).

Jones, S (May 1, 2020)

Teacher have argued against high stakes testing for years. Research is clear that these test accurately measure only how well a student takes a test, not whether they are learning content. The tests absolutely can’t determine imagination, creativity, or problem solving. Decades of high stakes standardized tests have led to narrowing the curriculum, decreased student motivation, and no evidence of improved student learning. Adding in the implications of implicit bias makes the tests even more meaningless. The anxiety and stress for both students and teachers caused by heavy reliance on test scores for determining “success” is also well documented.

If the USA is committed to superior education, then the powers that be must give teachers the power and the tools to do the work. Money spent on empty promise by publishers would do FAR more good for students if it were to be devoted to smaller class sizes, teacher support, and basic student needs (e.g. breakfast and lunch, school supplies). Post-pandemic reconstruction of education could potentially include a paradigm shift from publisher-driven curriculum to student-driven learning.

What I’m learning: Reflecting on teaching under COVID-19

Standard

I’ve been reflecting on the lessons of this time of shelter-in -place lately, and there are some changes I will make as I teach going forward.

Home workspace. Green screen, table with laptop, camera, pens and pencils, and books.
Workspace

I am well acquainted with online teaching; I’ve done it, or some hybrid version, for years. I even earned an endorsement for online instruction with my Master’s degree. Still this pivot from face-to-face classes to unplanned remote instruction has made me rethink how I can better approach ALL of my teaching practices.

The very first change I will make is to focus on learning for the sake of learning, not for a grade. The primary complaint I hear from my graduate students who are already teaching is that, without the ability to grade work, few of their students are actually doing any kind of work. Students don’t check in, they don’t turn in assignments, and they don’t show up for synchronous meetings. The result is that the teachers are losing steam quickly. Why should they continue to create digital content when the impetus for students to do the work is gone? Why should students do the work when the grades don’t matter?

The lack of participation from students leads to a loss of motivation for their teachers, which means MY students aren’t keeping up with the assignments in their graduate studies. I cut the requirements in half, but the consensus from their Flipgrid check-ins is that they have no motivation to do anything at all.

I know that this crazy quarantine time is part of it. Uncertainty breeds complacency. BUT, several weeks in, I think we all need to find the purpose for learning again. After years of being part of the education system, it’s easy to forget about WHY we choose to follow the call to teach because we are focused on deadlines, due dates, and grades. Why do we learn? Why does learning matter? I have not made a practice of teaching that, so my students may not have really thought about it in years. I need to reinforce early and often that learning is personal, grades are arbitrary. If I model that teaching, then hopefully my students will pass it down to their students and the perception of school as drudgery will change.

One think I have done well as a teacher of adult is to open the semester with Ruiz’s Four Agreements. I think the idea that learning is for the self will flow naturally after 1) Be impeccable with your word, 2) Don’t take things personally, 3) Don’t make assumptions, and 4) Always do your best. I know Ruiz wrote more, but these four are sufficient and I can use them to lead to the understanding that ultimately, learning is for our own edification.

I need to ponder this idea further and decide how to make it the forefront of my classes: face-to-face, hybrid, and online.

On the less philosophical side, I’ve learned some practical things:

  1. If students are required to set up websites for a class (not by me), set specific parameters like most recent post first and dates on everything.
  2. Practice all the technology for the semester early and often and in class: Zoom, Flipgrid, photo/video editing, Hangouts, Twitter and Twitter cats and Tweetdeck, and how to find anything on the web, including YouTube tutorials for all of the above.
  3. Use dates for deadlines, not week numbers! Granted, some of this comes from teaching other people’s classes, so they set it up, but I have learned that abbreviations and numbers are far more confusing than actual words and dates. “WWA #3” – what is that and when was it due again?

I’m sure I will continue to learn more as this semester concludes, but just those three practical things will make a huge difference. I think students will appreciate the reminder that educators do not choose to teach because of grades. Education is a calling as much as a vocation, but it’s so easy to forget that with all the demands of quantitative data, content- driven curriculum, and the need for “rigor.” If we who teach can remember why we learn, perhaps this time of pandemic will have served a useful purpose.

#NCTE2019 Transactional Semiotics

Standard
#NCTE2019 Transactional Semiotics

This is the slide show from a round table presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English convention (NCTE) that I didn’t get to do. I had a conflict with a panel presentation at the same time. I know, I’m that cool. I’m putting it here now as a reminder that I need to flesh it out and submit a manuscript for it.

