Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Friday, September 2, 2011

My State of the Semester Address

That sounds much more grand as it is more of rumination or reflection than formal pronouncement but oh well it is Friday. I’m tired and I’m not operating at full brain capacity. It has been a busy busy week with lots of projects bubbling and percolating. But I vowed that I would blog today and this seemed like a topic I could handle at my current level of functioning.

Actually, I am very excited about the state of my semester and very happy with (most) of my students. I did not make any major changes to the overall plan for my Writing II class but I did change some procedures/methods/practices in hopes of improving usability and the overall user experience for me and my students. I thought this might be a good time (the end of the second week) to review some of those changes and what has happened so far for my own reference. I know from past experience that I don’t always remember these details when it comes time to plan for the next semester. By December I know that August will seem like only a hazy memory of sunshine and heat.

As I have blogged about before, I consider classroom community important and so was determined to work much harder on developing it this semester. There are a number of educational benefits but it also makes my experience so much better too. One of the disadvantages of teaching online (and there are many) is that you often don’t get to know your students well and, even worse, many of your interactions with individual students are negative (grading, nagging, reprimanding etc.). You also do not get to witness (many) light bulb moments (when students make a key discovery or significant revelation) which is one of the great rewards for all the negative aspects of teaching.

I decided to work on community in a couple of very deliberate ways this semester. First, I mandated a certain level of Twitter activity that was purely social in nature. It really helps me get to know my students and understand what they are all about. I think this type of interaction helps replace some of the chatter and banter that would take place before class begins or during breaks in a traditional classroom. I find that students are using Twitter to ask for help and clarification which I am happy to give but it is wonderful to see other students respond as well so the interaction doesn’t just become a version of online office hours.

Second, I created reading groups based on major and intended profession and interests (each student is in three reading groups). I hope that creating smaller groups within the larger community will make students feel less isolated and I hope that the bonds of the group will be greater due to their shared interests. This is a change in the way I handled the reading assignments last semester. Last semester that assignment was not a success and I’m hopeful that this semester will go better. Too soon to say with this but the assignment of readings was a bit smoother/easier although still time consuming. Still seeking a way to deal with the logistics.

Another frustration for me has been trying to get my students to become more reflective writers as I believe this is a crucial step to becoming self-regulating writers. In the past only a few writers reached any depth of introspection and so I knew I needed to do something different. This semester I tweaked my reflection/metawriting assignment so we begin with a literacy narrative which then becomes a work-in-progress to incorporate the reflections and metawriting that I previously required. However, in order to feed this reflection I have required journals posts (and now that Morehead State has upgraded BlackBoard we can do that right in our course shell), Twitter posts, and discussions about these issues. So far I have seen much more evidence of introspection and critical thinking and am pleased with this promising start to the semester. I have tried to provide more scaffolding for this than I have in the past and think those efforts are successful but then this is the beginning of the semester. Have to wait and see if it holds up. However, getting them to think about their writing is an important first step so I’m happy to see if happening.

A final change is more procedural than anything. I have always believed in full disclosure and thought it important to give students the complete assignment as we began work on it. I still think honesty and full disclosure are the best policy but I also know that students frequently feel overwhelmed and frightened by large, complex assignments (OK, they freak out about them, in my experience). So this semester I have delayed giving assignments and began with giving students simple tasks that can be done in very short amounts of time. After most of the tasks associated with an assignment have already been completed, then I will give students the actual assignment. I have only done this with one assignment so far (although I’m going to have to deliver a second assignment fairly soon) and students have told me (when I asked) that they much prefer the list of tasks that guide them through the assignment. Again, the upgraded version of BlackBoard has helped me out with this as I have been using the Task list function to keep us on track – even if it is a tad clunky.

And so I feel pretty good about the changes I’ve made for this semester. They have improved my experience and early reports seem to be that they have improved the student experience as well.

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