Teaching Diary Day 2: Writing about Writing about Writing

She had the “OK, I get it” gaze. One of my students – I’ll call her “Abby” – sat in the back of the classroom and she just had that look: the set jaw, the arms crossed, the eyes just a little glazed. She got it. She got this “steps of the writing process” lecture. She’s heard it all before. Whether she realized it or not, a score of experiences were reflected in those glazed eyes, all of those bad high school lectures describing these very stages that never helped her and were, in fact, something of a waste of time. I didn’t see this look on anyone else’s face, but I experienced a moment of silent panic the moment I recognized hers. Was this useless for everyone?

I think I’m still figuring out how to be an instructor and not a tutor. I don’t get nervous lecturing (in fact, speaking in front of large groups has never particularly bothered me; I think I’ve lost my concern with dignity long, long ago), but I’m sensitive to my control over the discussion. My training has been in maintaining constant dialogue, in building individual rapport with students and creating an equitable relationship. But the truth is that once I’m in front of the room as the primary instructor, the relationship is no longer equitable. I am not their peer; I am their instructor. I am not a dictator, but I can’t attempt to be everyone’s friend either.

I think my desire to maintain this balance, to be more like a peer and less like an instructor is what made me feel uncomfortable with Abby’s somewhat wearied expression. But perhaps more important than my feeling of discomfort (for I’ll get over this with time) is my impulse to question the efficacy of our course’s approach to content.

Here’s the tricky thing about first-year composition: the content of this class varies significantly from campus to campus. In fact, the content of first-year composition is one of the biggest contentions in the field of writing studies. This is primarily because writing studies have not traditionally been grounded in any one academic discipline. Of course, literature has frequently been the disciplinary focus for writing courses (for reasons that go all the way back to the 19th century), but the trend in the mid-twentieth century has been to push away from the teaching of literature and towards the teaching of a variety of texts from different genres.

For better or for worse, “a variety of texts from different genres” means a myriad of different things to the writing program administrators in charge of first-year composition program development.

UC Davis’s UWP 1 courses use an approach called “writing about writing,” most famously explicated by Downs and Wardle. In theory, I love the writing about writing approach; it makes sense for students to take a writing class where they learn about what it means to be writers. After all, isn’t writing itself an emerging discipline? Why should we treat writing simply as a kind of technical skill when, in fact, the study of writing is a discipline with an increasingly robust scholarly presence?

Yet I felt our discussion going in circles on Wednesday. I gave a mercifully brief presentation on the four major stages of the writing process: invention, outlining, drafting, and revising and, in UWP 1, we give these stages cute names: the “madman” stage, the “architect” stage, etc. The students seemed to like the idea of the names; in discussing which stages they spend the most time completing, they repeated those names back.

But we seemed to keep winding up at nebulous answers: “I like to write in this way first, so I can write better in the long run.” “I think that if I outline sufficiently, I will be a better writer.” Perhaps it’s helpful for students to express these things. After all, most of them probably don’t think much at all about their writing practice. But… isn’t this all very obvious?

I felt like I was some part of a riddle: how do I get these students to pin down and identify what makes good writing?

Once we have some substantial readings to discuss, this problem may be alleviated. But I am a little disturbed by the fact that most students seem to have a very limited vocabulary for how to talk about their work.

Of course, I shouldn’t expect them to have this vocabulary. High school English classes are literature classes; they don’t think metacognitively about their process. They’re told they need to write clearly and thoughtfully and analytically, but somewhere along the lines, no one explained to them what those terms meant.

In fact, I’m not sure I learned what those terms meant until I started working at a writing center and had to read writing pedagogy as part of my training. As someone naturally inclined to writing, formulating “clear” insights came pretty naturally to me. Of course, I still had to revise (nothing comes out perfectly the first time through), but I had a knack for handling abstract thought and could just… do it.

So OK, maybe I shouldn’t be quite so critical. We’ve had two days of class. As a whole, the group is charming and delightful, task-oriented and hard-working. The trick to staying mindful of my pedagogy is to avoid negativity; there’s no point in being judgmental until I’ve seen their writing.

 

Teaching Diary, Day 1: Early Birds and Eager Beavers

I glanced at the clock: 7:50 A.M. Everyone’s here? Now?

