My Conference Presentation for Tomorrow: Classroom as Digital Art

“Thanks to art, instead of seeing a single world, our own, we see it multiply until we have before us as many worlds as there are artists.” –

Marcel Proust

paingting-guyArt can be fun. It can also be difficult. Or it can be confusing. And it can be intriguing.

Our classrooms are works of art that we create and play with, work with, and shape.

One way we play with writing in my classroom is through blogging.

Since many of our students are digital natives, and those who are not are at a significant disadvantage both academically and professionally, introducing and using Web 2.0 into my classroom seemed like a good idea.

davisenglishI created a classroom blog, Davis English Addendum, where I could post things from class or about class and where the students could too. I actually started the blog in response to the question Why are we studying art in English? And the first four or five posts were written by me for the students. However, the blog soon went beyond that. Now it is really a class blog. The students are required to post and comment, but because of or perhaps despite that sometimes they get very involved in each other’s lives through the blog. The students are required to post and comment, but sometimes they get very involved in each other’s lives through the blog.

I have my students make blog posts. These posts are all about their lives and their classwork. I am trying to uncompartmentalize their learning, since studies have shown that students separate learning on one subject from learning on another (Abbott and Nance).

marine-corps-flag-wikipThis is a Marine’s blog post and all the comments students made. It was part of an assignment to introduce the students to each other and the blog.

A very different approach to the same assignment is seen in Secret Spy.

As you can tell, these two posts generated a lot of feedback, even though they were very different posts.

Appreciate Everything, Take Nothing for Granted was part of the narrative cycle of papers, in which students were supposed to post a six word autobiography and discuss it.

Using a blog is a good idea for more than just an English classroom though. There have been many things we did with the blog that are not “English” oriented.

The students use the blog to get help for class. Here is an example of how a student got help on an assignment when I was out of pocket at the hospital with my father.

Two students got on the website quickly enough to help him do his homework.

hurricaneLast September I used the website to keep students who were out of town up to date on the hurricane. Obviously that wasn’t useful for those of us around here without power.

We also used the website to discuss Hurricane Ike.

Right now in class we are working on their compare/contrast paper as part of the research paper cycle.

Things I mentioned in class, but that they might have forgotten, can be posted on the blog.

I have previously posted sample paragraphs from c/c’s on the blog, such as this one on embryonic stem cell research, this one on abortion, this one on health care reform, or this one on global warming.

CB029654Sometimes I reiterate important parts of the lesson, such as types of definitions, and give supplemental information, such as definition examples from real life.

The blog is a very useful classroom tool. WebCT and Blackboard can be used in very similar and non-public ways. I like using a blog because sometimes we get comments from the general reading population, or from other students at other colleges. That is fun for the students.

Related ideas (or “A word to the wise is sufficient.”)
“Digital tools do nothing more than make ongoing conversations efficient and approachable. They give kids a chance to participate in a school culture that continues to discourage participation. ” from The Tempered Radical

Finding the sources
Abbott, William and Kathryn Nantz. “History and Economics: Can Students (and Professors) Learn Together?”  College Teaching 42.1 (Winter 1994): 22-26. Academic Search Premier. Lone Star College Library, Kingwood. 27 April 2008

Lenhart, Amanda, Aaron Smith, Alexandra Rankin Macgill, and Sousan Arafeh. “Writing, Technology and Teens.”  Pew Research Center Publcations. 24 April 2008. 24 April 2008

“Theory and Research-Based Principles of Learning.”  Enhancing Education: Carnegie Mellon University. 26 April 2008

Facebook and Students: Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Or can we be friends?

Core Knowledge Blog has a post on the issue of students and facebooking. I was thinking earlier today about that very question.

I give students my home number, but not my cell. I have office hours. I have met students at restaurants to study and talk.

fb-theaterBut I have not friended them on facebook. And I don’t intend to.

One issue that students sometimes have with teachers is that they know too much of their private life. If they’re my friends on fb, they will know too much about my private life.

Also, some students don’t understand that being my “friend” doesn’t mean the grades improve.

So I don’t facebook my students.

I have, in the past, been friendly with students. I was actually friends for years with a student who had been in my composition class. I used to have all my classes over to my house for dinner together. It was fun, but some of the students didn’t get that I was still the teacher. So I don’t do that anymore. And I think that I am carrying the wisdom from that experience over to facebook.

