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Same as it ever was…

I just started a new blog, for a new class, and have to laugh because chose the same blog theme–MistyLook.   Years and thousands of new themes, and I’m still picking the same old one.  I guess it is just what a blog looks like to me, even when the blog is a class space.

And here I am, with a seeming new focus (storytelling) but it is really the same thing–getting messy, being raw, decomposing ourselves so as to compose something new, together.

And is all this because I remain fixated on that poem?  I despair that all the eyes judging me can’t see the heat in the moist heart of decay, creating fire.  Those eyes, all they see are the worms.  SO hard not to doubt myself…

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digital story

I just wasted so much time looking for my digital story. My computer was stolen–long story–and I was nervous that this file didn’t exist in an easy to access form for the presentation I have to give tomorrow. But good ld youtube–there it was:

A little fantasy

How cool would it be to have a book club that made this its mission: to study all of these books in the next year?

I’ve been more and more bothered by  a talk I went to (and thought would cheer me up).  Dear friend and award-winning teacher, Joe Hoyle, started a presentation on teaching excellence this way: “A recent Business Week article gave us an A+ rating on teaching.  What are we doing here at UR that got us an A+?” Then people began to list things like small class size, a commitment to teaching, etc.  One person raised his hand and asked “How did they determine that grade?” and Joe said “many interviews with former students” and then basically waived off the rest and went back to collecting “reasons.”  And then Joe went on to get the people pumped up to keep improving by 5% each year.  And he talked about his rules for being an excellent teacher.  Now, I know Joe and he is truly an excellent teacher.  He engages his students with Socratic method-style teaching.  He cares about every one of them.  He has high standards and he helps them to meet them.  He helps them see the subtleties of accounting, the grey areas and where it matters in real life.  But I am not so sure that came through in this presentation.  Instead, the emphasis was on what seemed more like “classroom management.”  He had lessons drawn from dog obedience training.  It was all about how to have authority, and how to make sure students had clear boundaries. Very old-school.

But there was a huge elephant in that room: what do the students take away, after the semester is over?  Joe asked us what we want our students to say about the class, and some of the guys there were delighted to say “I want them to say ‘Whew,I’m glad that is over!’ ”

But whether students loved or hated the class–how were they changed? What will they remember? What can they do that that they couldn’t do before? What new insights and habits of mind do they carry with them?

How can we even talk about the quality of teaching without talking about the results of the teaching: the change in the students?  And if A+ teaching is basically keeping the students “in their place” and jumping quickly through every hoop, even if the training is well designed so that with repetition etc. they will remember their training for a long time–is this really what we want out of a university education?

With our students, we are hoping for the kinds of transformative educational experiences that will lead to lives of meaning and purpose–at least, that is what we say.  In my classes, I am hoping to help students see truths that will help them develop what Keats called “negative capability.”  I am hoping to create learning environments that are safe but challenging, and where they will strike out on their own to places they (and maybe I) hadn’t considered.  In my classes, we learn together.  And that is why I love community-based learning–real challenges are way messier and way more fruitful than textbooks with answers in the back.

And I suppose that Joe is smarter in some ways as a faculty-developer than I am, starting with an ego stroke.  But here is what I will do instead.  I really believe that we each teach from who we are, and we teach the content that we do for a reason.  So I start by getting to know each individual, and what they are fascinated by, and what they want for their students to learn.  And I don’t believe there is any one perfect way to teach.  But I do believe there is a RIGHT focus: student learning.

So much conversation in the Higher ed admin circles seems to say we are on the verge of really going for it, of making student learning and development the true mission of the university, and of making deep learning, innovative experiences, etc the heart of it all.  But the clear sighted among us say: really? or is it just talk?

I get to make it my mission.  And I get to help people who make it their mission.  Maybe that is enough for now.

