Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ringing in the New Year - pedagogically

I have often reflected at the end of the semester, in true Profhacker fashion, by giving a 3x3 course evaluation. This means sharing what worked, what didn’t, and what I plan to change.  This was easy to do when I was essentially teaching the same class in multiple sections. However, now that I am teaching composition and professional writing it is hard to make such comparisons so this evaluation and reflection will likely not fall into such neat categories.

Overall, I feel pretty good about how my professional writing class turned out. I taught this class for the first time in the Spring and that was OK but as I had barely a week to plan the class (for the first time) and I inherited a book it was a bit rough. This time around I had the benefit of experience and time to plan so it was much more thought out and I do not plan to make any major changes for the new Spring Semester. Students report that they learned a lot and had fun. I feel the same way so what’s not to like?

My Writing II class continues to be a work in progress and I plan to revamp it yet again for the Spring Semester. I have high hopes for the new version as it is an idea that excites me (see The Walking Dead in my writing classroom) and I had an additional brainstorm about how to marry my new idea to my old practice of focusing more on writing in the disciplines so it will be a course about walking/writing dead in the disciplines.  I have spent a lot of my gym time thinking about this class and can’t wait to see what comes of it!

What worked

I borrowed/adapted a Group Learning assignment from Cathy Davidson for my professional writing class and this turned out to be a great assignment. Students really did an amazing job with it and we all learned something from the process as well as the results. For this assignment students had to teach the class about some technology/tool that could be used to produce their final projects. Throughout the rest of the semester students referred back to these tips/tools and used them for their PW project as well as work in other classes and their professional lives.

Another success for the Fall Semester was the use of Google Chat to support virtual office hours. While overall my use of Google was a bit hit-and-miss (see Google vs. Blackboard) in terms of success, I can unequivocally say that Google Chat gave my students quick and easy access to my help and advice. Although it was not always convenient for me (having to interrupt my work or break a chain of thought), it definitely helped create a connection with my online students that is always difficult to forge in an online class.

Finally, the use of interactive journals was something that worked well and I will continue to use. Side discussions, support, and practical advice were all a part of the peer comments on student journals and I think contributed to a sense of class community. I was pleased with this activity/assignment and will definitely use it again. 

What didn’t work

My attempt at a peer leader assignment, during which students would take turns leading discussions and track participation, was a dismal failure. They were supposed to work in teams and that was always a problem as most of the teams did not work well together at all. The evaluation part of the assignment was also problematic even though it was really a matter of noting who had participated and who had not. I wonder if this type of assignment is simply more problematic in an online class as I’ve done similar things with traditional classes. I’m not going to use this assignment until I’ve thought it through again so probably not for the Spring Semester as I’m at a loss right now.

Similarly, my class reporter assignment was terrible. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of students creating a wiki, blog, or some other record of the lessons they learned in a class. However, the actual execution in both classes fell far short of my hope. I think the idea is still a good one but it may not work for a writing class as well as it does for a content-driven class and it may also be a problem for an online vs. traditional class. Either way, it is going back on the shelf for now while I mull it over.

My last failure is the scaffolding I prepared for my Writing II students as they worked on their final papers. I thought it would help them to chunk the paper but most were resistant to the idea and the final papers of those who did participate were often too chunky. I have some ideas for working the scaffolding into our discussion and reflection assignments that will make the support more subtle and allow students more room to grow. I read a blog post a few weeks ago (Intrusive Scaffolding) about how too much scaffolding is actually a disservice for students and I think this process assignment is a good example.

What will change

While I will still have students create Google accounts at the beginning of the semester, our early use of Google will be for interaction (Google chat) and social media (Google+). As I already noted (see Google vs. Blackboard), I used Google for journals, discussion, and writing workshop in the Fall Semester but this met with mixed results and I think sometimes the technology got in the way of the pedagogy which is never a good thing. I plan to use Blackboard’s blog tool for interactive journals and discussion but am reserving the option for using Google for writing workshop at the end of the semester.

As noted above (and in The Walking Dead in my writing classroom), we will discuss the big ideas found in our literary readings with those found in popular culture (specifically comic books and their related media). We will then explore (in discussion and in writing) the ways that those big ideas play out in the disciplines. Stay tuned for more on this idea!

This semester I am going to try out a journal assignment focused on self-assessment and self-regulation. One of the reasons I tried the peer leader assignment is that keeping track of all the posting/discussion activities is a logistical nightmare for me. It is a constant battle to find the right balance (not to mention the time) between teaching and evaluating. My hope is that by making a place/time for students to record (weekly) what they did to further their learning and meet the course goals will make them more aware of their own responsibility for their growth and grades. Plus, this will give me a private place to comment on their activities as a student separate from their writing and thinking. I hope that separating these enforcer activities from the writing coach/mentor activities (made in comments on class reflection and discussion) will allow me to focus my efforts as well.  Or maybe I have just devised another way to make my head spin. We’ll see!