I teach UWP 1, freshman composition, in a computer lab this quarter and behind every monitor sat a student waiting to begin class. They were all ten minutes early at the already inhumane (at least by typical college student standard hours) morning hour. Even as a student, I don’t think I ever had a class where there weren’t at least one or two late stragglers.

True, I had heard tell that UCD undergraduates tend to be compliant and motivated. But I hadn’t expected this. I had somehow assumed that those enrolled in 8:00 A.M. classes did so of necessity alone, begrudgingly enrolling in a last open section. Yet everyone seemed sufficiently awake, too, with no desperate desires for coffee-sneaking, no complaints about exhaustion.

This was a stark difference from teaching an English class discussion section at 8:00 A.M. On a good day last quarter, only half of my enrolled class would show up and even the present students arrived bleary-eyed and full of fatigued excuses. Then again, I taught senior English majors last quarter, disillusioned and practiced in the art of truancy. Today, I had a room of freshmen and sophomores (and one rather bored-looking third-year probably stuck here after regretting not completing this requirement as a freshman). For some, this was their first college class. Ever.

But what I think impacted my experience most was not the students’ background, but my changed role from a T.A. to an instructor. Facing a room full of students as the instructor – not professorial support – showed me how much students’ expectations can shape the classroom experience.

Let me get one thing straight: students were very respectful to me as a T.A. However, a majority of students viewed attending discussion sections as a kind of “optional” help. The stakes are much higher for this class. For many, this is their shot at passing one of their major college requirements. The material I share with them is what matters to them. As a T.A., I could talk all I wanted about how I thought they could prepare for the test; it didn’t make much of a difference unless the professor corroborated that advice. As an instructor, on the other hand, I’ve already seen students cling to my words. I mentioned briefly that we’d focus in this class on audience awareness; lo and behold, in their first reflective writing exercises on course expectations, the majority of them wrote about audience awareness.

They… listened. They saw class time as something valuable.

OK, maybe not everything. But my awareness of my classroom as audience has changed significantly. Knowing what my students expect (roughly speaking) and seeing their attitudes (for a few hours, anyway) gives me a much better sense of how to organize days for them in the future, how to tailor my own style to their needs.

Sure, I won’t please everyone, but just as different writing genres themselves must be tweaked for different audiences, so must my teaching (as… I’m coming to understand it, anyway). I’m still hesitant to call myself a “teacher” in many ways. I think I still view myself as something more like a guide (a facilitator even, to hearken back to my former job as a “peer learning facilitato”). But I think part of this new quarter, too, will be overcoming that discomfort, accepting this role as a leader and embracing the opportunity to affect change.

For one of my students’ first assignments today they had to write a little bit about their past writing experiences. I expected to read a lot of disgruntled responses, a lot of complaints about high school English class and the difficulties of mastering grammar (a universal concern that somehow transcends issues like clarity, purpose, and organization). Yet I was pleasantly surprised to read that many students professed an interest in – nay, an enthusiasm! – for writing, but a frustration with the writing done in classrooms. I found this fascinating; how else have they developed their writing outside of class? In what other ways have they been writing prolifically? Is this interest in writing some product of growing up in a digital age, writing all the time? Obviously, relegating this answer to digital literacy would be really fascinating to me, but it could be any number of influences I suppose.

I’m going to do my best to maintain a regular chronicle of my teaching experiences this quarter. After all, I’m only a first-time teacher once. But even I, as my students have professed, struggle to put thoughts to words occasionally. Writing is messy. I’ll be reminded of that constantly this quarter. In fact, this is perhaps something I’ll mention to them: writing is always struggle. But it’s from that struggle that an ability to share and empathize and appreciate emerges.

A Hazy Shade of Summer

In elementary school, I used to create binders for each class I took. I slipped hand-drawn covers into the plastic pockets at the front of each: “MATH!!” swirled in purple glitter or “HISTORY!!” emblazoned with heart stickers and rainbows. The start of the school year was always an occasion for promise, a moment where classes were nothing but organizational shells, binders for which the glittering hopes of learning could be tucked neatly into a backpack.

I maintain this desire to compartmentalize, to draw neatly the lines between the different “subjects” in my life. If I could, I think I still would create these binders, but I am not sure I would have any idea how to organize them.”UC Online Educational Project!!” I may have scrawled on one, but is that where I’d also place my readings on multimodal pedagogy? And what about my notes on new media theory and cybernetics and intellectual labor? Do these all go in the same place in my mind? Should they? And in what ways do I continue to divide them or link them into some larger project?