R3mixing English Language Arts NCTE 2018

Standard


I spent my time dreaming in dictionaries, but opening the book in the middle. I can not start with the beginning of a story. From A to Z, for me it’s impossible. This order is an idea of ​​life and death that terrifies me. When I write, I do not start at the beginning. When I draw no more. I mix everything. Bernard Yslaire

I as INTUITION: It’s the only thing that matters, it’s the only thing left. With the years, with fashion, the beautiful theories fly away. Intuitions help us make choices, direct us and allow us to tell the difference between a promise and a future.
http://www.64page.com/2018/03/08/yslaire-de-a-a-z/

“When [teachers] organize the tasks students address so that students learn to connect what they have learned in school to the world beyond it they are developing their students’ ability to extend and apply what they have learned to other domains” (Eisner, 2002, p. 13)

When students connected printed text to their image definitions, the abstract notion of alienation became concrete. The concept became real enough that they could wrap their minds around the idea and begin to apply the new term to other scenarios.

The Western canon is not dead (yet)

Standard
The Western canon is not dead (yet)

Before you tune out, let me assure you that I agree with those who argue for more diversity in school literature at all levels. Students need to be able to see themselves in the texts they read so they become fully part of the classroom community. One way to encourage a more diverse classroom community may be by allowing students to freely choose texts from a library that contains books from multiple cultures and points of view. Books suggestions may come from parents, social groups, or the students themselves so that the library is well rounded. Digital libraries may also be a good idea to broaden the reach across cultures. The number of schools adding 1-1 or BYO technology for students makes the digital library accessible to many schools, particularly in urban and suburban districts.

Having said that, there is still a place for much of the Western canon of literature in US schools. The US, for all its multinational communities, was still founded on Western philosophies and ideologies, and it is in the canon that those ideas can be studied from multiple points of view that may turn the traditional Western canon into something wholly American.

What got me thinking along this path was a sermon about the current culture war over Truth v. truth. At some point the pastor made a passing reference to 1984 and my mind took off.  I thought about how the current Western culture in which we live really does seem to live in juxtaposition: war is peace, slavery is freedom, ignorance is strength. “Fake” news tells stories driven by site clicks and ratings. Debates become hostile arguments almost as soon as an unpopular point is made–no matter how accurate or reasonable it may be. The only recognized authority is the Self, which is not necessarily Orwellian, but does contribute to the unhappy chaos that fractures communities and fragments society.  Fragmentation is just as evil as forced unity. Community requires its members to be welcoming of differences while supporting a foundation of a common understanding.

The Western canon, part of the cultural heritage of the US, is a place to begin to rebuild a common ground. A friend said not long ago that when he was a child, everyone read the same books, watched the same three channels on television, and knew the same stories from history. Kids had ideas and experiences in common, which gave them a place to begin building friendships or at least understand their school yard enemies. In a time where cultures collide, students deserve to have something in common that at least gives them a place to build conversations. Because the US is a western nation, it seems appropriate to use the canon as a place to begin.

This is not to say the canon should not be curated and supplemented.  The US culture is changing and the texts read in schools should mirror those changes. Regional authors,  women, multi-ethnic, and multicultural writers should add to the American educational experience. There needs to be balance. Too often US education policies position people against each other rather than looking at the US as us, a culture made up of many ideas but united by a common understanding of what it means to be American. Literature can provide the bridge of commonality.

 

 

Transactional semiwhatics?

Standard

I am in the final stage of my PhD studies. My official study runs August and September, and, Lord willing, I will defend my dissertation in March or April of 2019. The central theory in my studies is what I call transactional semiotics.

Because academic writing has its own rules, I am challenged when trying to explicate my idea because I have to interrupt myself with APA citations (lest I miss one upon revisions). This post is my attempt to share my concept without adhering to the strict rules of academia. For the most part, my ideas reflect a blend of the philosophies of Louise Rosenblatt and Charles S. Peirce.

Rosenblatt developed the concept of reading as a transaction with a text. Taking her lead (and the term) from Dewey, Rosenblatt considered reading more than decoding words on pages. She taught that a readers’ background experiences, personal histories, and internal philosophies inform or affect how they understand texts. Transactionalism, as she called it, meant that readers looked at texts through the lenses of their personalities, and their interpretations of what they read came from their experiences. Additionally, Rosenblatt postulated that reading is a cyclical transaction, made complete when readers create something new based on their interpretations of a given text. The reading transaction triad was made up of three parts: the text, the reader, and the poem (or creation of a new text by the reader.) Part of her philosophy was segregated from its based and labeled the reader-response method of teaching reading. The most important element of reading, according to this view, is the reader.

Focusing intently on the reader was part of Rosenblatt’s perspective, but she didn’t believe the context of the text or the message of an author was unimportant. It was along this line that reader-response theory cracked and fell into disfavor. As a writer myself, I want readers to understand what I am trying to convey before they begin to reinterpret it according to their experiences. Rosenblatt did not intend for readers to divorce the text from the author, but rather wanted readers to expand how they understood a text by adding their voices and the voices of others to its meaning. Hers was a broad view of interpretation, one wherein the author and readers engage in a conversation through the creation and recreation of texts.

