As a writer, I know firsthand how important it is for me to share what I’ve written and receive feedback on my work. And as a teacher of writing — from my initial experience in the middle school classroom up to my current work as a teacher educator at Central Michigan University and director of our Chippewa River Writing Project — I want my students to experience this, too. It is with this understanding in mind that I teach my methods course, ENG 315: Writing in the Elementary and Middle School.
Unfortunately, I know that many of my pre-service teachers come to my course with a jaded view of writing. If high school hadn’t already taken a passion for writing out of them, four years of college certainly have. Thus, I must teach my preservice teachers how to re-envision themselves as writers and, consequently, as teachers of writing…
While I am very much an advocate for digital writing that incorporates multimedia content such as audio, video, and images, I also understand and appreciate the idea that writing involves — and should always involve at some level — the use of words. Very rarely, if ever, does a young writer need all the bells and whistles that come with standard word processing software.
This is especially true when it comes to using a tablet, given the limited amount of space we have for viewing and typing on smaller screens, especially when not using an external keyboard.
So, when it comes to helping our students to write, to put words into sentences and then into stories, essays, scripts, and more, I look for applications that make the writing process simple and elegant. As a teacher, this means that an app does not, should not, have to do everything from brainstorming to drafting to publishing…
Last fall, I joined CMU’s High Impact Teaching Academy with the specific goal of rethinking the approach to teaching my methods course, ENG 315: “Writing in the Elementary and Middle Schools.” While I am unable to present my final project in person this week, I did want to share three components of my refined approach: a course concept map created in Prezi, a “visual syllabus” to replace my old, standard design, and a few of the activities that I used in class to get students more engaged in conversation about our subject matter.
Course Concept Map
As a tool to help frame my own thinking as well as to visually represent our goals and the path for our semester in ENG 315, I created this Prezi. During the first class session, I used this to complement our talk about the syllabus and the schedule of assignments. Then, during the next three weeks of class I returned to the Prezi, briefly, to reorient students to where we were at and what we were heading toward. After that, I only took class time to look at the Prezi intentionally twice more: once immediately after spring break and again with two weeks left in the course. With each tour of the Prezi, I also tried to connect to the big ideas that we were discussing in class at the time.
While I need to wait until the end of the semester to read their written comments from SOS forms, the results from an anonymous survey that I gave last week show that my students’ reactions to having and using the Prezi were quite mixed. I am not entirely sure what this means for me as I continue to think about creating course concept maps in the future, but the fact that nearly 3/4 of them appreciated having the Prezi is a positive sign.
Both because my old syllabus had become weighted and bulky with tons of text, and because I was really trying to really rethink some major elements of the course, I opted to create a visual syllabus over the holiday break and after meeting with Eron. As I streamlined assignments, readings, and procedures — including a new “collaborative unit plan” assignment — I shaped the visual syllabus to reflect the organization of the course and the ways in which the assignments related to one another.
Again, like the Prezi, results were mixed, but not nearly as much. Possibly because a syllabus is the defining document for a course, or perhaps because they really did appreciate the design, students all rated the syllabus as favorable. There are some minor tweaks that I would go back to fix, and again I will need to see their written SOS responses to get a better idea of what they really liked and what didn’t work so well.
Creating Engaging Discussions in Class
Over the past few years, I have worked to create interactive, inclusive discussions. For a few semesters, I worked with a colleague to create what we called the “read/share” project where students would read a professional book, then lead a lesson from that book. This didn’t seem to elicit the types of interactions I had hoped for, so I shifted focus last year and asked a different group of students to prepare a discussion activity each week based on a particular article or chapter. Again, this didn’t seem to elicit the types of active reading and engagement I was hoping for. I knew that continuing with the traditional “call and response” format would only show me that a few students had read and were prepared to discuss course ideas in a substantive manner.
Thus, this semester I took a number of the ideas from the HITA workshops and tried them out — using playing cards to randomize groups, bringing chart paper and markers for brainstorming, allowing for adequate wait time, back channeling, and having students complete reading guides or discussion questions on Blackboard. I would also take these comments that were produced before class online and bring them directly into our class activities. For instance, I had students agree or disagree with a statement from another student’s online post. Also, in private, I asked some students who had posted something unique to please speak up in class, and most were willing to do so.