This is the question looming for me as I make my way into my second year of graduate school. I’m eager for a project, bouncing between early reading for my preliminary examinations (which I’m trying to view as membership into the biggest, baddest book club imaginable), tinkering away at my supplemental job of editing college personal statements (a task that, after reading and editing over 2,000 essays in three years feels relatively breezy and – dare I say it? – fun), and course planning for my teaching in the fall. This niggling desire to organize, to get everything in place, to build the pieces of something larger remains unfulfilled; in short, in this transition, I’m having trouble settling down.

And I think I’ve got to be OK with this unsettled feeling (perhaps a lesson for surviving my 20s, too?). The first stage of a project, after all, isn’t always pulling out the compartmentalized pieces; it’s about floating through big ideas, about seeing strands of things, noticing them, and simply setting them aside, not yet writing them in permanent marker (see how far I can take this extended metaphor – or is it a conceit?).

Besides, shouldn’t this noncommittal part be the fun part? The low pressure part? The part appropriate for a slow summer ending where I refuse to give up sundresses even when the need to shrug on a sweater becomes increasingly clear?

While I may not be able to anticipate the things I will learn this year in new, neat compartments, what I can anticipate (with great eagerness!) is the opportunity to simply experience, to practice mindfulness, and to keep figuring out where I want to be. This is a luxurious thing, indeed.

Early Reflections: Digital Media and Learning Conference 2012

Over the past two days at DML, I’ve come to realize just how perfect it is that we’re in San Francisco. A city committed to openness and liberal thinking with progressiveness at its ideological core, even its city streets reflect a kind of hybrid juxtaposition of old and new: curved and winding streets bleed into different neighborhoods seamlessly. Though I am new to this community, it seems as though digital media scholars, practitioners, and industry specialists are open to each other’s ideas, willing to collaborate, motivate, and inspire each other regardless of their differences.

As a graduate student, it sometimes feels as though academia is separated from the rest of the working world. However, here, communication flowed freely between educators at all levels as well as software designers, industry specialists, and project/program managers. Refreshing, indeed!

It’s overwhelming to know where to start. I have pages of notes (some of which are coherent, some of which are not). There’s a part of me that wants to do a blow-by-blow summary, but what perhaps may be most valuable (and interesting) is not a run-down of the proceedings (after all, you can always read through all of the Twitter feeds from the past few days (look up #dml2012) if you’re interested in the specifics), but rather a reflection on the most thought-provoking discussions for me and the kind of work I’m considering doing.

Sound fair? Let’s go!

Something that has really struck me about this conference is the emphasis on “play” as a guiding principle through which to engage students academically. There’s been a lot of talk of “gamification” and the potentials for creating lighthearted challenges of students via the creation of fantasy spaces and structured games. I went to a panel discussion today on “gaming experiences for the freshman experience” in which the designers for USC’s School of Cinematic Arts’ Reality Ends Here” (which I DESPERATELY want to play) game and Rochester Institute of Technology‘s “Just Press Play” presented the platforms they used to develop their games and the “results” of the gaming experiences. USC and RIT designed whole “gaming environments” for their students, in which students received “cards” or “badges” to show that they had completed certain “challenges.” I mean, just check out the “trailer” for RIT’s program This looks bomb, right?

But “gamification” in learning seems to go beyond the organization of a game.

“Gamification,” to me, seems to suggest a shift in a learning philosophy: school CAN be fun and educators can help school become even MORE fun if we use a different kind of rhetoric: a rhetoric of gaming.

What is the rhetoric of gaming? It’s a rhetoric committed to individual customization, to finding the best solutions for you to succeed. It’s a rhetoric committed to collaborating with others to customize in optimal ways, to form “guilds” and to work through struggles as though they were simply levels and challenges. In short, gamification encourages students to think of their schooling experiences not as chores to be completed or items to check off a list, but a series of “quests” that they, as noble heroes, must fulfill in order to gain… whatever it is they want to gain.

On some levels, this is controversial. Indeed, one of the conference’s biggest hot topics is “the badges system.” Developed by the non-profit Mozilla, badges were designed to help students earn “credit” for acquiring particular sets of skills that may not be acknowledged in any kind of institutionalized setting (like programming, designing, etc). I joined in on the “Occupy Badges” session a little bit late (led by Cathy Davidson and Erin Knight), but learned a lot about some of the questions and controversies. The “Occupy” group seemed to be more positively inclined towards badges than not, and from what I could gather, the guiding philosophy is that earning badges will motivate students to master the skills they already may be acquiring “for fun” and give them some credit that they could take to potential employers as “proof” of their hard work.