Rosenblatt looked, not only to Dewey, but also to Peirce. Peirce was an American philosopher and scientist with a broad scope of interests, but his primary focus was logic and a theory of sign that he called semiotics. (He later changed the spelling to semeiotics because his original theory was misunderstood and connected to a language theory by Saussure, but that is another conversation.) For Peirce, understanding required three elements of equal importance: an object, an interpretant, and a sign. The object is the easiest part to explain–the object is, well, an object. A person, place, thing, feeling, idea, or text. The interpretant is the person who recognizes the object. The sign is the way the person describes the object and the way he/she communicates it to others. There are a lot more elements, but in its simplest form, the essence of semiotics is the system of how a person assigns identifying symbols to an object.

Sign systems vary by context and culture. Letters are a form of signs.  In Language Arts, words, particularly written words, are the most common sign for giving meaning to things. But the culture and context matter. The letters F,A,C,E means one thing to to musicians (namely the named spaces on the treble clef in a sheet of music), but more commonly put together as a reference to the part of the body containing nose, eyes, and mouth. Face also describes part of clocks and watches, along with other objects I can’t name at the moment. The object and the signs exist independently of one another; only the person (the interpretant) makes the connection between them.

As in Rosenblatt’s theory, Peircean semiotics relies on the experiences and prior knowledge to make meaning of the object. Like Rosenblatt assumes the importance of works to convey meaning, Peirce assumes a knowledge of a particular sign system. For both, a person (reader or interpretant) sees a thing (text or object) and makes meaning of it using personal experience, prior knowledge, and language/signs. The meaning is conveyed by connecting the person and the thing through a newly created assignation (text or signs).

The concept of transactional semiotics in English Language Arts (ELA) is a mix of the two ideas applied to meaning making and composition.  Because I am focused on teachers in ELA classrooms, my application is specific to how transactional semiotics works in educational settings. Broadly I think it applies to any kind of study. Peirce was not an educator (although he wanted to teach at university), and he applied his semiotic theory to science and mathematics more than to the humanities. Literature and composition may fall under the auspices of the arts, but only in a world that has segregated studies into subject areas. The living world and the experiences of it are holistic, and therefore, logic matters in all realms of observation and knowing.

When students enter a classroom, they bring with them a rich diversity of prior knowledge and experiences. To require all students to read, think, and write the same way is to validate only one part of the complexity of human life. Literature is a reflection of life, and so will resonate differently with students based on their experiences and prior knowledge. Students in high schools are developing unique world views based on their experiences in their families, communities, and instruction. Transactional semiotics as a theory values burgeoning world views by offering students a platform on which to build texts that reflect both an author’s intent (and context) and their own experiences, prior knowledge, and sign systems.

The idea is to begin with a text. Using one required by the school or district is always a good place to begin. As students read, they should look for similarities to people or situations they have experienced. Let them talk about their experiences and how what they’re reading connects to it. So far, this is standard procedure for many teachers. This is the beginning of transacting with the text. The semiotic piece comes next.

Ask (assign) students to create something that represents the life experience and/or connection to the literature. I’ve used altered books, photography, painting, music, and remix as suggestions to begin, but students sometimes have their own ideas. Let them run with it. As they create, they will begin to create a semiotic system that allows them to put their creative work with the text, although they won’t likely recognized it. Teachers will recognize some of the parallels to essay writing, still part of standardized assessments. Students choose a point of view, locate their evidence (materials), consider how to assemble their creations (outlines), and put it all together (writing). When students present their creations–and presentation is important, they explain what they did, how they did it, and why they made the artistic choices they did. Their signs will have come from their experiences and past knowledge.

Now the fun part begins for the teacher. Sometimes students will be first to see the parallels between their creations and written composition. Sometimes they need a little prodding through questions. Ask other students to identify the object, interpretant,and signs. Allow for discussion about student answers. As a reflection writing project, ask each student to revisit how they constructed their creations and assigned meaning to each element. Then ask them to look at the original text again, looking for clues about how the author did the same.

At this point, students have done the thinking, creating, questioning, and journaling that makes up a transaction with a text. They have also created something, devising a semiotic system that afforded them a mode of expression that is more comfortable than the five-paragraph-essay or the free-response questions (FRQ) on mamy of the high stakes exams. The final step of ELA transactional semiotic practice is to have students take the PROCESS they used to construct their creations and repeat it using ELA semiotics: words, paragraphs, evidence.

Employing transactional semiotics in a high school ELA classroom can be challenging. It means teachers relinquish control of the learning products. It means trusting students to use their skills responsibly. It may mean learning from and with students about culture, technology, and what makes literature relevant. It also may mean convincing administrators and parents that the skills developed through the process will translate to whatever standards are expected. In my experience, it is worth the challenges. When reluctant students get enthusiastic about creating something, the atmosphere in the classroom becomes one of anticipation instead of anxiety.

This practice is the heart of my dissertation study. I’ve done this kind of teaching with good results; now to learn how it may work for other teachers. I will know more in the next nine months.