The depth of the petroglyphs lets them endure over years
Petroglyphs (literally rock carvings) remind those who see them that there were people in this part of the desert Southwest long before the Europeans, Russians, and Scandinavians set eyes on the Pacific and Atlantic shores. Even a novice like me can recognize some of the stories told through these images. Sun and moons mark time. Lizards and Great Horned Sheep repeatedly appear, showing how they populated the mountains around the Las Vegas Valley. Other images might be religious or community calendars, while still others are mysteries to the casual observer.
This one is low to the ground and might represent a person? Maybe a child?
This one is a mystery to me
My favorite from this day: a mama big horned sheep and two lambs.
They do tell stories, though. Story is and always has been an essential hallmark of humanity. I may not understand the particulars of these stories, but I do appreciate that people were here. Families lived and worked and ate and dreamed here then the same way they do now. Children ran and played. Women chatted about the antics of the children and the ways the men showed off. Perhaps the women shared recipes for treating sunburns or illnesses or injuries. Did the men look to the east to test the weather for the day? Did they exchange hunting stories and compare conquests? I see these traces of human stories and my imagination fills in the empty places. I see women huddled around cooking fires while children chase lambs up and down the rugged hills. Men stand away from the women and children, planning the next hunt or the next trip over the mountain to trade with their cousin Paiutes. One nods to another, indicating a need to repair one of the community lodges. Perhaps one makes a joke and they all laugh. The artist among them, inspired by the children chasing the lambs, carves an image of a mother sheep with her kids running from the children, not in fear, but in playfulness.
I can’t say for sure what their lives were like, but I do know that they were forever changed with the Westward trek of European (and eventually American) seekers of silver and gold. There is so much to be learned from the way in which the West was settled. Misunderstanding of culture and language is no excuse for uprooting and frankly stealing from entire populations. The human propensity to enslave what it conquers and to dehumanize those it does not understand is as old as the petroglyphs on these hills. There truly is nothing new under the sun.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been drinking a lot of coffee with my hours of Zoom meetings and online school and family video chats. My eyes complain that I need more screen breaks, but the work still needs to be done. I have been working and teaching in online spaces for years. If I have screen fatigue even though I have extensive experience in this digital realm, how much more do those whose lives prior to COVID-19 resounded with “put that screen away and go outside?”
All the coffee coincides with thinking, especially in the wee hours of the morning when I should be sleeping. So, as I brew another cup, I will attempt to make sense of things I’m pondering.
Clarity matters, but change is constant.
When chaos is the order of the day, decisions about assignments or deadlines or grading become flexible. Most of my students, however, thrive on routine, planners, and fixed schedules. I know I can continue to improve how well I communicate expectations from assignments, and I need to regularly reiterate that the syllabi for my classes are philosophically sound, but practically fluid. My goals, objectives, and rationales rarely change during the course of a semester, but very often current events or unexpected information require adjustments to individual assignments and deadlines. This current pandemic exacerbated the need for multiple adjustments, but the combination of need for routine collides with the reality of change and has led to confusion and a plethora a panicked emails, even though the changes have largely been in the students’ interest.
I answer the emails understanding how overwhelmed people are, and I remind them that the most recent information is correct, but subject to changing again. When COVID-19 meant a shift to remote instruction, there was no way of knowing whether it was for weeks or months. The initial changes assumed we would be back in the classroom before the end of the semester. When the decision was made to stay away from campus, I made another change. I ultimately made my way home to be with family, but that left me in a different time zone than my university. And then a number of students went to be with their families, which meant synchronous classes could not be realistically cover the hours of the face-to-face courses. Now that the end of the university semester is near, I don’t think there will be new changes, but I won’t guarantee it.
Pandemic means keeping your calendar in pencil, not ink. I get it, though. My own planner is riddled with whiteout for canceled meetings, classes, and appointments. I’ve also learned over the years to think on my feet, respond to the actual problem quickly, and compartmentalize tasks. Going forward, I intend to teach those skills to all my pre-service teachers and graduate students. Planning is important, but plans can’t be written in stone when people are involved. If we as teachers have learned one thing in the last months, it’s that we can’t predict the future.
Thinking on my feet comes from my life as a disc jockey and radio journalist in the 1980s. Radio is a medium of incessant change. A story relevant at 8 a.m. is dead by noon, and recorded over by 5 p.m. At least, it used to be recorded over. Now, I suppose it is archived to the Cloud. Still, when information flows fast and furious, the ability to keep moving is a necessary skill. In school, teachers should be able to pivot away from a lesson that isn’t working and improvise a better approach on the fly. That skill comes with learning the students, not the script. It requires knowing the content rather than the curriculum. Even without a pandemic, teachers’ days are filled with the unexpected: assemblies, fire drills, half a class missing for a sporting event or field trip in another class, and a million other little things. Thinking on our feet as teachers is important.
Responding to a problem quickly goes along with thinking on my feet. It’s too easy to look at the overwhelming tower of things that must be done and give up. Anxiety is a real biochemical response to the unexpected, and those of us who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses exacerbated by sudden change have had to be exceptionally vigilant about maintaining our medications, using the tools available to us for meditating or self-calming, and working to recognize what is reality and what is in our minds. It’s hard. Additionally, people who do not have diagnosed anxiety disorders feel especially anxious when they can’t predict or anticipate what the next change might be. Part of dealing with change means focusing on the moment and the next moment. My students who are sending panicked emails are emailing first and then thinking through the problem once I’ve talked them off the ledge.
Granted, this is an unprecedented pandemic (except for virologists and epidemiologists), and a number of my students are suddenly working in an unfamiliar space with their children needing them for their own school work. Some have limited access to technology (a topic for another time) and others have partners whose employment is in jeopardy or who are essential workers with long hours. Still, when I asked my students how many of them were planning their work without the external force of going to school only one said that she was. Most of my students admitted to a haphazard approach to the tasks that were largely unchanged. Work was still due, their lesson plans still had to be done, hours for practicum had to be completed, and their academic lives continued to move ahead. Responding to the actual problem requires being organized and diligent enough to recognize what can be altered or reworked as soon as the changes are known.
Compartmentalization saves me from panic, although it can make me look like I am without compassion. I think it may be the most important think I should teach in the future, especially to the women in my classes. We women are masters of multi-tasking, but it’s not necessarily a good thing. To be able to order dinner while finalizing grades and making sure the kids are bathed before bed may get a lot done, but it is exhausting. If we try to think about ALL the things at once, we’ll likely burn out or paralyze ourselves and accomplish nothing. I like to use Stephen Covey’s philosophies from First Things First as a baseline for deciding what needs my attention. The quadrant of urgent/not-urgent/important/non-important allows me to prioritize what must be done and what can wait. I think prioritizing and compartmentalizing tasks can prevent teachers from being overwhelmed by the sheer number of resources, tasks, demands, assignments, and responsibilities just from their school-based lives, apart from their family and private lives. I’m thinking I may add some of Covey’s work to Ruiz’sFour Agreements to my first two weeks of classes.
There is much to learn from this pandemic, and I can do a better job preparing my students for dealing with the unexpected. While a global pandemic is unlikely to take anyone by surprise again any time in the near future, change is inevitable. Having some tools in place to navigate change may alleviate some of the stress that the unexpected can bring.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.