I would love to facebook past students. I’d like to keep up with their lives and encourage them.

But I won’t friend my present students because the line between appropriate and inappropriate is just too blurry. I’d rather keep the gap bigger, just in case someone disagrees on where that line actually is.

Metaphor for writing

I want to write better than I do: lean and lush, deep and real, sitting down with a bunch of frayed threads of clashing colors and see if I can weave them into something beyond myself.

via Bud the Teacher

It was originally in a comment on his blog and he liked it so much that he made it its own post.

I’m blatantly posting it here, because I am collecting real-life metaphors to use with my students. And just because I like it.

Real-world metaphors

Finals Metaphor from a friend who is a freshman, off of Facebook:

Brent is starting to see the Christmas lights shining behind the dark clouds of finals!

Since I am collecting real-world examples of metaphors and grammar errors, and because it is so timely, I thought I would post it here.

Why we yawn says, “Yawning is apparently the fan in your head’s CPU.” This metaphor ultimately came from a Discovery article/

One Way to Get Students to Pay Attention

One way to get students to pay attention, and get involved, is to point out real-life examples of whatever you are going to discuss with them.

I was reading today and saw an incredibly visual metaphor that I am going to post here so that I can bring it up to my students later.

“It’s slower than a herd of turles stamping through peanut butter.”

from Doc in the Box

How I teach technical writing

Introducing technical writing:

In my technical writing courses I use many of the same real world examples that I discussed above in “Introducing writing.”  We actually examine the Three Mile Island memo as part of memo writing.  I also mention the promotion a friend did not get because he was not able to write well; the students are usually impressed when I mention that the raise that went with the promotion was $43,000 a year and they usually quickly figure out how long it was before he had lost a million dollars.  I am not sure why they find that number fascinating, but their reactions show they are listening.  Though it was not available when I taught technical writing before, Killian Advertising offers examples of horrible cover letter errors, from real cover letters, to help the students see what not to do.   There are many other useful websites available now on different aspects of business and technical writing; an excellent one is “Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design” by Jakob Nielsen.  It is easy to read and understand, yet professional enough that programmers refer to it.


Modeling technical writing:

The modeling process also applies to technical writing.  When I taught the class at Purdue, I began applying for jobs at the same time.  I kept every version of my curriculum vita as I did revision and I showed these to the students.  I think while we were working on resumes I did seven versions.  When I went to Abilene, I took all of those with me and used them as examples.  I also took a friend’s resume, which was for a legal position, and revised it.  The students looked at it with me and offered suggestions, based on what they had learned.  It was fun to see them showing off their newly gained expertise.


Goal for technical writing:

When students leave my technical writing class, I want them to have been exposed to and practiced most kinds of writing from the corporate world, including those they need for the job search.  Usually my students, especially those who are already working, feel more confident about their writing and can talk about ways the class has helped them.

How to teach freshman composition

Or at least how I do it.

Teaching writing:

Much of my college level teaching experience to date has been teaching writing:  developmental studies, freshman composition, business writing, and advanced composition.  I prepared to teach these courses through the primary area in my doctorate, Rhetoric and Composition.  I have taken twenty-four graduate hours in the theoretical and practical aspects of composition as well as an additional twelve hours in communication.  I enjoy teaching writing and believe that writing is an important skill for my students to learn and that it is essential to enhancing the quality of their education and their life beyond college.


Introducing writing:

In introducing writing, I offer examples from life to show that the assignment is not just useful for a grade in class but is also relevant to work after school, since students sometimes have the impression that college and the learning they do there is separate from “real life.”  For example, when introducing audience, one example I give for the importance of knowing your audience is the memos sent by the main engineer for the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island and his inability to alert management to the impending problems because of his lack of audience awareness.  In discussing plagiarism I present the 2006 case of the Washington Post blogger, whose excellent high profile job was lost because he had plagiarized in college.  In the introduction to a paper on definition and illustration, I discuss the Challenger explosion and the misunderstanding generated by two different definitions for the word “secondary.”

These sorts of examples bring possible future implications home and help focus student interest. 


