Reflections on a Semester Winding Down

Classes wrap up this week, and judging by the sleep-deprived faces floating about the library, the end can come none too soon. Across the country, on campus after campus it’s happening–the exam-period zombie dance. Assessment and evaluation, assessment and evaluation, assessment and evaluation: it’s about making it through those last papers, those three-hour exams, and out the door for break. Freedom!

Isn’t there something odd about this? Shouldn’t they leave craving the next course, the next opportunity to hang around a bunch of motivated fellow thinkers and work through some relevant, interesting problems together? There’s got to be a better way to end a semester, a more creative, satisfying, rewarding way to move out of a course (if we have to teach/learn in a course system at all). To that end, instead of wearing everyone out, making sure they don’t want to see another book for weeks by backloading the semester with term papers, projects and exams as we are wont to do in American higher ed, I’ve removed the final BIG project/paper/exam from my syllabus. And I am not relying on the portfolio alone which gathers together the semester’s work but does not necessarily take it to a place where students are jazzed about the next step. Instead, my students are playing around with bits and pieces from the course in personal narratives and revisions, both pushing into territory they’ve never before attempted to enter in their writing, and seeing how far they’ve come by looking back–not to be tested on the material, but to reflect on how they met their objectives and those of the course.

And from the one-on-one conferences I’ve had with them this week, I do see them engaging with their writing enthusiastically and successfully. Many of them have taken risks in this last piece and far exceeded their own expectations. They are not worn out.

I’ve asked my first-year students to write detailed reflective narratives on their journey through the semester, to be posted with the bit-and-pieces project on Friday. Narrative reflections are essential in my classes, just as regular, ongoing self-evaluation is throughout the course–the more closely I get the students to examine, understand and appreciate both the conventions of academic writing and their own processes and outcomes, the more they will see how their own development approaches those conventions, the more they will focus on learning instead of on grades, the more they will internalize the learning, the more they will learn, and the less I need to TEST or evaluate them through major final works. Know thyself. As Carol Rolheiser and John A. Ross outline in their article, Student Self-evaluation: What Research Says and What Practice Shows, “Research indicates that self-evaluation plays a key role in fostering an upward cycle in learning.” (p.3) And as they also say, the key to making student self-evaluation work, is “teach[ing} students to do so effectively.” (p.4)

In those reflections, I know that they’ll write about their reluctance (read that, resistance) giving up the iPODS and digital still cameras they have had on loan all semester, but they will also take detailed, patient looks back at the arc of the semester, thinking about how close they came to meeting the objectives they set up in September. The value of this last-of-many written reflections is pretty obvious: to take stock of what and how they have learned should give them a sense of accomplishment and confidence and new goals; and to articulate the many strategies they have tried out reinforces them, creating a kind of self-produced blueprint to take with them. I don’t want them to abandon the techniques they’ve worked so hard to develop or the connectedness they’ve experienced within our writing collaborative. And of course, this is the toughest part of teaching in a department-discipline-semester system: moving between the courses and the semesters, carrying the learning–the excitement for learning–forward into the following semester as well as across courses. Helping them to see the writing workshop as just the opening of the door is challenging– at this point in the semester, I am worrying about what goes on for them beyond this time and space of WP100.

Last evening I did what I always do at this point in the semester–I started telling stories about my students. My family indulges me, first of all because my students are so interesting, and secondly because they know they just have to let me do my storytelling if I am going to be able to move out of this semester and into the next. Telling the stories keeps them present, and has me, well, yes…reflecting…

And so, as fellow learner in this classroom, I need to write a reflection of the semester, of the lessons I want to take with me about classroom adventures with podcasting and blogging, stories-without-words and digital stories; with conferences and workshops; with interactions in the blogosphere–the fullness of the work as one bit overlaps and folds into another. (Those former students of mine who read this blog will, for sure, be snickering to themselves right about now as they see me write the R word over and over again. They’ve been there.)