How did your Fall Semester turn out? What are your plans for the Spring Semester? I always love to study (steal/copy/adapt/adopt) the assignments and class activities of other teachers.

Monday, December 17, 2012

I have found balance and you can too

Those who spend time with me enough to know how extremely uncoordinated I am are probably laughing out loud, but it is true. I have found balance – or at least more balance than I may have ever had before in my adult life – and it is awesome. I am still not physically coordinated and I am often extremely busy but I have worked very hard this semester to achieve some balance in my life and I am pretty happy with what I have accomplished. Believe me, if I can do it then there is hope for you as well. This is my hope that you will make finding balance one of your resolutions for the new year.

This time last year my job was killing me. I was bone-tired and stressed to the limits of human endurance. Then in May my body sent me an urgent message to change or else! In May and June I wrote about the need to find more balance and my initial struggles with it (see Rising From the Ashes and Have You Got Balance). Six months later I can report that I am doing great physically and emotionally. I must say that the life changes I enacted this summer were the best decisions I ever made. Of course it is one thing to make changes during the summer, but another to keep them once the school year gets underway. The simple fact that I can report that I am happy and healthy now tells me that I have kept on my path and that is good news.

Drawing lines

Perhaps the most important part of this new life plan was changing the way that I work. In the past my flexible work schedule meant in reality that I was working seven days a week, morning, noon, and night.  Now I rarely work in the evening and while I still do some weekend work I try to restrict it to a few hours. It isn’t always easy but I accomplish this by following two strict rules:

·         You can’t and shouldn’t do everything
·         Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize

That first rule is a tough one. It is so often easier (or so we think) to simply do something ourselves rather than to let someone else do it. Worse, it is often easier to do something ourselves than to find and convince someone else to take on a task (and then to provide the support they need to do it without micromanaging). However, I have delegated and divided a number of tasks that have made my life easier. Other jobs I eliminated altogether by reasoning that if no one else was interested in taking on that program then it was time to let it go. Quite simply it was about not doing anything just because I had always done it. I reevaluate regularly before putting a job on my list. Is this something that needs to be done? Really? If so then am I really the best, the only, person to do it?

I have always been the Queen of the To Do List, but I have learned to readjust my thinking there as well. I still use them to plan and manage my time, but now I make sure to spend time not just writing down the millions of things I need to do but also sifting and sorting. If this is a job that I need to do then I ask myself when it needs to be done. Does it need to be done today? What happens it if doesn’t get done until next week? Next month? Similarly, the tasks that don’t get done are not simply moved from one day to the next without asking the question – why didn’t this get done? It is about prioritizing every day and every week. The first week of classes means that course planning and management are top priorities just as last week was mostly about grading. However, there are other weeks when program planning or report writing might be the priority and my students drop to second place. Not everything can or should be top priority all the time. A hard lesson but I think I have it now!

Putting Me First

Changing my life has meant making a lot of hard decisions, and even more difficult, sticking with them. Now my priority list includes doing things for myself. Every week I make time to write because this is something I need and want to do. I make time to exercise regularly not because I want to (still waiting for that promised energy boost) but because it is important for my health and I have found I can get some good thinking time in on the elliptical so that is a plus. I make time to spend with my friends (although I still need to do better with this) because I need to laugh and vent and celebrate life. These are things I need to do for my mind, body, and soul. Carving time out of a busy schedule and putting off my real work to attend to my writing, my health, and my relationships is not selfish. OK, maybe it is, but being selfish is OK and even necessary when it comes to a balanced life. After all, if I don’t look out for me then who will?

Another difficult decision, especially after the fact that my job nearly killed me, was taking myself off the market this fall. I knew that I could not afford to devote the time and energy to an academic job search plus I knew from past experience how time-consuming, stressful, and soul-destroying such a search can be. I wanted to devote my time and energy to maintaining my new-found balance as well as the development of new projects and possibilities. I knew I was sacrificing opportunities and I still torture myself by reading the job ads and wondering “what if” but as I end the semester tired but not empty I know that I made the right decision. I am looking forward to the work currently on my list and I am satisfied with the work I completed this fall. My current job is not perfect. I am underpaid and under-recognized and under-appreciated. But I am doing important work that makes a difference. I am teaching, I am supporting practicing teachers on my campus as well as in my region, I am mentoring pre-service teachers and new teachers, and I have the opportunity to influence educational policy on my campus. That’s a pretty good gig so I’m not dwelling on the “what ifs” too much. Instead, I am focusing on celebrating and focusing on the positives.

