Sunday, November 20, 2005

Field Trip Photos: The Smithsonian, November 19

It was a beautiful day yesterday, and a few of my Developmental Writing students and I went downtown to the Smithsonian to view the Retratos (portraits) exhibit at the Ripley Center.

I'll write more about the actual assignment that goes with the trip, but for now, enjoy the pictures of the castle, the Ripley, the mall and the metro.

Ppt. and Developmental Writers

11/15: This week: a project in which the class develops a presentation for high school seniors and their parents. Although the situation is hypothetical, a college open house, the work isn't, and by next Monday, each duo will present its project to the class. I've been pretty strict about format, insisting that it be coherent rather than varied, and that the students remember that they are presenting on behalf of the college. They'll have ten minutes to present about eight slides' worth of information; moreover, the students may not read off of the slides (as was the case with the last round of group work), but must use them as, well, PowerPoint slides. I'll be taking points away from those who turn their backs to the audience and read the slides out loud.

Here's a summary version of the plans:

Weekend Homework: Brainstorm ideas in each of these categories: What Every Student Should Know About College; What I Wish I'd Known About College; and, What I Like About College. Picking two ideas from each category, draft a speech of no more than two pages.

Monday: Discuss ppt. as the outline, or key points, of their presentation. Students work with a partner and merge ideas: start ppt. draft.

Wednesday: Discuss parallel structure and how it helps structure ppt. information. Students continue to work on presentation, dowloading graphic.

Friday: Prof. H goes over ppt. structure, groups rehearse presentation in order to embellish ppt. with detail and to present to a group rather than read off of the slide.

Tomorrow:Show time.

It's a good exercise in both extracting information and outlining along with drafting a fuller presentation. Moreover, there's practice in categorizing and parallel structure and in using ppt. (as a tool and not as an electronic sheet of paper). Lastly, the presentation must include a works cited page for their graphics: a thumbnail and a URL.

Why am I being conservative about content? Well, two reasons: not every student knows how to use ppt. and would be overwhelmed with the choices; and two, the students are acting as college representatives speaking to prospective students and their parents, so I wanted them to create something intelligible for both generations. In freshman comp or a higher level lit class, I would be far more liberal about creativity, but frankly, I wanted something that was doable within the week.

A final note: this assignment came about after I'd been thinking about the attrition rate in this course, and I wanted to hear from the class what they saw as impediments to adjusting to college. Moreover, I wanted them to begin to reflect on their changes over the semester--on the student level with this assignment, and on the writer level with the next.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Extreme Apathy

Last week, my frustration level reached a boiling point in my two pre-credit (developmental/basic) composition classes. Though I've taught such classes before, I had not taught at this particular school, and I have been discouraged by how difficult it has been to engage the students. Even with tried and true assignments and activities, I felt myself digging a hole of apathy on the part of the students and righteous anger on my part. I talked to other instructors, who echoed my sentiments about the students in this particular class, but none had any suggestions for change.

Finally, after having two students complain (independently and unprovoked by me or the assignment) about their classmates' apathy and having an unusually unproductive workshop, I opted to go to an extreme and change the schedule for the rest of the semester to incorporate a new paper into the class.

This final paper was where I felt like I needed to do something different. I thought about all of the writing assignments I have ever given and knew none would work: I have already given these students opportunities to write about various personally significant aspects of their lives, I've done the "you and your world" assignments to get them thinking about their place in the world, I did some traditional modes assignments, and I did fun, creative assignments. Students did them. Whatever.

Instead, I wanted to light a little fire. Be a little controversial. See what would happen if I called them on my perception of their attitude.

I printed out a copy of an article called "My Experience Teaching Apathetic Students at a School with Open Admissions" by a history professor named Thomas Reeves. I don't agree with every point the man makes, but complete agreement isn't my goal. Because he describes behaviors I have come to associate with many of my students, I wanted to see how students would react to seeing these behaviors described--and condemned--in print. Then, for their final essay assignment, I would ask them to write a paper where they discuss the degree to which they agree with Reeves using a couple of sources and anecdotal evidence. Part of the paper would also entail discussing whether perceptions of student apathy matter and why.

Today, I introduced the new schedule and assignment. I then read most of Reeves' article out loud and asked students to respond in writing to the article. It was an amazing day in class: both classes took off into discussions that went completely different directions. One class agreed completely with Reeves and heatedly discussed how they noticed such apathy in themselves. In fact, they had long recognized the problematic nature of what they felt were low expectations from others but did not want to say or do anything to change those situations--"Who wants to do more work?" one student said. My second class ran far and wide with their discussion, condemning Reeves, the education system, policy-makers, and American culture on many counts. When pressed with conflicting views and questions, these same students had difficulty seeing themselves as agents within these systems who could act in addition to being acted upon.

I feel guilty saying that I feel overjoyed about the results; after all, this tactic is tantamount to passive-aggressive name-calling on my part. However, the students seemed to realize this. They knew I was unhappy with class last week, my unhappiness created tension, this article brought this tension and conflict into open discussion, and students reacted. Now, I'm hoping they'll be at least a little more engaged in the writing, as they seem to have something to gain, something to critique: how others interpret them. As much as I know I took liberties with my power over students by reading this article in class, I feel like it may be worth it in the end because perhaps, they will feel motivated to empower themselves through their writing . . . I don't know, though. In a way, I feel like I had to call students' identify into question--even label them negatively--to engage them, and I don't feel completely comfortable with that. I would very be interested in feedback of all kinds.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Tomorrow we discuss tone in my developmental reading class. Voice, authorial choice, purpose and audience also figure in to the mix. So how to teach it without losing my voice while I imitate different tones (and pitches)?

How about reading Peter Rabbit (the unabridged version, no less)in small groups, and ask each group to identify and discuss voice, choice and so on?

But that's too easy. And how many of your students will be engaged in a discussion of a pastel bunny?

Okay, it may be a stretch, but it ain't over yet. Let's move to step 2: listen to Lambert, Hendricks and Ross singing "Cottontail." We'll read the lyrics and do some C/C about the differences, of which there are many.

And we all know how much you love C/C, Prof H.

Yeah, I know. I just don't like looking at the "similarities and differences of two things that are essentially the same--something everybody throughout history has pondered before realizing how much better we all are for having learned this valuable lesson in life."

Not tracking with that.

I'm saying that I don't like easy answers and pat comparisons (even of bunnies). So we'll round out the hour with another tune, "The Book Report," from "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," in which a carnival (or team) of discordant voices engage in the metacognitive and meta-emotional dynamics of writing a book report on Peter Rabbit, which, to quote Lucy Van Pelt, is "a stupid book about a stupid rabbit who steals vegetables from other people's gardens." It won a Tony.