I bring this up in conjunction with gamification because I think the principles behind badge-earning and gamification are the same: student motivation can be driven not necessarily by a desire to MAKE AND DO. That’s what games are about after all, right? We play Minecraft in order to construct new spaces. We play LoL or WoW in order to become “better warriors.” We play tetris in order to break a puzzle.

Schools train students to meet criteria, not to create and innovate. Students are compelled to earn grades to get into a “good” college to get a “good” job. But what does getting into a “good” college mean? Do students have a conception of what a “good” job (aside from one that makes a lot of money)? The principles of achievement are abstract: good grades simply mean advancement for advancement’s sake. Good grades don’t mean contributions.

A caveat: gamification could be about simply earning points for the sake of earning points. But no one likes playing with someone who just wants to rack up a high score. That’s boring. The best players are those who want to approach the game in different ways, who want to find new ways to solve the same puzzles or find the most efficient ways to destroy the enemies. Sure, there may be one surefire way to “slay the dragon” each time you play a fighting game, but the game is no longer fight if one relies on the same solution repeatedly.

Applying this philosophy to education is powerful to me.

More than that, applying this philosophy to WRITING education is powerful to me.

Perhaps the one thing that has disappointed me at this conference is the seeming lack of attention to conjunctions between writing education and digital literacy. There’s a lot of talk about tinkering, hacking, programming, and designing, but where does writing fit into all of this?

Mary and I went to a panel this afternoon about “the multiplicities of composition,” but even there, we only really got to talk about how writing fits into digital literacy when Mary went up to a couple of the panelists at the end with Peter Kittle and Chad Sansing and asked them some pointed questions about teaching freshman composition.

This seems like a huge missing piece in the conversation: we can’t tinker if we don’t write. We can’t “remix” if we’re not writing. Why are we not talking about this?

Why are we not discussing the writing conventions emerging from blogs and wikis? Why are we not considering how the creation of these discourse communities affects literacy education? At this conference, we’ve all been tweeting away and yet there’s not been one “meta” conversation about the implications of this kind of written dialogue rippling beneath the tides of this conference.

To take this one step further, why are we not applying “gamification” to writing study? I’d say the process of writing an essay is a LOT like playing a game: you have to create a challenge, find evidence to help you “solve” the challenge, and then, like any master detective, put all of the pieces together to “unlock” the challenge (i.e. write a thesis statement, build that thesis statement, complete a coherent piece).

Wouldn’t writing be so much more FUN if we explored it through the lens of a game? If we see the essay as a product we can construct, that we can tinker, that we can “remix,” can’t we reinvigorate this writing education with some extra energy?

During the first night’s “Ignite Talks” (I’d describe them as “shotgun TED talks,” but they’re more formally described as five-minute “mini-presentations” to present a personal philosophy or project accompanied by twenty slides), there was a lot of exciting discussion of remixing and shifting pedagogy (I was especially interested in David Cooper Moore‘s challenges to help students assess “why they hate” certain kinds of art/pop culture, Tessa Joseph-Nicholas‘s re-imagining of cyberspace as a “zombie space,” and Rafi Santo‘s culture subversion via hacking). So, yes, we’re thinking a lot about web culture, but… I feel like we could think even more about writing. This doesn’t necessarily mean creating narratives; this means putting pen to papers and expressing ourselves verbally in an online space.

I hope these insights make some sense after a very long two days!

We have one more full day tomorrow and, by then, I’m sure there will be even more to talk about.

So What?

Around essay-grading time, there’s a beast that rears its ugly head. This beast goes by the terrifying name of: “So what?”

The “so what?” beast is a simple creature, certainly not a many-headed hydra or a serpentine monster. Yet the beast is a bully: it’s going to do all it can to make sure you notice it. Perhaps the “so what?” beast most closely resembles a sphinx: there’s no passing “go” until you’ve solved the “so what?” riddle.

To understand the “so what?” beast is akin to solving one of those “Magic Eye” puzzles. Cross your eyes in just the right way, and you can finally see the “image.” Once you see it, you can’t UN-SEE it either.

