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.

 

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!