Category Archives: theory

More about what I’m thinking while teaching under COVID-19

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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’s Four 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.

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

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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

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#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.

Transactional semiwhatics?

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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.