Practice and revise:

In writing, I believe that practice makes, if not perfect, at least more competent; therefore I give many written assignments in my composition classes.  The positive aspects of this are two-fold: the student is learning by doing and if the student does poorly on an assignment, the student’s grade is not lowered catastrophically.  In addition, I believe that giving the students the opportunity to rewrite papers helps them to learn what is wrong with their individual papers, by applying grammar they may theoretically know quite practically to their own writing, and learning how to correct their mistakes before turning in the next paper.  Finally I offer my students the opportunity to write their papers early and bring them to me so that we can go over them together before they are due.  If a student is willing to work to improve, I want to give all the help I can.


Overcoming difficulties:

In the past I have found that the research paper can overwhelm students.  Partly that is because many have never done such a major assignment and they often are not prepared for the amount of out-of-class work required.  One way I have responded to that is to divide the research paper into smaller components. 

The students get a library introduction and pick their topics. They write a one to two page paper on what they know about their topics and why they chose them. 

Then they find articles and take notes.

We go through how to write a Works Cited and then, using the articles they have brought to class with their notes, the students each write one citation on the board.  In this way, other students help them recognize errors.  Although that can be embarrassing, they respond well to this exercise and appear to enjoy it.  At the end of that application, everyone in the class has written at least one citation and as many of the students use citations from similar sources, they have seen multiple examples of the types of citations they need to create. 

After that we work on possible organization for their papers by creating outlines. 

Then they write a short paper each, which eventually becomes part of the research paper, where they present one of the arguments on their issue.  I mark these and return them and they then have a portion of their papers written. 

Finishing up the preliminary writing is much less frightening at that point.  Next they turn in three copies of the paper.  Students do peer editing on two copies and I give the other a quick (two to three minute) read and mark major difficulties.  Then the students do a final revision of their research papers based on both the peer editing, which are usually more in-depth than mine, and my marks and turn them in. 

Students tend to feel better about the research paper and their work improves throughout the project because it is broken into smaller steps.  And presenting the research paper in these smaller pieces models for the students how they can reduce an unmanageable project into reasonable size sections.


Modeling writing:

Modeling writing can be hard for a teacher to do because either we prepare beforehand and the students are overwhelmed by our speed in doing the assignment or we run the risk of being embarrassed by our own slowness in the classroom.  However, I have found that modeling assignments similar to what the students are required to do is beneficial to the students.  After having given the parameters of an assignment, I will often discuss how I would approach the writing.  I will model my thought process and make notes on the computer or board so the students will see how what I say works out in what I am doing.  Then I will begin writing the assignment. 

In one class, I was modeling a definition/illustration paper and I was so quick to come up with my next point that students were frustrated.  One of them mentioned awe at how quickly I worked and I explained that the particular assignment I was writing had been an example for several years; my quick writing was the result of years of prewriting.  I realized my speed was frustrating them, because they could not imagine ever being that fast to prewrite and write.

So I chose another topic, one I had not modeled before, and began the assignment again.  This time I was much slower and when I was caught without a third strong example, I modeled my thinking process for what I might do and came up with a solution.  While the students were completing their assignment before the next class, I also rewrote mine and presented them with the finished project, showing where I had changed sentences and even that problematic third example, which in the new version was a strong and relevant example.  They liked the fact that I had done my ‘homework’ too. 

The best part of it was they also saw, although they may not have realized it, how revision is necessary, even for a professional.


Updating a writing class:

Many people think that a writing class is stagnant- once a plan has been made, a syllabus constructed, there is no reason for review, except when a new textbook is adopted.  However, I think that my classes should adapt.  I have added online reading assignments to my writing classes; these cover everything from how to succeed at college (Dr. Mom’s site), an important question for first-generation college students particularly, to how test taking improves memory (LiveScience article).   My students read the latter and said that they appreciate quizzes now, which was an unexpected bonus.  They are not as enthusiastic about the quiz I give over how to take tests, but it does reinforce the lesson on test-taking, a skill that not all students have previously developed. As I learn and as the world changes, so do my writing classes.


Goals for freshman writing:

My ultimate goal is that, when the students leave my freshman writing class, they will know they are able to write any paper assigned in college.  I also want them to be confident that they can learn to write any kind of composition because they have successfully achieved that goal in my classes. Many students are hesitant about their writing ability when they begin freshman composition and my classes are designed to help them grow in skill and confidence.