Yet as I’m tearing up students’ essays on O Pioneers!, lamenting over the same, woeful arguments about the connection between Alexandra Bergson and the land (“Why is that connection important? Whyyyyy?”), I find that I’m struggling with the very same issue in my own proposal for my final project in UWP 270 (the class for which I’m writing many of these very blog entries):

SO WHAT?

I got jazzed about an idea earlier this morning.

My thinking began with considering the very broad notion of “self-representation” in online writing. For my undergraduate thesis, I wrote about contemporary travel narratives and, since then, I’ve been interested in reading popular narrative nonfiction writing (I happen to love books that play around with conceptions of “truth;” how do we KNOW that what’s written is “true” even if the jacket cover tells us it’s true?). Therefore, exploring how nonfiction narratives are created online seemed like a rather natural fit, right?

Of course, this topic is quite broad. If I had been writing this paper a few years ago, this may have been easier: I could have focused my efforts on online diary writing (via Xanga, LiveJournal, DeadJournal). Yet with the ubiquity of social media, the rise in blogging platforms (like this very WordPress blog!), and the acceptance of the blog as a kind of professionalizing medium (I mean, everyone wants their blog to become the next Julie and Julia franchise!), no longer are “blogs” necessarily devoted to mellifluous narrative wanderings. Au contraire, they vary from middle school Justin Bieber fandom sites to middle-aged moms baking tips blogs to simple a stream of amusing image sharing.

Naturally, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. Do I choose one community of the “blogosphere?” If so, which community do I choose and how do I explore “narrative” within that community?

Note that the additional challenge here is conceptualizing a project that is not based on a TEXT per se, but rather a body of texts or a cultural phenomenon. With my background in English I’m much more comfortable with and attuned to critical writing that pays attention to small, textual detail and that is based in theoretical understanding. I have to actually think about this wacky thing called “pedagogical connection!”

So, I just started looking at friends’ blogs, reading their posts, trying to note trends (any trends!) in self-representation. I didn’t find much. I think my own anxieties emerged as I scrolled to the bottom of each of their pages and tried to see whether they designed their own pages or whether they used a template.

Much to my surprise, I discovered that most of my friends don’t seem to tinker with code very much. Heck, look at me: I’m using a template on this blog, too.

To me, that begged the question: are we at all afraid of our template reliance? Is there any anxiety in “blogosphere” about “handing over” the appearance of their page to the whims of another designer? This is a source of some anxiety for me (though, as a non-visual thinker, it’s yet another overwhelming task for me to consider design, even though I know it’s important).

Anxious to discuss this idea, I e-mailed my professor and then I called my Dad.

… That’s when the big, looming “So what” monster emerged from the dust bunnies. My Dad asked one simple question:

“Who cares?”

Why SHOULD most bloggers care about controlling the appearance of their blog to the extent that a tecchie or a graphic designer would? If the content that they write is “safe” and the template they use is attractive enough, why do they need to have complete control? After all, we hire car mechanics to fix our cars, plumbers to fix our plumbing, why shouldn’t we use templates to fix our design?

I heard the death rattle of a failed idea.

My father noted the defeat in my voice and apologetically asked if he had deflated my enthusiasm.

Well, yeah. But that has to happen in the research and writing process. In fact, if that doesn’t happen along the way, then you’re probably not thinking hard enough.

So, here I am at ground zero. I’ve been alternating between theoretical cyberculture texts, pedagogical composition and computing articles, and – well – blogging platforms, grasping at straws for ideas.

And throughout this whole process, the “so what” beast snarls.

Something curious to me is the juxtaposition between theoretical anxieties and pragmatic anxieties about writing in online spaces. I read the gloomiest article in The Cybercultures Reader  by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, lamenting the “dystopic” universe that will emerge from a cyber era where reality is lost to the controls of the “machine.”

Yet no real computer user worries about these kinds of concerns. Do we really even think about the fact that we’re typing our information into a program that goes out to a network that we ultimately have no control over? I mean, do these issues of control REALLY concern the average user if we’ve not  had to fear loss of control?

What do we make of these juxtapositions? How might future digital literacy instructors address the divides between theoretical and pragmatic concerns in cyberspace?

I have plenty of questions, but I’m feeling a little dizzy and cross-eyed. I just need to focus my eyes in precisely that right way to see that three-dimensional image emerge from kaleidoscopic chaos.