Because I have been teaching this semester, I have been blogging with my students. My latest post, though, is something I would like to have here in this blog, to return to for more thought:

http://writingintheory.blogspot.com/2010/04/future-of-composition.html

That is the realization I had today. I have just had a great discussion with a colleague about “real assessment” and new ideas blossomed for us as we discussed changing up a brief student survey that we do with CBL classes. We are going to ask students more directly about their relationship with the community partner site, instead of just asking them to “rate” the partner site. It seems like a simple change, but it is a profound difference which will move us a step forward on our journey toward transformational partnerships.

Then I read this interview in Inside Higher Ed. I was amazed by the sophistication of the student’s understanding, but I really shouldn’t have been so amazed. I know the wisdom is out there; I struggle with how to get at it. And Lucretia Witte explains it so simply:

More than anything, I would encourage professors to involve students in their own learning experience. Ask your students to take a pre-course survey one week before class starts. How do they learn best? What aspect of the course topic interests them most? What kind of assignments do they like? Is there any skill or aspect of the course that they feel apprehensive about? Best case, this allows professors to set the bar high for personal investment in the course, allows them to tailor the course to the students’ interests, sends a message that the professor genuinely cares about the students’ experience, and takes the first step in establishing that invaluable dialogue.

We will all be lucky if Ms. Witte joins us as a colleague in education, which she says she intends to do.  In the mean time, I am grateful for this insight, and for the encouragement from a student to keep heading down the road toward greater student engagement in learning.

There are lots of misconceptions about  community-based learning. Some people think it is just a fancy name for service learning, but it is actually a lot more. Some people have trouble imagining how it is rigorous, but because it motivates students and challenges them to make connections they otherwise wouldn’t, it is very challenging. Some people think it is only for sociology classes and it is always about social justice.

So I was really pleased that UR News did a great story on one of our CBL classes from this year’s CBL Fellows. The story of this class–and the student comments–help show how community-based learning works here at UR, and how it is different from service learning, but gets at some of the same goals. It was an honest to goodness literature class, and it used a variety of connections to the community, some of which weren’t even covered in the article. (Some of the students gave a poetry reading at the local VA hospital for their final project, for instance.)
And, dearest to my heart, is the comment by the professors that they actually discovered new insights themselves because they taught the class this way. Nice.

I had such an interesting conversation with one of our best community-based learning faculty. She is presenting at her professional conference (Poli Sci) about her CBL course that she taught last year that was really successful. And she finds herself in the position of having to explain how she knows it was successful. Ahh. So many of us are in this position now.

Yes, the students did the readings, talked in class, wrote papers, created presentations, took tests, and the results were kind of normal. Yet the class felt exceptional to her. So we pressed on. What made it exceptional? Jennifer said the students were more engaged than any before. How did she know?
1.at the end of every class there were still at least 5 hands still in the air, people with more to say
2. the students started going to lunch together after class so they could get out what they wanted to say but didn’t get to during class time
3. students spent loads of extra time, especially at their community sites, which she discovered in their presentations at the end of the semester
4. the end of the semester presentations, which synthesized data on the Richmond community where the students worked, the theories they read, and their actual experiences, were so helpful to the community partners who came to review them on the last day, that word got out and now the professor has made multiple copies of the presentations at the request of other agencies in Richmond
4. in student blogs she saw that students made connections between the Richmond area issues and national and international issues, using links that showed they were doing extra reading outside of class (not even assigned!)
5. though the class ended in April, Jennifer has had emails over the summer from former students who want to tell her about new insights and experiences that relate to what they studied.

Jennifer had actually done some pre and post surveys to monitor change in attitude. They were not too startling. She did the usual Student Evaluations of Instruction, and the course got a high rating, but these still didn’t really tell the story. I think her observations about her students’ engagement were more telling about what happened in the class.
I am just wondering if other people are finding unique ways to capture what is happening in a class where students are highly engaged? Because I know we have NSSE and CLA but I don’t know that either of those would capture what we saw in Jennifer’s excellent class.