Reflecting on the work outside the classroom will take me into another post–but here–while it’s fresh, is a quick overview of the semester’s technology-related lessons:

In the Class
Interweaving podcasting, writing and image-work (I suppose in some instances we could call this digital storytelling, but in others, I have the students keep the media absolutely separate, or paired) as a process of writing both made writing fresh for essay-weary students and cleared up some of the mysteries of writing.

Sound work
In the past I have had students record pieces they had written or poems of their classmates–but I had not had them use the iPOD (and iTALK) to record reflections, responses, analyses, oral versions of papers, bits and pieces of their papers as they were being written. (Here’s the post that details some of the uses and examples from the semester.) Duh. This use now seems to logical, so obvious to me. After all, I used to advise auditory learners to use a tape recorder as they wrote their papers. Listening to what we say and how we say it is a revelation. Being able to return again and again to snippets that we record–as we write–trying our ideas out with words into the air as well as on the page? A brilliant help to many students. Moving between iPOD and pen and computer can jostle ideas from the brain, help with clear articulation of thoughts, and makes sense to this generation that increasingly moves quickly between the tools many of them routinely use. They heard how they stumbled over the rough parts of their writing; they heard the flow of thought and grammar. The key was to keep the audio excerpts brief–we weren’t after radio talk shows here; we were using our voices to develop our writing.

I’ve been having my writers write without words a la John Berger for years now. Being able to do it on the Web allows for sharing (and thus collaborative learning), for archiving, and for eventual inclusion in text-based or digital-narrative essays.
The visual learners, of course, benefitted greatly from assignments such as stories-without-words, and finding images that express something about the meaning they were trying to convey with language. Taking language away helped students to understand how words actually work–something quite difficult for many students to understand–to really understand–in this language-swamped world. They also felt that working in images often helped pull ideas, still murky and disconnected, into the light, returning them to sharp, striking language and clear thinking. The non-visual learners initially found it challenging to do this kind of work, but they, too, found it both interesting and beneficial to be pulled out of their own comfortable ways of approaching subjects. Here’s a post from September when I am thinking about how to use images in the classroom–it’s helpful to go back and see what I wanted to do and what I actually did do.

Blogging and Not Blogging
With this first-level writing class, I dispensed with some of the more intensive blogging that I do with other classes. I pared down the on-line responding and discussing, but wish I had not done so–they missed out on learning about getting their ideas across quickly and succinctly from active written discussion; and they missed out on how working that closely together builds an incredibly strong learning community (reading one another’s posts and looking at them together in class helped). Trouble is there’s not enough time and these kids are pummeled by homework in their classes. Balance, balance…

Near the end of the semester I had the students leave their computers altogether for assignments: with paper and pen, copying out beautifully written paragraphs to feel the words unfold in the own hands. And then they had to play with words, write paragraphs of their own following the sentence patterns of the copied paragraphs.. only then did they return to computers, posting the two versions, sharing this work and archiving it. This is still one of best writing lessons in my repertoire, and it is, of course one of the oldest. And it is the one that worries them–“Isn’t this plagiarizing?” they ask. A wonderful teaching/learning moment.

Notes for the Next Time Out
~~Pull in a high school or elementary-school classroom for a collaboration between grades. Let the younger students help loosen up the college kids and reconnect them with the fun while the younger kids benefit from having a writing buddy who will also be a terrific source of information about college.

~~Pull “experts’ from the outside onto the blog to talk with the students about Vermont when we get to the research about the area.

~~Help students realize that their readers would rather be moved by what they read than dazzled. Go back into Bloom’s Taxonomy–in the affective as well as cognitive realms, much as Mike Arnzen has recently done.

~~Have this group of students really blog rather than merely post writing to the blog. Practicing the more informal voice of the blog as well as blog conversations and tracking back to one another’s posts would provide additional opportunities for community-bonding, writing practice, and self-review as the students see how their ideas and responded to by their peers.

~~Try out a wiki for the building of collaborative research projects.

And keep to the side of things as much as possible, letting the learning collaborative evolve authentically.