While I am not sure that I mastered all of the techniques, and I recognize that I “lost” some time with lengthier discussions, I am sure that the positive responses to the survey are telling me that I am moving in the right direction. Classroom discussions, even for college seniors preparing to enter their student teaching, can still feel stifled. Yet, I think that I helped encourage a variety of voices to contribute to our dialogue throughout the semester.
These three main changes in my approach to teaching ENG 315 were relatively easy to incorporate and have led to equal, if not better results than what I have experienced in previous semesters. Participating in HITA has reminded me of effective and engaging practices that I knew but seemed to have forgotten, as well as providing me opportunity to learn a few new strategies as well.
As a teacher educator, I am constantly thinking about how best to engage pre-service teachers in meaningful activities that will actually help them better understand both content knowledge and the practice of teaching. In the coming year, as we expand the audience for ENG 315 to include all elementary education majors, I know that the work I have done this semester will contribute to my continued growth as a teacher educator and, more importantly, to my students’ growth as new teachers.
My thanks to Eron and the entire FaCIT staff for a wonderful professional development experience, as well as my students in the Spring 2013 section of ENG 315.
Another semester began this week, and I have been updating my syllabus and wiki site for ENG 315. Last semester, I was quite surprised and delighted by the number of you who asked me about my Wikispaces to Edmodo shift. Well, we learn from our failures, right? This is one that taught me a great deal about digital writing and teaching, and I share a few thoughts here.
First, I realized how dependent I had become on using a wiki, both to prepare for class as well as in class. Each week, I would create a new agenda page and share that with my students. While I could share links in Edmodo, I switched to a Google Doc for the agenda, and that was confusing to many students. In other words, I didn’t find an easy way to put a weekly agenda up and — while I had placed a link to the agenda in Edmodo, asked them to save the doc in their own Google Drive, and sent a link out each week — the document itself became overwhelming. There may have been an easy workaround for this, however that was not the major concern that students had.
Second, I populated our course’s feed with two RSS feeds so they could get updates on educational news and events. There were so few posts from class members in between our regular class meetings each week, that these syndicated RSS feeds would essentially “fill” the front page for the class. Students were not interested in or easily able to search for assignments or posts from their classmates. Again, I could’ve turned off the RSS, and I’m sure that some simple tagging and searching skills would’ve made this a moot point, that it was something that bothered students in a way I had set up our Edmodo course.
Finally, when I would go to use Edmodo in class as a way to take notes on course discussions, or invite them to post a piece of writing, again there seemed to be no convenient way to do this. I could take notes in the Google talk and make a link, or in a post, but that seemed to get lost. Also, when I had students write in class and then post to the wall of the Edmodo course, again became quickly filled with posts and made it difficult to see everything directly.
For each of these problems, I’m sure that I could’ve figured out a way around them, and I know that Edmodo recently released an update as well, so perhaps on these issues would be less of a concern. However, for me and the preservice teachers with whom I work, it just wasn’t the right fit. So, this semester I am definitely going back to a wiki and I will be more intentional about the times we use the wiki as compared to when we choose Google docs.
The other good thing about my “fail” is that it has coincided nicely, or at lease given me a great deal of material for, my experience in the High Impact Teaching Academy that I have then participating in at CMU. Once a month, a group of about 10 faculty, graduate students, and a facilitator from our faculty development center have been meeting to discuss issues related to syllabus design, assignments, implementing writing, assessment, integrating technology, flipping the classroom, and a variety of other topics.
The chance to talk with like-minded colleagues from disciplines across the university has been very valuable. Part of the work that we are doing this year is to create a product that demonstrates substantive change in our teaching practice. I am approaching ENG 315 with a renewed focus the semester, and have created two artifacts over the break that I shared during our first week of class: a “visual syllabus” and this Prezi that outlines my vision for the course. And, I will be moving back to a wiki… so I will share more about thinking later in the semester.