Thursday, November 30, 2006

collective wisdom

I asked the TAs to tell me what they needed the rest of the semester, and some complied. Others took a broader approach, and gave me some great suggestions for what would have been useful throughout the semester. I am going to try and collect some of that collective wisdom.

Demonstrate my own grading more, and earlier. I don't know why I haven't thought of doing this, or maybe I have and simply haven't been organized enough. I think I will need to make sure that I do a lot of electronic grading next semester, and save a range of papers for each assignment. I actually did this way back in 1998, but haven't done so since. I also think that even if I do this grading electronically, I need to print those documents off. I need to distribute a much more substantial "guide to the program" not just for TAs but for adjuncts, too.

Spend more time on Blackboard and the Multimedia cart. I have mixed feelings about these suggestions, but will try to come up with some better plans. My students last year said "spend less time on BB," so let's hope there is a happy medium out there. The MM cart hasn't really come up as a problem before, so either this year's TAs were more adventerous in their use of the carts, or the carts are breaking down and becoming more and more difficult to work with.

I have also been wondering if I simply should ask students to do more "practice teaching" in TA strategies. The environment, however, is so different. There is nothing quite like teaching to 22 students who may or may not want to be in class, who may or may not want to do your assignments, and who may or may not respect your authority. A bunch of really intangible things seem to be pretty important to teaching: being able to "sell an assignment," something that usually takes a few years of teaching an assignment; simply being able to explain material clearly, which is virtually impossible the first time through; being confident, which seems to either be a personality trait, or something that comes slowly with experience. I have been wondering, "should I just tell new TAs that they are about to experience one of the worst, if not the worst, semester of their lives, but I hope they survive, recover, and grow with the experience." I almost quit my MA and PhD during the first semester of both, and I don't know what anybody could have done to make them better.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

answering my own question

after I posed the question to the TAs, "what do you want? what did we miss?" etc., I of course started thinking about my own possible answers even more. I have been thinking about this in terms of "how do I know if I am on the right track?" and that has lead me to think about some key questions to ask myself. These are questions all teachers might need to ask themselves regularly.

1. Am I teaching X (reading, writing, research, whatever) or am I just assigning it? If X is important--and complex, which all these things are-- I should be teaching it?

2. Okay, so I decided I am teaching X, but are my students learning X? And what is reasonable in terms of learning expectations? I hear a lot of teachers, not just TAs, express frustration that they feel like they have covered X really well, but students just don't show any improvement or comprehension. Assessment and grading are good ways to check on learning, but this learning thing also takes time on the part of students, so it takes time on the part of teachers. Sometimes we just have to wait and see that portfolio to see if what we have been teaching translates into any significant learning. And as for expectations--only a few As, a handful or more of Bs, some Cs, and maybe a D or two is reasonable. This seems like a simple and traditional bell curve, but I have noticed during 15 years of teaching that most teachers seem to expect better from their students.

3. Am I trying to do too much? I have been guilty of this many times, and experience may be the only teacher here. Definitely a question we have to ask ourselves.

4. Am I doing too little? You saw that one coming. I worry about not intervening enough. I think I have the workload more of less figured out (see above), but I am not sure I always intervene sufficiently. I don't collect work every day, I don't have a lot of students stopping by for additional support. Can I do some additional interventions that might help? Gotta keep asking myself this.

Oh, and just to go a different direction, I was thinking of a schema that would look something like this:
1. Am I addressing the textual elements of this assignment?
2. Am I addressing the cognitive elements of this assignment?
3. Am I addressing the social elements of this assignment?
4. Am I addressing the affective elements of this assignment?

Jennie wrote in her blog that she was looking for some concrete answers, not more fuzziness--ooops.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What have I missed?

We are at the point in the semester where I am wondering, "what have I missed?" "what didn't I cover?" "what do new TAs need that I haven't provided?" I can take a couple of guesses, but I hope they just tell me ; )

1. More direct discussion of teaching writing, teaching rhetoric, teaching genre. I worry that I assume too much--I assume that a rhetorical approach to writing is familiar to TAs, when it probably isn't.

2. I worry that we don't do enough in class. We discuss and talk, but I am not sure what everyone / anyone takes away from class.

3. I also worry that there are just so many things about teaching that can't exactly be taught. My 110 class last Thursday was a talk-around on zero drafts. My students were a bit sluggish, and not precisely responding to each other, so I filled a lot of silence with questions and ideas for their papers. I have been teaching "new literacy" for quite a while, and this is my research area, so that was easy for me to do. Probably not the case for others, which is why TAs and other teachers want to teach material they are familiar with. The class was more or less successful, and the general principal of circling up and talking is easy enough to teach, but a whole bunch of other things had to happen to make things work.