Short teaching philosophy:

I found a fifty-word teaching philosophy at So You Want to Teach?, and since I am working on my cv and philosophy and so forth, I decided I would try it. Here’s my first (and maybe last) attempt at describing my practical approach to teaching:

Learning is fun and reading and writing are essential skills. Because practice increases competence, students practice a lot. They read and analyze; they write and revise their work. Assignments have clear real-world applications and I model how to read or write the assignments. In addition, questions or prewriting helps guide them through the topic before they begin writing.

5 Real-World Definition Examples

For the definition/illustration paper I try to give the students real-world examples of definitions. This peeks their interest and it lets them know that this is not an exercise for English class only. Here is what I gave them this semester:

Last night, I went to the play Cyrano de Bergerac. One paragraph (a long one) within the program was a definition of panache from the play’s author in his “Discourse.”

What is Panache? TO be a hero is not enough. Panache is not greatness but something added to greatness and stirring above it. It is something fluttering, excessive- and a bit daring. If I was not afraid of being too pressed to work on the Dictionary myself, I would propose this definition: Panache is the spirt of bravery. It is courage dominating the situation to the point of needing to find another word for it. To joke in the face of danger, that is the supreme politeness. A delicate refusal to take one’s self tragically. Panache is then the modesty of heroism, like the smile with which one apologizes for being sublime. A little frivolous perhaps, a bit theatrical certainly…

I was reading online blogs and found this personal definition:

To honor is to sacrifice, of yourself or of your own, for something you view to be greater or more important. Honor is the quality of a man who does that.

I also found this a while back and it stuck with me. It is about the changing definition of sacrifice.

I have a friend who recently died, but he actually decided to show kids what a sacrifice looks like, so he sacrificed a lamb at Easter time. “We talk about it so much—here’s what it looks like!” Half the class puked, half the class had angry letters from mommy and daddy. But he did demonstrate that it’s not just a metaphor. It’s a messy and not altogether pleasant process. Since [then] we’ve converted it entirely into an economic question. I ask students the meaning of sacrifice, and they always start talking about “mommy and daddy sacrificing so I could go to college.” We’ve been at war for four years, and I haven’t heard one person yet say some soldier sacrificed themselves. That language is gone. It’s entirely economic.

In the class I am taking, we have to define critical thinking this week. I took a couple of quotes that I liked to start from.

[W]e need to think because the world we live in, however well we learn to cope with it, is constantly forcing us to choose. When experience surprises or disturbs us, we have to “make up our minds,” and, as the phrase suggests, when we do that, not only are we deciding what to do with the world about us; we are deciding what we are or want to be. –Monroe C. Beardsley, Practical Logic (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1950), x-xi.

[There are] two distinctly different kinds of thinking, creative thinking and critical thinking. Creative thinking may be defined as the formulation of possible solutions to a problem or explanations of a phenomenon, and critical thinking as the testing and evaluation of these solutions or explanations. –W. Edgar Moore, Creative and Critical Thinking (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967) 2, 3.

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. –Michael Scriven and Richard Paul, “Defining Critical Thinking: A Statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction.” (16 May 2005).

I was reading for a paper I am doing online and found a discussion which was attempting to find out how students defined gossip.

I collected 76 responses from unnamed students. The answers to, “define gossip” varied but had an underlying theme; gossip isn’t something that should be supported. 81 percent of student definitions included that gossip was talking about others but only 32 percent thought it had to be behind someone’s back or when the subject of the discussion is absent. 18 percent of respondents said gossip is strictly negative but 8 percent of the definitions said gossip could be good or bad. No one thought gossip was a good practice (but as a campus we are participating)! 29 percent of surveyed students said that what is said in gossip was a rumor, or untruthful, or there was no proof to defend what it is said. Other student definitions included hearsay, small talk, sharing something overheard, that gossip is only for amusement or to make themselves feel better. It was said that gossip is something shared of no meaning, distorted facts, or the exchange or sharing of information.

Besides the daily gossip on campus some colleges and universities have had a problem with online gossip. Facebook is a major way gossip can get started but another website has made headlines, Juicy has made waves at Cornell and Duke, as well as other campuses. Basically, the site is a outlet to anonymously call anyone out, make any claim, or share any simple gossip.