My life and career path choices are not for everyone, but now I can look back over the past semester and know that I made the right ones for me. I am excited about the changes that 2013 can bring and happy that 2012 is wrapping up much better than I could have forseen back in May. If there is one gift that I would give to you (well after world peace) it would be for you to find more balance in your life. Happiness will follow I promise. Now ask yourself: What can you do to find more balance and happiness in your life?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Google vs. Blackboard

I use a lot of collaboration and interaction in my online writing classrooms with assignments including reflection journals, class discussion, and writing workshop. My institution’s course management system is Blackboard (I know, right) and like many I have not been particularly satisfied with the way Blackboard supports my pedagogy. The discussion forum in Blackboard does not allow the conversation to flow and develop organically but instead imposes a formal structure and makes it impossible to easily connect entries due to the need to click in and out of posts. The journal tool does not allow students to comment on the journals of their classmates. Writing workshop in Blackboard tends to be a one-way street with little collaboration. Blackboard does not offer any fun social media options or alternatives to support community development. Navigation in blackboard is just clunky and counterintuitive. None of my reasons for disliking Blackboard are unique to me and probably are not news to any experienced user.

This summer I abandoned Blackboard and taught an online graduate class entirely using Google tools and Twitter. We built collaborative docs for our discussion, posted journals that encouraged the free exchange of ideas, and, best of all, created a robust and lively online writing workshop. While no relationship is entirely free from challenges, I was in love with Google docs and wanted everyone to know about it (read more in “Teaching With Google Docs”).

Still caught up in the heady rush of a young love affair, I leapt into using Google for my online writing classes in the fall semester and abandoned my long-time practice of using Twitter for Google+. I knew there would be challenges. I was now teaching much larger sections and working with undergraduate rather than graduate students as well as all the baggage that accompanies students who are taking a required class rather than an option or elective. However, I was sure that the good would outweigh the bad and that we could work through whatever ugliness Murphy’s Law threw in our path. Now in the final days of the semester I can look back at such naiveté and laugh. It wasn’t a complete disaster and certainly some good things happened this semester, but in the spring semester I will move the bulk of my class activities back to Blackboard.

Better Communication

Using Google opened up an additional channel of communication that Blackboard just can’t match and for that reason alone I will continue to use Google in some way. The chat option cannot be matched for an online class because I have my Gmail window open most of the day so students can usually catch me for some quick help. I wanted to use Hangout as well but it seemed most were just as comfortable using Chat and perhaps using the other features in Google docs made Hangout extraneous for them. I do love having that as an option though. I also like Google+. I love Twitter and continue to use it outside the classroom but I like the ability to separate groups in Google+ and I like the posting/commenting features better for the purposes of classroom communication and community building. Right now I plan to continue requiring students create a Google account (if they don’t already have one) and we will use Google+ as our social media and community building tool.

Messy and Distracted

I still love the idea of creating discussion documents and journals in Google rather than Blackboard as they are much more collaborative and organic than any options available in Blackboard but they are also messy and because they are removed from Blackboard I think for many students it seemed to be a case of out-of-sight then out-of-mind. I suspect part of the problem is that it was just one more place to check in and so students would simply forgot about it or put it off. It seemed to me that discussion participation was down (which did solve one of my initial worries about the number of people who could collaborate on a document without it spinning out of control) as the semester progressed. Journal posts also seemed to drop off. We can never know all the reasons why students don’t do their work for a class, but I suspect that in this case another channel created more problems and interference. Of course, it did not help that in the middle of the semester we were all forced to switch to Drive and I really don’t like Drive as much as I liked Docs (but that is another post). We had a number of problems with disappearing posts and folders. I expected some of that but it certainly contributed to student dissatisfaction and lack of engagement (understandably). Logistics was also an issue for me. With a full undergraduate class (rather than a small graduate seminar) it was often difficult to keep track of participation in discussion and while it was easier with journals I still had to do a lot of clicking. This was made even more complicated by the fact that some students did not follow naming conventions and did not always properly use folders. Of course these things happen in Blackboard too.

My New Plan

While I will continue to use Google for the chat and social media features, I plan to move journals and discussion back to Blackboard. However, this time around I am going to experiment with using the Blog tool for our weekly topic discussions and reflections. While it may not be as organic as a Google doc I think it will be more so than the discussion board and it will be less messy (and therefore better for logistics) than Google. I also hope that by keeping discussion and reflection in Blackboard so that students are not switching back and forth between tools will remove one obstacle to student participation.

I have not yet decided what to do about writing workshop. I still love the options that Google offers for this and as students will have Google accounts I can reserve that option. Traditionally, we don’t start off with workshop so I will have some weeks to ponder our options and perhaps by the time it becomes an issue students will be ready to make the leap with me or I will know that this specific group of students is not ready to use a new tool.

Once again I am reinventing my online classroom. Is all this innovation a good thing? Some days I wonder. Which Blackboard and Google tools do you recommend for fostering class discussion, reflection, interaction, and workshop?