Okay, that point has got me thinking about the need to get material into the hands of TAs so much earlier than I currently do. I was jotting notes on this yesterday--I should probably prepare a welcome letter / package as soon as somebody is accepted, I should probably have CTW and any supplemental texts ready, I should probably have some technology suggestions ready. Don't know if anyone could feasibly start to prepare themselves in May, June, or July before teaching, but it might be worth a try.

Getting the materials into hands sooner does not, of course, entirely answer the question, "what have I missed?" I will need to get the TAs to tell me.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Thinking tetrads

Thinking about the paper we are working on, and the value of the tetrad. Also how to represent it. The list of blogging characteristics at the start of Bonnie Nardie et al's paper is good--keep in touch with others, thinking through writing, express ideas, follow issues--but if we think about a tetrad as the electrate version of the list, it provides us with four lists occupying roughly the same space, with items on the list interacting.

I have been thinking about our paper sections, and toying with the idea that we tell our stories chronologically, but we highlight, or do something interesting, with our key ideas--bold, different font, etc.--and then end the section with our personal tetrads, finishing the paper ultimately with a really complex tetrad. We would need to include in that final tetrad the possibility that some items might be both obsolesced (serious academic work--obsolesced by extensive and intensive blogging), yet retrieved by strategic, ten-minutes-a-day bloggin.

This final image might seem and feel a bit like a data cloud.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The rhythm of the semester.

If I were a better blogger, if I were to keep the journaling / notetaking up more consistently and be more precise with my observations, I bet I would find that every semester has a predictable rhythm. Because I am a sporadic blogger, I will just have to trust my memory, and record the rhythms of this semester.

1. Good (even high) energy start: students are excited to be at college, I have a pretty good set of icebreaking exercises--I've gotten off to a good start in the fall the last 4 years--memory starts to fade after that.

2. Energy drop about week 3 or 4. Students get overwhelmed and over-extended, the fun icebreaking gets replaced by the work of the class, they don't really trust me until they get grades. Then they just hate me ; )

3. Weeks 5-10 have ups and downs, but generally smooth sailing. Everybody gets in a rhythm, the occasional class goes "clunk," but overall, these weeks seem low maintenance.

4. Weeks 11-14 are tough. Everybody is exhausted, some people bail out. I might have lost 2 who were attending with some regularlity. I know I have lost three who have exceeded the limit. Even though students might be enjoying their work on PPT videos, they are tired in class. I worry that the videos might actually wipe a few of them out. I try to stay positive and upbeat here, but this stretch is tough.

I'm going linger here for a bit, because this exhaustion is what motivated me to write this entry. I see the exhaustion in my students, in the TAs, and while I am little tired myself, that is mainly because I couldn't sleep worrying about others' exhaustion. This collective exhaustion makes me question some of the work I am assigning, and the courses I am designing. Are there ways I can alter this pattern, or are the larger social factors--declining sunlight, absence of a fall semester break, first semester for 110 students and TAs--simply too great of an obstacle to overcome? We talked about assignments in TA strategies class yesterday: are there too many? Are some too difficult or simply too boring?

I have noticed another factor that plays a role in our teacher's rhythm right now--spring book orders. Two years ago I just locked up--I couldn't decide what to do in 120, which lead to my worst semester of 120. This year, I can't decide whether to stay with White Like Me or try out They Know What You Want. I think making this decision is incredibly difficult and anxiety producing when the fall semester is at such a tough point. And in thinking about these choices, I am trying to think about the rhythm of the spring semester. This year, I am also trying to think about the Fall 2007 TAs, and what their semester might look like. WLM would be the more familiar kind of text--memoir, substantial issue, a discussion generator. That is probably a good thing to keep in mind. Rebecca was talking about the troubles her students had rhetorically analyzing WLM, and 110 students had lots of trouble with FRC. Maybe a tweak to the assignment would be to pick a story within a chapter--every chapter has multiple stories. I think the commentary to follow WLM also needs to be supported by some fairly concrete, operational activities. Maybe I need to go back to a genre choice: memoir or commentary, with memoir defined as 80% you and 20% argument, and commentary as 80% argument and 20% you?

Okay, I think I just wrote myself into a decision, which is what these blogging things are all about, right? So, you are now wondering, what happens during weeks 15-16?

After thanksgiving, students come back surprisingly upbeat. They know that if they make it back, they will be okay. They realize that even though they might have received a D or two, they can now revise, and they can drop one assignment. In a good semester, they feel like they have really accomplished something--you offered them a challenge, and they made it. They might even feel like they have learned something.