Academic Literacy Summit 2012 Review

What do you get when you put a few hundred K-16 instructors, school administrators, UC Davis faculty, and graduate students all in one room?

This isn’t much of a riddle. The answer is (hopefully) obvious. What emerged from conversations between all of these folks across the education system at the UC Davis School of Education‘s Academic Literacy Summit was not only some great conversation, but also some innovative ideas for encouraging greater student engagement in learning. Hooray!

Perhaps what struck me the most was the surprising amount of overlapping concerns between educators and administrators across all different grade levels. For the most part, the bottom line with everyone that I met today was the desire to help students become not only better writers, but better thinkers.

Just a disclaimer:

Today was a very busy day, so I’m going to break down the highlights. I’ve separated my “reviews” of the day’s different events with different headings so that if you’re not interested in reading about one part of the Summit, it should be easy to scroll through and find the part that you are interested in (or, you know, forget about reading this whole thing and return to your riveting game of Angry Birds).

So, I’m struggling with where to even begin! But… we have to start somewhere so we may as well start with:

The Goals of the Conference 

I suppose I should have put two and two together and realized that since the title of the conference was “What is at the Core of Academic Literacy?” that a lot of the discussion of today’s conference would be about California’s decision to adopt the Common Core curriculum in public schools.

Before today, I knew absolutely nothing about the Common Core. According to the introductory presentation, the Common Core skills and knowledge “identify essential college and career ready skills and knowledge in reading, writing, speaking, and listening across the disciplines. Further, the Common Core aims to promote engagement in:

  • Comprehension of texts
  • Composition of texts
  • Discussion about ideas

Yeah, OK, we can buy all that, right?

I mean, I suppose these categorizations are broad and, admittedly, my understanding of the Common Core did not go far beyond the broadest, stated goals of the curriculum. With that said, a lot of the instructors at the conference today seemed concerned about the Common Core for it promotes not only more sophisticated learning, but also seems more dependent on standardized testing and reaching state goals.

To look on the bright side, it seems to me that any change in curriculum provides a fantastic opportunity for instructors to reconsider choices they make in the classroom and, indeed, a lot of today’s discussions centered around:

  • How do we continue to challenge students?
  • What can we expect students (at all levels) to be able to accomplish?
  • How can we, as instructors, promote learning strategies that’ll help concepts “stick?”

Of course, it’s all very easy and exciting for me to talk about educational theories for I’m not a full-time instructor. As a teaching assistant, I have a lot of freedom and flexibility with my students. I mean, I virtually have no restrictions on what I discuss with my students (I mean, aside from the fact that our conversations stay focused on the literature they read in class!). Plus, college students tend to be motivated and willing to learn new things (at least, for the most part!). I have to say that I admire secondary teachers even more after this conference today and their willingness to remain open-minded, even when they are shackled to administrative and state choices that they may not necessarily agree with.

What I wished the introduction talk had addressed was the Common Core’s engagement with technology. To what extent is the Common Core confronting technological literacies? This is a topic we only briefly touched on all day and one that continues to interest me (for – well – obvious reasons!).

With that said, an instructor who really showed the capabilities of multimodal technology happened to be the first keynote speaker…

Keynote Speaker #1: Jose Rivas 

Jose Rivas , an award-winning physics teacher at Lennox High School, exemplified the possibilities of engaging students in collaborative, reflective, and interactive learning. Not to mention, Mr. Rivas has a fantastic sense of humor and great energy!

When Jose first asserted that we were going to learn some physics, I’ll admit it: I was scared. My memory of high school physics was an hour-a-week confusion-fest; I had to work with a tutor throughout the year that I took physics, perpetually confused about the formulae we learned and how they applied to that crazy physical world. To be honest, I think my experience in physics as a high school freshman was a large reason why math and science courses intimidated me so much later on.

However, if I had studied with an instructor like Mr. Rivas, I’m sure I would feel differently today.

Not only was his extensive integration of video as a learning tool impressive and effective, but also his insistence on engaging students in the reflection and reasoning processes. For the hour that Mr. Rivas gave his lesson, he explained very little to us; rather, we were able to discover the reasoning behind Newton’s first law based on observation and practice alone.

For example, Mr. Rivas showed us the following video:

From there, we were asked to write down what we think this video may show us about the effect of a force upon a mass.

Cool stuff, right?

These kinds of connections are, I think, particularly helpful for students who see what they learn in a textbook as something very abstract and distanced from their everyday lives.

Breakout Session #1: Audience Analysis: What Should We Be Asking of Student Writers? 

This breakout session was led by University of Nevada, Reno professor and writing center director, Bill Macauley. This session particularly interested me given my background in writing center work AND my interest in college student writers.

I think the most productive part of our conversation was the discussion of how to prioritize “higher order” and “lower order” concerns in academic writing.

For those unfamiliar, higher order concerns include:

  • Critical thinking
  • Thesis/focus
  • Organization
  • Audience awareness

Lower order concerns, on the other hand, include:

  • Memorization and practical rules
  • Sentence structure
  • Sentence variety
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Spelling

It is commonly known that writing center pedagogy is insistent on prioritizing higher order concerns over lower order concerns. As a former writing tutor, I remember my initial surprise when trained NOT to discuss grammar with students: isn’t grammar essential to clear thinking?

By the end of our breakout session, we ended up answering that question with: “Well, yes and no.”

Bill’s perspective was that an awareness of grammar grows out of the development of strong ideas in writing. Perhaps because of my experience working in a writing center and seeing how mechanical problems seem rooted in unclear thinking, I tend to agree with Bill. However, as a T.A. for upper-division English students, I still see a surprising number of mechanical errors in the work of students who are (purportedly) some of the university’s strongest writers. Arguably, strong mechanical skills, too, are CRUCIAL to professionalization in the world outside of academia.

So, I went into this breakout with the very strong belief in the value of putting higher order concerns first and, while I still believe that’s true, I thought our discussion engaged in a useful debate about our assumptions in writing education.

Keynote Speaker #2: Luciana de Oliveira

A UC Davis alum, Luciana presented some of her most recent research on the language expressed in the rubric of the Common Core curriculum.

As someone with a love of language and rubric, I appreciated the detail with which Luciana paid to the semantics of the Common Core. Indeed, she made a strong point for the value in exposing students to academic discourse through – well – engaging them in academic discourse from a young age!

Curiously, Luciana’s presentation was perhaps the only moment throughout that day that felt more like a research presentation than an interactive classroom experience. I thought that was an important shift in maintaining the diversity of the summit’s scope.

With that said, I found myself struggling to comprehend the entire scope of her project and I think I may have appreciated it even more had I been able to read her notes or look at her PowerPoint presentation more carefully. Luciana seemed like an enthusiastic, detail-oriented scholar; it would be great to devote greater attention to the details of her project.

Breakout Session #2: “You CAN Have it All: Academic Literacy, Critical Thinking, and Student Engagement through the Common Core” 

San Juan High School English teacher Nicole Kukral led a break-out session that reminded me a lot of Jose’s in terms of its structure and presentation. Like Jose, Nicole modeled an effective critical reading activity that she uses with her high school students.

As a student still learning the best ways to engage students in a literary text and help them to read for important rhetorical cues, I thought Nicole’s strategies were immensely helpful.

Basically, when Nicole assigns her students an essay or a story to read, she has them read it several times through and, with each read, asks them to pay attention to different aspects of the reading:

  1. Look for main ideas/primary arguments.
  2. Underline moments in the text that express these main ideas and justify why.
  3. Pick one line in the text that reflects the big idea.
  4. Pay attention to HOW the writer develops his/her main idea (i.e. through the use of particular images, other rhetorical devices)

I can imagine so many students finding this step-by-step approach helpful. Reading is typically so overwhelming for students, so developing these kinds of meticulous practices early seems key.

Phew, perhaps I’ll revise this entry once I have a little more distance from this productive day at the conference! I feel like there’s so much more to say, and yet, not enough space in which to say it all (without boring all of you to tears!).

However, before I wrap this up, I must say that my continual engagement in “live tweeting” about the conference was an immensely helpful exercise for me! The other members of the UWP 270 class all contributed to a stream of live tweets about the conference throughout the day and I found that as I composed each tweet, I was engaged much more actively in the process of considering what material I thought most important. Indeed, composing tweets helped me to synthesize and reflect on the material I was learning in a way that I’m not sure I would have done otherwise. This was a very pleasant surprise and convinces me of the power in using Twitter (and perhaps other social networking sites) as potential learning tools.

I feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to attend today’s summit and know that this is just the beginning of further engagement in these kinds of conversations!